Preparing for your first night sail

Written by Colin Stracey, Principal at Premier Sailing

Suddenly the night sky was alight and the boat was illuminated by an aircraft’s searchlight. Our hearts raced for a second or two then we remembered that we were crossing a firing range off the Atlantic coast of France… so the searchlight was not altogether unexpected, never the less an unnerving experience!

The lesson here is that careful preparation is key when sailing at night for the first time, and, I would suggest, every time.  When your crew and your boat are fully prepared, an uneventful night awaits you, and nothing quite beats a peaceful, relaxing night sail.  There is no one to disturb you, just you, your boat and wind in the sails, and if you’re really lucky, you may spot some phosphorescence from your bow wave (or more likely in your toilet bowl!).

So with that in mind, here are my top tips for making your first overnight passage.  These are based on two handed sailing, but can easily be adapted to a bigger crew.

Preparing the boat

  • Prior to leaving your mooring, it’s worth checking that your insurance covers you for night sailing.  We recently sailed across the Bay of Biscay which required an extension to our Haven Knox-Johnston, “All Weather” insurance cover at a cost of approximately £80 – but was a simple phone call to arrange.
  • Before it gets dark, take a walk around the boat and check for anything that doesn’t look quite right or needs tidying up.  For instance, check for loose shackles on travellers and make sure sheets and furling lines are in good order.
  • Your weather forecast might say force 3 to 4 on the beam, but in preparation for a night sail it is good practice for a cruising couple to put a reef in before sunset.  It’s always better to err on the side of caution as you don’t want to be on deck pulling down a reef at 2am.  I can tell you from experience that your crew will not appreciate being woken from their slumber to assist, and will probably reward you by being grumpy the next day!
  • Ensure the lights are working and the spotlight is ready should you need to warn other boats of your location.  Even with AIS and radar there have been cases where ships haven’t seen yachts and lighting up a sail with a spotlight is far safer and quicker than using a white flare.
  • Rig your safety lines and if you are going to be on watch alone, wear your lifejacket and always clip on.  It is just too easy, if you are not clipped on, to dash on deck to fix something, even on a still night, and your crew wakes up to a silent boat.
  • If you don’t have instant recall of the ship’s lights keep a skippers guide close by so you can confidently identify fishing boats and ships when you see them.
  • A tip from a lovely couple who sailed all round the world and in retirement just sailed in the Bay of Biscay – “have a clockwork egg timer set for ten minutes. Every time it goes off look around including behind you”.

Preparing the passage plan

  • Obtain a weather forecast for the entire journey. If crossing the Channel get a French forecast as well as the Met Office.  Look at synoptic charts as well as any App you may have. You need to know what the weather is likely to do during your entire voyage.
  • Prepare a rolling road or list of all the lights you should see and distances between them.  Make sure you check both paper and electronic charts to ensure they are the same – Errors do occur from time to time.  Should you encounter an unexpected light or notice one missing it will be obvious.
  • You don’t always need to work out courses to steer in advance but you do need to prepare either a tidal atlas or a table of diamonds hour by hour. This means you can do an accurate CTS quickly at any time – even when tired.
  • Read up on anything unusual or hazardous – For example TSS, Firing Ranges, and tidal gates.

You and your crew

  • Make sure there is enough cake, chocolate, snacks and warm drinks available to keep your crew awake and alert – it is always worth filling a flask to take out into the cockpit with you.
  • Dress for the event – it is always cooler at night.
  • Decide on a watch system.  Consider if there will be times when you both need to be on deck.  Work your watches around the trip. 3hrs on 3hrs off is often the norm although not everyone is good at getting to sleep quickly.
  • Decide what events will need the rest of the crew to be woken up – such as sudden fog or gear failure for example.

Finally, enjoy it!

Set sail and enjoy it!  The sunset, the beauty of the night sky, and hopefully a spectacular sunrise.  After our night sail through the Landes Firing Range we were treated to a beautiful sunrise with Dolphins playing around the boat – a very special memory.

About Colin Stracey

Colin started sailing aged 10 with 3rd Chalkwell Bay Sea Scouts and has continued to sail throughout his working life. “I am forever indebted to the Scout Troop for giving me the skills and encouragement to sail.” After a career in the Merchant Navy with Union Castle Line, Colin retrained and worked in industry and the third sector, notably with the National Trust where he looked after commercial activities including Steam Yacht Gondola, and with CREATE Tottenham where he worked with disadvantaged young people.  Throughout this time Colin and his wife, Jan, enjoyed sailing their  Snapdragon 890 ( Kyla) around Britain and subsequently their Westerly Oceanquest (Goldeneye) throughout Northern Europe and down to Spain.

In 2009, Colin and Jan took the opportunity to share their passion for sailing with others by setting up Premier Sailing.  Based in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex, they offer RYA courses as well as skippered sailing holidays, most notably their annual Sail Around Britain cruise raising funds for Cancer charities. As a Yachtmaster Instructor Colin teaches Navigation, Diesel Engine Maintenance, VHF and all the Practical Courses up to and including Yachtmaster Offshore, and with too many sea miles to record under his belt, it is safe to say that Colin is reasonably competent at sailing (we would argue he’s definitely an expert!!)

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