Sailing at Night

I think sailing at night feels kind of surreal – it is spooky sometimes, but then you see the millions of stars – more than you will ever see on land, and it is so beautiful. With the loss of your vision your other senses become more alert, you hear and smell new things. It is very cool.

Sometimes when speaking to non-sailors about our adventures, they ask if we anchor up over night (in the middle of the ocean) go to sleep, and then start sailing again in the morning…

In mid-summer here in New Zealand, we only get about eight hours of darkness, however around the equator, they get about 12 hours of darkness every night. I think eight hours sometimes feels like a lifetime, I occasionally sit there willing the earth to turn faster so the sun comes back quicker. 12 hours of sailing in the darkness is probably going to feel like an eternity!

Anyway chances are, if you are planning some sailing adventures, then you are more than likely going to end up at sea at night. So what are some good things to know before you do an overnight passage?


  1. Maintaining a Proper lookout

The COLREGS say: Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and or the risk of collision.

So when you are sailing along at night you can’t just tuck yourself up in bed and go to sleep…

So if you are not actually up on deck, you need to come up and poke your head around at least every 10-20 minutes. You might like to set an alarm to remind you of when to go and check. Make sure you have a clear view of the horizon in all directions when you look around and also use your ears.

You can also set your radar and AIS to assist with keeping a lookout for other vessels and your navigating on the chart or GPS will also ensure you don’t start sailing in the wrong direction.

While you are on deck checking for other vessels and hazards, you should also do a quick check of your own vessel. Make sure that you are sailing the correct course, that the sails are set correctly etc.

2. Vessel Navigation Lights

It’s a great idea to swot up on the different lights that vessels show so that you will be able to identify other boats, figure out which way they are travelling, and if necessary, give way to them.

Some important ones to remember are which is the safe side to pass a fishing vessel and also the lights that a vessel towing will show. Sometimes the tow line can be very long and you do NOT want to inadvertently sail between them.

You also want to make sure that other vessels can see you! If you are on a yacht under 20m in length, then you should display the prescribed lights at night. You should be showing a port, starboard and white stern light. You can opt to have these combined as a tri-light at the top of your mast. If you are motoring, then you also need to show a stern light and a masthead all round white light.

You can learn more about navigation lights by clicking here.

The trouble with lights is that it is quite hard to tell whether it is a small ship really close, or a larger ship far away. I almost ran in to a fishing boat once, I became hypnotised by the light and was sailing right for it. I dread to think how close I got!

If you have a radar or AIS you can of course use this to assist with identifying – and avoiding these other vessels.

2. Coastal Navigation Lights

If you are sailing up the Coast, then your passage plan should list the lighthouses that you are likely to see as you sail up the coast. You can keep an eye out for them and use this information with your navigating – i.e. making sure the GPS has got you in the right place at the right time!

I aim to arrive at my destination during daylight, particularly if it is a port you are unfamiliar with. If you are planning on entering a harbour in darkness, then you should also have a very good plan of all the hazards and channel marker lights. Sometimes it can be very difficult to distinguish which are the navigation lights if there is a town with lots of lights behind them.

You can add in to your passage plan the time of sunset and sunrise, and check up on the moonrise time (particularly if you don’t want it to give you a big fright when it suddenly appears over the horizon when you least expect it!)


3. Other lighting

White lights can destroy your night vision, so red lighting is the way to go. We have got a red LED light inside Wildwood, which allows the people sleeping to still sleep, but it gives just enough light to be able to still see what you are doing – writing in the log, going to the toilet etc.

Each crew member should have a torch or a headlamp. We have got LED Lenser lights which are water resistant, re-chargable, have a red or white light. Headlamps are fantastic for being able to have your hands free while concentrating on what you are doing – or just holding on! If you only have a white light, then you can paint the glass with red nailpolish.

You really want to avoid shining any bright lights in anyone’s eyes, so a handy tip from my friend Chris is to wear your head torch around your neck rather than on your head. That way it hangs down and when switched on generally illuminates what you are doing perfectly but will you’ll never accidentally shine it in the captains eyes. According to Chris shining a head torch in the captain’s eyes is a keel-hauling offence at best!

Andrew also has a 2000 lumen headlamp that can also be made in to a torch. It is super bright, and you can adjust the brightness and make it to be wide or narrow beam. This is a fantastic spotlight as well if you are searching for a mooring, or are up in the middle of the night checking the anchor or making sure your dinghy hasn’t blown away. Be careful when you have got your headlamp on that you don’t shine it in to other peoples eyes.

You also want to have a red compass light. We haven’t got one at the moment, and make do with a clip on red bike light dangled above the compass.

We use Navionics on our iPad for navigating, but even on the very lowest setting it is still quite bright and can again have an impact on your night vision. It can take about 10 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness and your night vision improves with time in the darkness.

Check your batteries before it gets dark and monitor your power consumption. You will have your lights, GPS, possibly an autohelm all at work, not to mention all the other bits & bobs you have got charging, and you don’t want to drain your batteries.

Of course if there are any issues, then you are probably going to want to have good bright lights to see what is going on – cooking dinner, in the engine bay, rifling through cupboards looking for spare parts, if you end up hitting something and have water coming in to the boat. We have recently replaced Wildwood’s old fluorescent tubes with new LED lamps. They are very bright – so great for that kind of thing, but not such great mood lighting!

You can also get deck lights on your mast, that shine down on to the deck, handy perhaps if you are doing a sail change and need some more light to see what you are doing.


