James Stevens looks at how best to prepare for arriving at an unfamiliar harbour after dark and what to be aware of

How confident are you when it comes to night pilotage?

Around most of the UK coast, it is possible for yachts to reach a destination in daylight during summer even with tidal gates restricting the time of arrival.

So although British ports are busy with shipping at night there are surprisingly few yachts underway in the dark.

It is easy therefore to become unused to night pilotage.

But, if skippers are sailing longer distances, or simply short trips which become delayed, this means that knowing how to enter a port at night is an essential skill.

Trying to read a pilot book and work out tidal heights and streams and sketch a pilotage plan is hard work at a dimmed chart table so it makes sense to pre-plan while still in daylight.

Mastering pilotage at night

When I started skippering, one of the hardest skills to master was pilotage.

It became easier with practice but then came the time to tackle pilotage at night.

My first night entry was Plymouth.

It looks pretty easy on the chart: a huge bay with a couple of rivers flowing into it and plenty of navigation marks.

A yacht being sailing at night

When navigating at night it is best to be on deck. Credit: Paul Wyeth

In the dark, the plethora of flashing lights made navigation really confusing.

The city of Plymouth and the fun fair on the Hoe were bathed in dazzling light whereas objects that might have been helpfully illuminated, such as the breakwater across the entrance, were inconsiderately pitch black.

Occasionally harbours are actually easier to enter at night than in the day.

Langstone, which is rarely visited by most yachtsmen, has a large expanse of water with channels that can be difficult to pick out by day.

At night the absence of background light makes finding the marks much easier, but such places are rare.

Most harbours are populated to some degree and require good planning and pilotage skills to enter successfully after dark.


When approaching any harbour you need to have a good idea of what to look for and where.

Fortunately GPS has taken the sweat out of finding the yacht’s position so it is easy to know where to look for the first mark (you do, of course need to know its light character).

A good pair of marine binoculars with a built-in compass are useful here.

From the first mark, the pilotage plan will tell you the range, bearing and light character of the next.

A crew navigating on a chart

The better you pre-plan, the longer you can spend on deck when entering a harbour. Credit: Colin Work

You should know the height of tide, the clearance if required and the direction and strength of the tidal stream.

The pilot book will warn of hazards and how to identify them.

The more you pre-plan the more time you can spend on deck.

Conversely, poor navigators wear out the companionway steps trying to relate reality to the chart.

In a complex harbour such as Southampton there are going to be times when finding the next mark is not as easy as it looks on the chart.

Slow down and keep an eye on the echosounder.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that entering somewhere like Southampton at night usually happens at the end of a passage, with skipper and crew tired after time at sea.

It is when you must concentrate most, but there is a great sense of achievement when you’re safely alongside.

Night pilotage problems

From a yacht, the identification of buoy lights is difficult because they are at the same height as the navigator’s eye when standing in the cockpit.

They become lost amid the background scatter of lights and one can easily miss a mark and cut a corner, which risks a grounding.

It is also difficult to judge distance at night.

For the beginner, lights on the shoreline look much closer than they are.

It’s a difficult skill to learn.

Even experienced navigators struggle to judge distance off when sailing at night.

Case study: Southampton Water to Shamrock Quay

Southampton Water, what could be easier?

A wide, almost straight, well-mapped route to the city, a bit like the M3.

In daylight it is straightforward but at night the navigation marks, so obvious on the chart, get lost amongst the multitude of shore lights.

To port is another blaze of lights from Fawley, one of the biggest oil refineries in Europe.

Southampton is one of the UK’s busiest ports so you can expect to encounter plenty of ships along with high speed ferries, tugs, dredgers, pilot boats, work boats, the occasional fishing boat and of course yachts.

Apart from a working knowledge of the lights in the Colregs, for this trip it’s also important to know what an occulting light is and some other light characters on the chart such as IQ R 10s. (Occulting lights flash darkness and IQ means interrupted quick flashing).

At night, features which are obvious on the chart, such as lit buoys, can be difficult to find, while the small symbol on the chart with the word chimney next to it at the entrance to Southampton Water marks a lit chimney which is 198m high and can be seen for at least 10 miles.

