A 10-knot breeze moved Le Dulci-mer over a gentle chop on a moonless, cloudless night. A few shore lights from Dog Island on one side and Carrabelle, FL, on the other provided some terrestrial reference points, a counterpoint to the stars, planets, and constellations making their stately march across the skies. But the meteors that streaked across the sky every few seconds were the real show. Some were only a thin line, but some had width as they blazed across the starry backdrop. (I forget which it was, but this outing was timed to coincide with either the annual Leonid or Persied meteor shower.)
Shift to a few years later. Chuck Leinweber and I have been ushered down the Southwest Florida coast in Oaracle by a helpful 10-knot northerly breeze. It's cool, but not unpleasantly so. We've seen a mystery lighted vessel to seaward of us, the glow of the condo's on Marco Island that ends like an abyss as the Everglades start. The wind is slowly ebbing as we slide at sunrise to my first ever sighting of Cape Romano, with its funny, abandoned houses that are reminiscent of Pac-Man characters.
|This sight was a reward for sailing all night.
Fast forward one more year. I'm below in Oaracle, napping at sunset and the wind is not dying, but rising from the north. Noel Davis and I are off the Everglades, a few miles north of Northwest Cape Sable. It's about as far as you can get from anything in Florida. We started the day double reefed and were able to shake them out, one reef at a time. But the wind is up again (it's our third day out and we've been double reefed about half the time) and one reef has gone back in and the second will be added before too long. It's been our first sunny day and we've enjoyed it. Now as the sun disappears, Noel watches a golden glow over the Everglades grow into a spectacular entrance of a full moon. It's one of his favorite sailing memories. (Three years later at almost the same place, I saw one of my all-time most glorious sunrises.)
I could go on. The one thing all these "adventures" have in common is they required sailing at night. Some people find sailing at night unnerving or perhaps some just haven't had the chance. But sailing at night is as natural as sailing at daytime. Everyone should be prepared for being on the water after dark just because it's prudent. Donald Hamilton, in his excellent book Cruises with Kathleen, observed many people rush from harbor to harbor, anxious to get in before dark and may actually endanger themselves and their boats by entering inlets or constricted waters in storms, high winds, foul tides, or other unsafe conditions. The option of waiting for meteorological mayhem to pass doesn't occur to them because it would mean being out in the dark. Or maybe they get to an unfamiliar harbor or inlet just after dark, and rather than face a night on the water -- in what may even be pleasant conditions -- they rush in.
|An overnight sail is rewarded by a sunrise arrival at Cape Romano.
There also are situations where you may have no choice but to sail after dark and perhaps even enter a strange harbor. Maybe you arrive after dark and there's a sick or injured person on board and you simply have to get to land. Or perhaps there's a storm bearing down but still a few hours away and it's the safer option to reach land rather than stay out. Or maybe the wind quits or the motor dies. Once a friend and I were moving his Cal 20 so it could be hauled, a couple hour trip. But the motor and the wind quit about the same time the sun disappeared. We got in around 1 a. m. after drifting for hours up the St. Marks River. Likewise a daysail at St. Joe Bay extended until 10 p. m. when the wind went light and veered into a headwind when we turned for home (this was in a small boat that didn't have a motor). In such instances, it's better to have some experience rather than adding the novelty of nighttime navigation into what may be an emergency situation.
If you're going to do something like an Everglades Challenge, the Texas 200, the OBX 130, or the Florida 120, chances are very good to excellent you'll be doing some nighttime cruising. Better it shouldn't be your first time!
|A spectacular sunrise over the Everglades marks the end of a night under sail.
Aside from the safety factors, there are a lot of benefits to a nighttime outing. The starts twinkle brighter and the Milky Way can flaunt itself with extravagance when you get away from landside lights. Frequently it's just nicer. In my part of the country, summer days can be unbearably hot and the nights are much more pleasant (if there's wind). Just sailing all day in the sun can be draining, while sailing on a pleasant night can be refreshing. Waterways that are crammed with powerboats, jet skis, other sailboats, and whatever become magically empty at night. If solitude, at least from other boats, is what you want, it's much easier to come by after sunset. Plus, you ain't ever going to see the magic of phosphorescence during the day!
