Cruising after dark doesn't need to be stressful. Toby Heppell shares his tops tips for night sailing

Do you find night sailing stressful? It needn’t be if you follow a few basic rules and plan ahead.

Stay on deck while night sailing

As always with pilotage, the right place to be is on deck, not least to avoid uncharted objects such as other craft, mooring buoys and fishing pot markers.

Most pilotage errors occur at night rather than in the day so a thorough pilotage plan is essential.

Even with a navigation station filled with electronic aids it is still possible to become disorientated while trying to reconcile the view on deck with that on the chart.

A man helming a yacht at night

Where possible, the right place to be is on deck. Credit: Paul Wyeth

You need a pilotage plan.

The most important principle is this: if you know the position of the yacht and you are armed with a chart (electronic or paper) and a compass, you know the range and bearing to the next mark.

This means that when you reach a known position, such as a navigation buoy, you know where to head to find the next one.

Simple, except that a surprising number of navigators waste time scanning the lights ahead with no plan to find the one they want.

Fishing pots

Unpredictable and unlit, these are the biggest danger at night.

Avoiding them is largely a matter of common sense.

Sometimes they are laid in deep water, but mostly they lurk in less than 50m.

a container marking a lobster pot

Fishing pots, hard enough to spot in the daylight, become all but invisible at night

Avoid shallows if you can, especially near fishing harbours, and inside passages around headlands, even if you are confident of your position thanks to radar and plotter.

Even if you know where you are, there’s still the same risk of the engine stopping with a crunch, or finding yourself moored by the rudder or prop in a strong tide.

Light pollution

Light pollution is a well-known source of navigation stress, particularly when looking to enter an unfamiliar harbour after dark.

If it has been a while since you have done this, it is well worth returning to your own harbour after dark and noting the different complexion the various landmarks take on when not visible to the naked eye.

A large, unlit buoy may be sited just in front of a particularly well-lit hotel rendering it difficult to spot.

Another feature of light pollution (but of sailing at night more generally too) is the reduction in our ability to judge distances.

This is particularly acute when coming into harbour.

A navigation buoy’s light may well get lost in the background of a sea of lights when, during the day it would be clear and obvious the nav buoy was some way offshore.

Night vision

The sensitivity of our eyes increases the longer they are in the dark and it can take many minutes for maximum sensitivity to be acquired, and the improvement is dramatic.

Unfortunately it can be lost in a few seconds of exposure to bright lights.

Eyes have cones that are used for colour vision in daylight, and more sensitive rods that come into their own at night.

The rods are not sensitive to red light and this means that if you switch to red illumination your eyes can continue to adapt while you move around the boat.

The bad news for those of pensionable age is that your eyes will only be about a third as sensitive to low light as in your youth.

A red light illuminating a compass

Is red light at night always best?

Binoculars will boost illumination by about 50 times and go a long way to redressing the balance.

However, it still pays to have your youngest crew on lookout.

It is worth noting too, that in this high-tech age, our cockpits are often filled with screens all giving off light.

Most of these screens can be dimmed or put into night mode, but sailing in the dark can be such a calm experience that the harsh light of screens can detract.

Keep your electronics on and functioning and use as appropriate.

If they are on and lit up in the cockpit they tend to draw the eye and can have the effect of making you less aware of that which is going on around you.

Poorly lit craft

Inshore, yachts can be hard to spot.

Coming into places like Southampton, Portsmouth or any other significant port with strong background lighting and a tight channel for leisure craft you are likely to be up against a significant confusion of lights.

Yachts are especially awkward if they opt for a tricolour at the masthead instead of proper running lights in close quarters.

You are looking ahead for trouble, not up in the sky!

Tricolours are great on passage though, increasing the likelihood of being spotted and minimising power drain – remember, do not use your tricolour when under power.

Fishing boats’ navigation lights are often made hard to see thanks to a bright deck light to enable the crew to work on deck.

A ship lit up on the Solent

Many larger ships are well lit up at night making them easier to spot. Credit: Colin Work

Watch them closely and expect erratic course changes.

Try to give them plenty of space to stay safe.

Around the UK other than the decklights making it hard to discern their heading from a distance, fishing craft should not cause too much worry.

But, you will want to avoid ending up astern of them in case they are trawling, so do take plenty of time to discern their direction of travel.

In some parts of the world fishing craft of various sizes do sometimes operate without proper lighting, so if you are entering a busy seaport always take it slowly.

Cruise ships and ferries are invariably lit up like Christmas trees.

It can be hard to pick out the red and green amongst the plethora of other lights onboard, so take time to work out what they’re up to and consult AIS if you have it.

Given their size, if you are close to shore even without seeing their nav lights it is usually fairly easy to make a decent guess at their bearing relative to you by glancing at your chart to get a sense of the main nav channels.

Safety on deck while night sailing

For the most part you will have your own rules about when lifejackets go on, whether that be worn the whole time, when the windstrength is above ‘x’ knots etc.

The strong recommendation is to always wear a lifejacket when on deck after nightfall, and this is sensible.

Some choose not to in calm weather and if they are in the cockpit.

