This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
Sailing at night is surely one of the most exciting moments to be experienced during a cruise or more generally a crossing.
There is something ancient and ancestral, fascinating and frightening at the same time about heading the bow of our boat towards the wild black yonder and all what we hear is the hull cutting through the sea like a knife through the silk.
A fascinating yet extremely tough and demanding experience, which, therefore, requires careful planning, a well-equipped boat and a trained crew.
Setting up the boat has to be done in time i.e. when the sun is still high in the sky.
The first thing to do is to carefully check weather conditions. The local weather report issued by port authorities has to be compared and integrated with Meteomar, websites and apps, newspaper and any other available reliable sources. The more you know about weather forecast during the crossing, the better you can set-up your boat and make your crew serene and aware.
Then, after having checked weather conditions, and actually, depending on them, the course must be planned using sea charts and pilot’s books. It is a good rule to note down lighthouses and reference points visible at night that help to visually check your position during navigation. Save waypoints on your GPS and record all helpful telephone numbers such as Harbour Office, Coast Guard 1530, transit and destination ports in a notebook kept handy on the chart table.
Then set up the boat. Dinner will be prepared in advance so all the crew can have it before watchkeeping starts (usually at 10:00 pm). Put everything you don’t need in order below deck, tidy the kitchen up, keep ready and at hand all the equipment you might need during sailing such as torches, front lights, self-inflating lifejackets and safety harnesses (now integrated in a single equipment in the vast majority of cases). Provide adequate deck lights, install lifeline, fasten all what you don’t need during maneuvering, trim the sails (also a reduced jib ready for use), check halyards and running rigging, close portholes, hatches and sea-cocks. All this to make the boat more watertight and more stable as possible.
Then check water and fuel tanks (fuel needed for the route + 30% for safety), make sure batteries are in good working order and fully charged. Also make sure navigation lights, VHF radio (always ON on Channel 16) and all navigation tools are ready for use. From sunset use lights on deck sparingly not to dazzle watchkeepers as it takes about 20 minutes to get full night vision and the the magic can start.
Although a good flashlight at hand is very useful, switch it off when not necessary not to ruin your night vision. That said, it’s worth keeping a powerful spotlight on board e.g. when you enter the port of destination, read aids to navigation or identify objects in water, if any. So, at night, run with only navigation lights. In the cabin only a red light on the chart table will be switched on, so that you can work below deck without disturbing resting people or those who are not watchkeepers.
Roughly speaking all this information may be summed up in a check-list. The importance of a complete and accurate check-list cannot be stressed enough.
As a matter of interest, aircraft pilots (a professional category immediately associated with check-lists), often cooperate to develop well thought-out and efficient lists in different fields. Even surgeons’ check-lists for operating theatres are often developed with the assistance of an aviation expert. Yes, this might be a brilliant idea: if there’s a pilot among your friends, ask him to help you to make a tangle-free check-list.
Well, now we are ready and we just have to come back to what really matters in night sailing: silence, smells, emotions. The moorings have been cast off, night has fallen and the bow of our boat is running in the black sea ahead of us. This is a moment – as I said at the beginning – that fascinates and inspires fear. The skipper, calm and positive, must make his crew feel confident enough to efficiently and safely sail in demanding conditions.
A good skipper will arrange a watch system and will ask his crew to wear safety harnesses and inflatable life-jackets; at night even a small wave caused by a vessel passing far away may cause deck or overboard falls: these are unnecessary and irresponsible risks!
If, as a matter of fact, recovering a man overboard during daylight is much more difficult than you expect, at night this is highly prohibitive and the chances not to find the unfortunate person anymore are very high. Personally, I have never lost a person overboard but the more I dwell on the feeling of pure terror I experienced should this event happen, the more I am willing even to severely argue with my boat mates to make all of them, whatever their role, wear a safety harness and secure it to the lifeline.
Now a brief reference on clothing. At the beginning of my sailing experience many years ago an old saying stated that at sea you must always wear a layer more than you do ashore. For instance if ashore you are wearing a swimsuit, at sea you must wear a T-shirt. If ashore you are wearing a sweatshirt, at sea you must wear a sweatshirt and a jacket.
From my own experience I can say that at night the layers are at least two. At sea, when the night falls, sea temperature decreases and humidity increases, therefore, being properly clothed will help to avoid distress and poor concentration and to be alert and efficient.
Remind that alcohol isn’t a good ally against cold. Coffee’s stimulating effect lasts for about three hours while chocolate – especially dark chocolate – helps to restore burned calories without any specific contraindications.
Let’s think for a moment also to those who are having some rest below deck after watchkeeping or because they are not in the watch system. Sleeping in a boat in port or moored is quite different from sleeping when the boat is sailing as pitches, rolls and shiftings make the rest far less comfortable.
A good solution is to provide berths with anti-roll cloths that will avoid to two people sleeping in the same berth to slip one against the other causing their legitimate disappointment!
Now the boat is sailing (or motoring) very well and all what we have talked about up to now is under control. The atmosphere is calm, safe and cautious. Sails are adequate to actual and expected weather conditions. In this regard, it should be noticed that – unless you are sailing in a regatta – it is always better to reduce sail for the night on shore, not to have to do it later in case weather conditions get worse.
For a navigation without panic I suggest to note down your ship’s position detected by GPS every hour. This will be very useful in the unfortunate but not impossible event that onboard instrumentation should stop working.
As I have repeated many times, the utmost caution is required. When crossing shipping lanes, forget who has to give way and, in any case, change the course in time. Avoid to cross ahead at a close distance and, above all, clearly express your intentions to the other vessels nearby.
The magic is done. Our organism and our senses have perfectly adapted and these apparently hostile conditions have become perfectly normal. We see, hear and smell as if we were in full daylight: the harmony between the dark sea and us is perfect.
And then, all of a sudden, usually much earlier than we expected and almost unnoticeably something is changing in the sky. You stop for a moment to observe as the difference is little more than a fading of the dark. Then the light of the stars becomes fainter, the night draws back and the glare eastward shows us that the triumphal raise of the sun has begun. And, once again, it’s daytime.
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