Nighttime sailing also -- obviously! -- extends your sailing opportunities. Maybe you'll have time for a sail after work if you don't have to rush back to beat the dark. A sail that extends an hour or two either side of sunset can be pleasant. Charter boats get big bucks for such sunset cruises.
For your first night sail, there's no need to make it an all-nighter. A couple hours will give you the feel. (If you do want to stay out until dawn, take a crew and use a boat big enough so one person can lie down and at least doze. Probably no one is going to get any real sleep, but it's nice to have a place to rest.) Pick a spot you know well. It's not necessary that it be free from shoals, unlit channel markers and the like, but you should know where all of them are. I used to do some short night sails in the Intracoastal Waterway between Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, and knew where the markers were in plenty of time to shine a spotlight on them, and the locale of one or two shallow areas. If you've got an inlet or channel to run to get to deeper or sailable water, make sure you know the sequence of the channel markers and where the unlit markers are between the lit ones. You should know the compass course to run these channels and inlets, particularly if they are fairly long. If you know the area well, a chart isn't necessary, but is nice for a backup, particularly in those long inlets or channels. Pick a night with settled weather and light to moderate steady wind from a direction that won't have you doing a lot of short tacking in a narrow waterway.
As for gear, you should comply with the Coast Guard standards for your size of boat. I've got a few extra thoughts.
I forget the size, but boats shorter than 20 or 22 feet are required to carry a bright white light that can be shown when necessary, but don't have to carry running lights. I would anyway (which is why I can't remember the size limit). Decades ago when I was learning how to drive, the instructor explained why turn indicators should always be used: they indicate your intentions to people you can't see or don't know are there. The same for running lights. They show where you are to people you're unaware of -- maybe a kayaker or another small boater without running lights or maybe a large boat that's lost it's electrical system. Also, you're sailing in an area like I did in the ICW off West Palm Beach, there's lots of distracting white shore lights -- streetlights, headlights, buildings, signs, you name it. It would be easy for a white flashlight from a boat to get lost in the clutter. Besides, it is obvious at once, when another boat sees your red and green bow lights, that you're a boat. And the traditional bicolor bow lights and white stern light give a good idea of your course at a glance from another boat. It's not so easy to figure that out when your waving around a flashlight.
Portable LED running lights (I think most of them use AA batteries) are easy to find and cheap. You can even rig your own; there was a thread on the Duckworks Forum recently about using red and green LED lights from a dollar store, a couple jars and aluminum foil to rig a waterproof bow running light. You can't get cheaper than that.
You also should carry a nice, bright spotlight. On larger boats with electrical systems, there are a variety of 12-volt handheld units that will do the job. On smaller boats, there's a choice of 6-volt dry cell lights or an increasingly wide array of LED lights. My choices are a three D-cell LED Maglight and one of the Pelican Recoil LED lights that takes four AA batteries. The Maglight has a bit more "oomph" to its focusing light while the Recoil is light, smaller, and waterproof instead of "weatherproof" (the Maglight can take spray and rain but getting dunked will probably kill it). On a larger boat with a 12-volt spotlight, I still like to have a separate light like the Maglight or Pelican in case the electrical system fails. These lights will help you pick out channel markers, buoys, or other things in the water, plus they serve as a backup if something happens to your running lights.
Next, should be a dimmer light, perhaps a headlamp. This is what you use to check the chart, look for something in a locker, rummage for something in the cooler, etc. The idea is something with enough brightness to see things closeup, but which doesn't automatically turn your night vision to toast. Using a million candlepower, 12-volt spotlight to check your compass course is a tad bit of overkill. Look for a light that's rated as waterproof. If you do opt for a headlamp, note that some have different levels of brightness, can act as flashers, and also can offer both red and white lighting. I like the Cyclops Atom headlamp, a one-LED headlamp (no red light, no multiple levels, no flashing) that puts out just the right amount of light to see around the boat without being blinded. It's light enough to wear all night without discomfort and is weatherproof if not waterproof. The drawback is a function of its lightness; it uses 2016 button batteries. They used to be hard to find and expensive, although it's a bit easier now to find them at a reasonable price. The light is about 10 bucks at Amazon.com.
