How to prepare for your first night sail

Sailing at night is regularly the highlight for many novice sailors on an RYA course

Being at sea in the pitch dark with shipping and natural hazards all around you can be a little intimidating to the novice but, if you’re lucky (or you plan it well), a gentle, warm breeze, a canopy of stars and a full moon to lead the way, will make for a truly magical first night at sea.

Of course, if you are unprepared, a magical night sail can quickly become a somewhat frightening experience that can put you - or your crew - off for good. And that would be a great pity, especially if you intend to cruise more extensively.  To properly prepare for your first night sail then, here are a few tips;

As with any time you go to sea, make sure you have a recent and reliable forecast. Few of us choose to go out for a pleasant sail in a F6. A F6 at night seems to be so much windier for some reason and sending people to the mast to put reefs in whilst you try to navigate safe passage, miss fishing boats and other shipping and keep everybody safe is no easy task for the beginner.

Again, as with any other day sail, make sure you have crew to suit the voyage. Bear in mind that you are more likely to have to go below at night to check navigation or simply to get the kettle on, so ensure that you have at least one other competent helm that understands what to look for when it comes to shipping and navigation marks - even if it just means they have to call you on deck to confirm.

It should go without saying, but it generally gets cooler at night! In Gibraltar, we can be spoilt during the Summer months with night sails in shorts and T-shirts pretty much the norm, but elsewhere be prepared for it to get chilly once the sun goes down. A good wool or fleece hat and a warm jacket should be the bare minimum. The higher the latitude the more layers you’re going to need!

Never slip lines at night without everyone wearing lifejackets (with lights) and harness lines in use. Losing a crew member overboard during the day is bad enough. At night crew tend to be more disorientated in a ‘panic’ situation and losing sight of the casualty is far easier.

Make sure you draw up a clear passage plan and concise pilotage plan that enables you to stay on deck and check off buoyage and other lights as you come across them. I recommend using what’s generally referred to as a ‘rolling road’ with all navigation lights and hazards clearly marked with their light configuration, and their bearing and distance to next mark. A quick glance down at your pilotage notes will keep you safe and limit the time you need to be below.

Brief your crew on the plan and, if they are new to the boat, make sure they know where all clipping points are, how to use harness lines effectively and how to put in a reef or furl / drop a sail. At night finding reefing pennants can be tricky in the dark. Make sure they understand to keep a good lookout both ahead and behind (ships do have a habit of sneaking up on you!) and if you have VHF, AIS and/or RADAR let at least one crew member know how and why we use them. Obviously, the voyage you are planning will determine how knowledgeable you need your crew to be but you should always be thinking about what happens to your crew if something happens to you. It should go without saying that the skipper must be confident in IRPCS and buoyage! Remind your crew of the potential for unlit marks and lobster pots! A sharp lookout is always necessary, especially at night.

Talk people through how to use the danbuoy. I’d always consider having a powerful white torch for the unplanned crisis at night and to shine at your sails if a ship is refusing to answer your calls on VHF or, if all else fails and they become a threat, perhaps even light up the ship’s bridge! You can also use it (prudently) to check reefing lines or luff tension during reefing, especially if you are sailing a larger boat where these things are a way distant. Remind crew to keep lights off below and above deck and to use red lights if necessary.

This should include your navigation lights, deck light (if you have one), safety equipment, compass light, chartplotters, VHF Radio, etc. Make sure you know how to turn down the brightness as sailing with a bright compass light or instrument lights can be very difficult indeed. If you rely on your masthead for wind direction, you’ll want to use your tricolour whilst sailing. Make sure you don’t leave your deck navigation lights on in that instance and, if you switch back to steaming, remember to turn off your tricolour and turn on your deck navigation lights. Some ports have regulations relating to the use of masthead tricolours - check!

Checking rigging and making sure the deck is safe before nightfall will save you a lot of hassle later. Hoisting a sail when a halyard or sheet is incorrectly run might be easy to spot during the day. At night it can all get very flappy very fast if you miss it and result in broken equipment.

Some sailors despise head torches. Frankly, I think it’s just asking for trouble to go sailing at night without one - especially if you are new to the boat. However, learn to use your head torch sparingly - and properly. Make sure the torch has a red lens option to reduce the effect on other’s night vision and if you insist on wearing it on your head consider wearing it off centre so as not to blind people when they call your name and you turn to speak to them!  A much better way is to wear the torch around your neck. That way you can still see what you are working on but you aren’t shining it directly in everyone else’s face! The proper and prudent use of artificial light at sea is one of the marks of an experienced sailor.

“Wow”, you might be thinking, “that seems like a lot to think about”! Well, not really. After all, most of what we’ve addressed here is simply good seamanship (even during the day). Plan ahead and you’re far more likely to have a relaxed, pleasant and memorable first night sail. 


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