These big features give a handy visual reference to your position and you can get a quick position line as they transit with other marks.

Making a plan

First, read the pilot book and look up the tides.

The pilotage plan sketch gives courses to steer and shows the navigation marks where a change of course is required.

It usually includes the distances to the next mark but on this trip the buoys are so close together that providing the light characters are identified it should be easy to find the next mark.

So what could go wrong?

Discovery 57

You can usually see enough sail for trimming purposes but you might need a torch in the middle of the night. Credit: Paul Wyeth

A classic mistake is to instruct the helmsman to go for the next green without reference to the chart plotter or the pilotage plan.

On the night sailing assessment in Yachtmaster exams I have been taken into the Hamble, which was the next green, instead of up Southampton Water.

During another exam, we were run aground on Weston shelf near Southampton as the helmsman aimed for a green light two ahead of the next one.

Although a useful aid, a plotter with AIS will not always pick up small craft, because AIS is not required for vessels less than 300T.

The navigator should be on deck as much as possible for collision avoidance, hence the need for the sketch pilotage plan in the cockpit.

It is worth staying outside the main channel as much as possible but even on the nautical equivalent of the pavement there will be other craft to avoid, some of them quite large and fast.

The passage

Arriving from the west the best route is north of the Thorn channel leaving the red buoys to starboard, but not too far, as it is very shallow inside over Calshot Spit.

The main channel in this area has a moving prohibited zone around large ships requiring small craft to keep well clear, preferably by being outside the channel.

You can identify a ship with these rights by the Constrained by Draught lights, three reds in a vertical line (or a cylinder by day).

Chart showing River Itchen

If the channel is clear, a good place to cross to the east side where there is more room is near Black Jack red buoy, as the channel is narrow here.

It is then a matter of keeping on the east side outside the main channel.

In addition to the main channel starboard buoys, there are smaller, lit green buoys laid on the edge of the shallows on the east side of Southampton Water for the benefit of small craft.

Offshore passage

James Stevens, author of the Yachtmaster Handbook, spent 10 years as the RYA’s Training Manager and Yachtmaster Chief Examiner

These are helpful to keep you off the mud providing you don’t confuse them with the channel buoys.

At night you can see the width of Southampton Water as you approach the city but the channel is not in the middle.

Continues below…

Even small craft have to move over to port to avoid Weston Ledge, a large and shallow shoal to starboard at the entrance of the Itchen river.

From there on, yachts stay in the main channel and it is easy to see the span of the Itchen Bridge with a charted height of 23m which most yachts can pass under with plenty of clearance.

Chart showing Southampton Water

Just at the moment you think it is all downhill to Shamrock Quay marina, the river takes a turn to port, with the channel following the port bank to avoid another shoal on the starboard side.

There is a green post to keep you off the bank, but for first timers it’s an easy one to miss.

From there on it is plain sailing, except for the strong tidal stream flowing past the marina which can be a boat-handling challenge.

Night Pilotage checklist:

Check the nav lights work

Navigation light

If you have lifebelt lights, check they’re in working order.

You need a powerful torch for identifying buoys, lobster pot floats and illuminating sails to help prevent any collisions.

Seeing red

A head torch

A red headtorch can be helpful to keep night vision while reading pilotage notes on deck.

Keep a couple of small torches for searching in lockers. I use clockwork ones.

Fit a red-filtered chart table light, and ideally one over the galley.

Dim the plotter and instrument screens.

Always check your main compass and instrument lights are working.

Compass and binoculars

Plastimo Iris 50 hand bearing compass

A hand-bearing compass with a built-in light, usually fluorescent, is essential for identifying marks.

You’ll need a pair of binoculars, preferably with a built-in compass light to make sure you’re looking along the right bearing.

Make sure your lifejackets have a built-in light, crotchstraps, a sprayhood, and tethers you can clip to a jackstay.

Have some pre-prepared snacks in the cockpit and consider keeping everything tidy below so you don’t need to turn on the cabin lights to find out what you’ve just tripped over!