#34 – By Dark of Night

By dark of nightAt a recent cruiser dinner I found myself sitting next to a couple just starting out. The wife clearly had reservations about their upcoming trip which will call for sailing overnight. I asked her, “What is it that scares you?” and she looked at me like I was a dunce. “It’ll be dark!”

Most of us do have deep-seated anxieties about the dark, inculcated by childhood nightmares and reinforced by society. Ashore, our towns are so brightly lit, that we rarely see true dark, so that the opaque blackness seems to hide all matter of unknowns.

Sailors have the opportunity to know differently. Removed from the lights of civilization our eyes adjust, and we discover that even a moonless night is rarely full-on dark. The night sky is full of starlight, which is enough to illuminate our deck, nearby waves and the seam of horizon. Even on cloudy nights, another boat’s lights will stand out amazingly bright, and on clear nights it’s like being afloat in the cosmos.

If I tried to suggest that it isn’t scary the first time you find yourself on watch at night, you wouldn’t believe me, and in truth I must admit to a flutter of nerves every sunset, even after all these years. But, today’s cruisers have many tools to make night watches easier and safer. Some of them are traditions as old as seafaring; some are modern electronic gadgets. The Admirals use many of them, and following their example will help you feel more comfortable. Night passages may end up some of your favorite memories.

All of the Admirals wear PFDs at night (the self-inflating devices doubling as harnesses being preferred), and most clip their tethers to some fixed centerline point when in the cockpit alone and in any kind of sea. Partners may not be so reliable about clipping in, especially early in the voyage when machismo is high, but most come around to it when they begin to think about “what-ifs”, especially when they realize how reassuring the policy is to you! Typical Admiral rules are that partners should be waked whenever there’s a need to go forward or weather deteriorates and that no one leaves the cockpit without clipping onto the jacklines. (Jacklines are safety lines run from bow to stern before you depart; clipping your tether to jacklines whenever on deck is what ensures you stay attached to the boat.)

Also common is the policy of reducing sail before nightfall in all but the most settled conditions. Yes, you may lose a little speed, but reducing heel and giving yourselves a bigger margin for wind and weather changes relieves a lot of the stress of traveling through the dark, plus it reduces the need to wake one another for sail changes.

All of the Admirals keep a 24-hour watch. Several keep a strict schedule, alternating two, three or four hours on, and the same off; others have a more elastic plan, staying up longer whenever the person on watch feels they can last. Most try to accommodate differences in natural bio-rhythms and need for sleep, but someone is on watch at all times. (My single-handing Admirals all recruit crew for passages.) On single overnights, several mention that they and their partners often stay in the cockpit together, alternating snoozing and being on watch. Others do this when conditions are rough.

For most everybody, being on watch means being awake and in the cockpit. Some kind of weather protection – from a simple dodger to a complete enclosure – makes this more pleasant. Most are strict about keeping to ten-minute intervals between scans of the horizon. A scan should be executed carefully, working the horizon slowly from bow to stern, and again down the other side. Binoculars or even a night scope can be useful tools, but if you keep your cockpit dark, normal night vision should be good enough to pick up vessel lights in plenty of time. Ten minutes is the time calculated that an approaching ship could come into collision range from over the horizon! Think about that every time you consider lengthening the interval or watching a DVD!!

How much ship traffic you encounter varies with how close you’re sailing to major ports and shipping lanes or if you’re coastal sailing in fishing zones. Along the coast from Ecuador to Mexico, we encountered vessels most every night, but from our second night offshore from Mexico five years ago to our arrival in Australia we saw no more than two!

It is important to learn what other vessels’ lights are telling you. It is an ingenious system to provide information about the other ship’s size, course, speed and activity. If you’re on watch and you’re uncertain about lights you see, never hesitate to wake up the captain.

Radar is a wonderful tool. Ours is on all night but in standby mode and covered between checks. If interfaced with GPS, you can use radar to determine the lat/long of a crossing vessel and use that info to hail them by VHF to be sure they see you (you may want to write out ahead of time what to say on such a radio call). Some units have a vessel tracking function that calculates the closest point of approach (CPA) between you and a target, telling you instantly how much to change course to avoid a collision. Others will overlay the radar image on an electronic chart which simplifies interpretations, especially near shore. The use of either takes practice, and again, if you aren’t sure of your interpretation, it’s time to wake the captain.

Many cruisers are installing AIS receivers, which pick up transmissions from AIS-equipped vessels (biggies, over 300 gross tons) that provide identifying information plus position, course and speed. Used with electronic navigation, targets appear as icons right on your chart, and that crucial CPA is calculated for you. If you cruise regularly near big ship traffic, AIS is a great new tool.

The hardest part of night watch is staying awake on watch and sleeping when off, especially the first night or two. To stay awake, the Admirals use IPods with music, podcasts or recorded books; satellite radio (where available); or cockpit singing, dancing, exercise or yoga routines (when conditions allow). Reading at night is not ideal (ditto for DVDs) since it wrecks your night vision, can contribute to motion sickness, and could so absorb you that you forget to look around. It is something only indulged in way offshore. For sure, snacks help, as does, when traveling with other boats, setting up a radio schedule. A friendly voice in the dark is worth a lot!

To make sure they don’t doze off, most of the Admirals use some sort of timer whether a digital watch, a kitchen timer or a device called Watch Commander. If you don’t acknowledge Watch Commander’s scheduled prompt – if you have fallen asleep or, God forbid, gone overboard, a loud siren alerts everyone. Not only does it help you keep a safe watch, but it’s reassuring when off watch below, relieving worries about your mate on deck.

Most cruisers also maintain a written deck log on passage. Logging provides backup should everything electronic fail, but it also keeps you busy and engaged with the process and helps the new watch understand everything that has been going on.

“Knowing you have made everything as safe and easy as you can, lets you relax and enjoy,” say Yvonne of Australia 31. And, believe us, there is much to enjoy: a full moon or glittering constellations, maybe dolphins on the bow or bioluminescence sparkling, and always the sea talking to you.

Contributing Admirals: Yvonne Katchor, Australia 31; Judy Knape, Ursa Minor; Debbie Leisure, Illusions; Sheri Schneider, Procyon; Lisa Schofield, Lady Galadriel; Mary Heckrotte, Camryka; Julie Danielson, Tapestry; Vicki Juvrud; Cindy Blondin, Tashmoo; Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai; Donna Abbott, Exit Only; Maribel Penichet, Paper Moon; Susan Richter, Wooden Shoe; Ellen Sanpere, Cayenne III; Susan Longacre, Zeelander.

This article was published in the May 2009 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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