As ever, what you decide will be between you and your crew.

Theo Stocker, YM editor, wearing a lifejacket while night sailing

Wearing a lifejacket when sailing after dark is advisable

For my part I would strongly recommend a lifejacket at all times after dark.

Clipping on via your harness is also strongly recommended.

If you are sailing a long passage at night then do be aware of your harness clip scraping along the deck if you are moving around – it’s a very irritating noise for those trying to get some kip below.

It’s not always easy to force discipline on yourself, but it really does make sense to call on your crew if you need to go up on deck for any sort of sail adjustment.

Safety is not about buying things.

It is about an attitude of mind.

We must constantly be on the lookout for trouble at night so that we can forestall it, just as we do in the daytime.

Food

If you are setting out on a passage that may well extend into the night, it is worth considering what food you intend to take.

There is a lot to be said for preparing an evening meal before set off.

Something like a pre-made stew can be easily heated and give you a boost to cover the last miles.

It can also help you warm up on deck or make for a hearty meal once you are tied up.

Food and hot drinks are essential when night sailing

Have snacks and hot drinks easily to hand

Whatever you choose, make plenty of it, that way you have enough to get you through the night, or you can have a bit to keep you going but still have a meal left when you arrive at your destination.

Hot drinks are axiomatic.

Boiling a kettle and having somewhere safe to place a mug while you make an instant coffee has to be easy.

If it isn’t and you are reduced to pre-heating thermos flasks, there is something wrong with your boat or your arrangements.

Keep the drinks coming.

They maintain morale and give people something to do.

Effect on weather

All air usually cools at night, even over the sea.

This will be more obvious when it has been a sunny day not far from land.

The result is that there are fewer gusts and a decrease in the average wind strength as the thermally enhanced breeze disappears.

On a night with low-lying cloud or hill fog, some lighthouses will not be visible.

Note the height of the lantern from the chart and be ready for the occasional disappointment.

Continues below…

Halos around the moon can be really obvious at night.

A big one is often a sign of an approaching front.

If the wind is light, think about starting the engine and keeping up boat speed.

In conditions when the air is moist, a degree or so of cooling after dark might be just enough to shut down poor-to- moderate visibility into mist or even fog.

Distant lightning is more easily seen at night, so don’t be too alarmed if you see it flashing around the horizon.

Sailing and sail handling while night sailing

Once darkness falls, moving around on deck should be reduced and so it makes sense to have out sails that are well within the conditions at the time.

Many skippers like to shorten sail before dark, regardless of conditions, so as to minimise the chance of having to handle sails at night.

However, you should still be willing and able to change sails, or take in or let out reefs, if necessary, particularly if you are on a long passage.

It is a very good idea to mark your halyards so that you can roughly get them in the right place for reefs etc.

A yacht sailing as the sun sets

Some skippers like to shorten sails as night falls to minimise the chance of sail handling. Credit: Graham Snook/YM

You should also have a working set of deck lights, so you can illuminate everything when doing big jobs.

If you are not far from your final destination and daylight is disappearing, it might be worth switching the engine on and getting sails down and tidy before the dark really takes hold.

But if you’re confident in your passage plan then this is far, far from crucial.

Reducing sail, however, helps with your own ability to see and be seen.

In busy areas many sailors like to have quite a bit of the headsail rolled away as this improves visibility looking forward – a good idea for busy ports in daylight too.

At the beginning of the night, the skipper should make sure everyone understands what adjustments can be made unsupervised by those on deck and when more crew should be called up to assist.

This may vary, depending on the crew’s experience.

Intuitive sailing

There are additional strips you can get added to sails that glow at night to allow you to properly set them at night, but this is really only necessary for racers and those looking to make very long night passages.

In truth, there is usually enough light to get some decent sense of how your sails are set, and if you have reduced sail before night falls, then the consequences of getting things wrong is just a slowing of pace.

Having a torch handy to check trim and telltales is a real help.

Toby Heppell got his first boat aged four and grew up sailing on the East Coast. He has been a sailing journalist for over 15 years. Credit: Richard Langdon

Though some are tempted to switch on the motor once dark falls, sailing in the dark is a really fun and tranquil experience and can improve your sailing skills during the day.

Without the ability to see gusts approaching on the water, your sail trim is going to be far more reactive than it might otherwise be.

Feel becomes key when sailing at night.

Sailing by feel is something of a specialism for blind sailors.

Lucy Hodges, Blind Sailing World Champion, once offered me this advice: ‘A key area for me when sailing are the hairs on the back of my neck. I always make sure that my neck is exposed. With a bit of practice you may be surprised how quickly you can lean to feel changes in wind pressure and direction.’

The key to sailing by feel, is using all of your senses.

Feeling the roll of a boat is essential, if you feel the boat is starting to heel, and if the hairs on your neck have not changed, the wind might not have altered and you probably want to adjust course slightly.

If the boat begins to heel and the hairs on your neck feel different, the wind may have increased so you might adjust trim.

Of course with visual inputs too, we do not need to sail entirely on feel when night falls, but it does stand as a great example of how different and rewarding sailing at night can be.

It can really help you feel more in tune with your boat.