You should also have a compass. Most larger boats will have one mounted, but many smaller "day"sailers won't. A handheld hiking compass can do; it can be lit with your headlamp as needed. When I nightsailed in the ICW between West Palm Beach and Palm Beach, I probably never used the compass. There were plenty of visual references. But in less well lit areas, or when your offshore, it's indispensable. When I sailed less well-lit areas, say off Carrabelle in the Florida Panhandle, the compass was frequently consulted. Old-time barnstorming pilots used to get disoriented in fogs, clouds or the dark and literally couldn't tell when they were climbing, diving, or upside down. A version of that (I call it horizontal vertigo) can happen on a sailboat. One moment you're sailing along and oriented, and you look away to check a chart or grab a snack, and suddenly you have no idea of what's north, south, east or west, or which direction you're going. Of the dozens of times I've sailed after dark, this has happened only once to me, and a glance at the compass instantly put things right. Not to mention if an unexpected fog descends on you, the compass may be your only guide.
Don't neglect your comfort. If it's going to be an extended night sail, take along your favorite snacks. A cup of hot chocolate, instant soup, or coffee will taste wonderful on a cool night. If the boat is long enough or has a cabin and there's more that one person onboard, make sure there's a comfortable place for a person not on watch to lie down.
|Paying attention to comfort helps. Note the swing stove at left that can be used in calm conditions for hot drinks and food.
Safety measures for night sailing, beyond the Coast Guard requirements, are pretty much a matter of individual preference. On Le Dulci-mer, a 30-footer with a ballasted keel, my practice is to always wear a harness when out alone at night. Life jackets or harnesses were typical if I had a crew, unless the weather was very light. When I had a crew, I also had everyone carry a waterproof light. (WaterTribe, the organization that runs the Everglades Challenge and other events, mandates that every person carry a strobe or flashing light, and I now have two or three of those.) On smaller unballasted boats like Oaracle, I tend to wear a life jacket as a harness can restrict maneuverability needed to right a flipped boat. But some sailors I greatly respect recommended a long-tethered harness for small boats so that one stays attached to the boat and still has the mobility to right it. I've experimented with that but -- fortunately -- have not experienced on how it works with a flipped boat.
Let's see, what else might be nice to have along? Oh, yes. A GPS. I've deliberately left that until last because you actually don't need a GPS to have an enjoyable, successful nightsail. Even a questionable character like me managed to have a couple of decades of nighttime outings without mishap before the advent of cheap, affordable, and handy navigation units.
That said, a GPS can be convenient. Even a relatively inexpensive, non-mapping model can pinpoint your latitude and longitude instantly and with a chart give you your location. The inexpensive models will have a "map" page or something similar. It doesn't really show a map, but it will display any waypoints you have marked in the area. The page is usually "scalable," that is you can zoom in and out to vary the size of the area shown. For a location you plan to sail at night, you can on a day sail set and label waypoints for channel markers, shoals, or whatever. It's sort of a simple and customized chart. Also, virtually all GPS units will record a route which can be saved. You can sail safe route during a day sail and then refer to it on night expeditions. It's handy to save a saved route for any inlets, channels, and the like that you have to run, regardless of how familiar you are with them.
|A serene sunrise, best seen from afloat!
Of course GPS receivers with charts can do all that with the convenience of having a chart in your hand. Just remember their limitations. That includes that although it rarely happens, the signal can be interfered with which results in an erroneous position. Signs, private markers, and the like aren't going to be on the charts, paper or electronic. Nor are the unlit channel markers in many unimproved or semi-improved inlets. I can think of a lot of such inlets I wouldn't dream of running the first time at night, and some I've been in during the day that I wouldn't use at night in bad weather. Even if you have the charts, I can guarantee you won't make it across Florida Bay unscathed if you try to run it the first time at night. The channels (with the exception of the ICW) are not accurately plotted on either paper or electronic charts. A GPS, even with built-in charts, is a tool. It does not make you invulnerable.
One GPS feature I came to greatly appreciate when I did the 2010 Everglades Challenge alone was my unit's ability (it has charts) to actually show the location of the ICW channel when "zoomed in" sufficiently. It wasn't just a line but a channel, with sides. That made it easy to stay in the waterway and avoid those unlit signs and private markers.
So. Have you sailed at night? If not, what's holding you back?