4. Safety

Our rule is that we stay in the cockpit and wear a lifejacket, harness and stay clipped on at all times when we are on deck alone. We also have our Personal Locator Beacons in our pocket, and our lifejackets have a light and a whistle. If we need to leave the cockpit, then our rule is that we wake the other person up.

We have also just bought these OLAS safety tags which sound a really loud alarm if you get too far away from your phone.

We always try to get an updated weather forecast before it gets dark, so we know what kind of conditions to expect. If it is likely to be windy, then we will put a reef in and change to a smaller headsail. It is hard enough to do this when it is windy, let alone in the darkness!

Many boats reduce sail before the sun goes down, but in the tropics you have 12 hours of darkness, so this can mean your trip runs a lot longer than anticipated. The key is being set up for easy sail handling and ensuring that your sail plan meets the conditions.

Have you got some kind of mark on the halyard that shows when the sail is fully hoisted? You might not be able to see it at night, so having it marked on the deck can be a handy thing to have.

Perhaps you can time your trip to coincide with a full moon to make things a bit easier?

Use all your senses – your hearing and vision especially.

5. Watch rotation

Everyone has a different system here, so just go with what works best for you. If there are just two people, we find that two or three hours on, two or three hours off works quite well, we try and stretch it out if we can to give the other person some more rest. If you have three people, then two hours on, four hours off is a luxury! If it gets rough, then we might go down to one hour on and one hour off.

Ensure the person on watch knows when to call the skipper for help. Time your watches so that the inexperienced crew aren’t on watch when transitting shipping lanes, or making landfall. The skipper needs to fully trust the crew so they get enough rest.

If you have trouble staying awake, set an alarm that only the on-watch person can hear, to wake you up every 20 minutes. They reckon that it takes just 20 minutes from the time that a ship travelling at 20kts can be seen on the horizon until it runs you over…

It is a bit easier during the daytime, we try and still have one person on watch, and the other resting, cooking or snoozing. Factor in meal times and try to eat together.

It is super important that you get enough rest, so that you are all ready to deal with any situations that might arise. Making concise decisions is difficult if you are tired. If there is just two of us doing two hour watches, then we tend to sleep fully clothed so we can easily jump up and assist the other person. But sleeping in your clothes isn’t particularly restful. Its better to get undressed, wash your hands and face – make sure you are salt free, brush your teeth etc – your usual bedtime routine and then get in to a nice dry sleeping bag. You’ll sleep much better.

An article I read by Chris Tibbs, suggests learning the location and feel of the halyards, so that you can operate them easily in the dark

Get enough rest. You should have a nice sea berth – with a strong lee cloth to hold you in tight. Some warm blankets or a sleeping bag, perhaps some ear plugs and an eye mask. Try to keep the cabin tidy, so you aren’t having to scramble over things in the dark that might have fallen on the floor. Set an alarm to wake you up 10 minutes before your next watch. I find that otherwise I end up clock-watching, not wanting to oversleep. Leave some time to get dressed, go to the toilet etc.

We always do a bit of a handover between shifts, check the course, write in the log, update the weather forecast, do a bit of a checkover of the boat – is the motor still running ok? Do we need to consider reducing sail? Has there been any issues? Any shipping in the area? Make sure the other person is fully briefed and awake before you head off to bed.

Andrew and I sometimes find we have two completely different experiences on the same passage. I might see the sunset and shooting stars, he might get dolphins, a bright full moon and the sunrise.


6. Wellbeing

Sometimes you might be more susceptible to seasickness at night, particularly if it is very dark. Remember to take the medication early if you are worried that you might get sick. We generally can’t afford for either of us to be sick as it puts too much pressure on the other person.

Have a nice hot evening meal together before you start your night watch rotation. Keep the leftovers in the pot so they can be re-heated for a midnight snack.

Have a decent breakfast planned as well. Porridge if its cold, some yoghurt and fruit if it is hot, bacon & eggs. You can pre-make some bacon & egg pie if you think the weather isn’t going to be conducive to standing in the galley. Keep eating and drinking – it is important to keep your energy up and it helps stave off any seasickness.

Boil some water and keep it in a thermos flask so you can easily make hot drinks. It is nice to be able to make a hot drink for the person going on watch to help them wake up and warm up. Have coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soup sachets etc in handy reach so you aren’t having to rifle through cupboards. Add a spoonful of couscous to a cup-a-soup to make it more filling.

Stay hydrated. Keep drink bottles in the cockpit too so you can sip away without having to go below.

Have some snacks in the cockpit as well. Muesli bars, biscuits, nuts, crackers, dried fruit, chocolate, pretzels, sweets etc. Having something to nibble on helps to wake you up and give you a bit of much needed energy to keep you going for a couple of hours.

Here in New Zealand it gets really cold at night, even in the summer, so I wear my warm Dubarry boots, some woollen socks, thermal tights and top, a warm pullover and my wet weather pants and jacket. I add gloves, a woollen scarf and a hat, then my lifejacket & harness. I have a knife and my PLB in my pocket.

Some people enjoy reading – a Kindle is great as you can have the light turned down much lower than on an iPad, listening to music, audio books or pod-casts. Just make sure that you can still hear what is going on around you as well, i.e. any changes in the sound your motor makes, or the sound of an approaching ship for example.

Sometimes it can be reassuring for the sleeping crew member to hear the person on watch moving around. So go below every so often, make sure there aren’t any annoying noises and that kind of thing.

Download a sky chart app on your phone so that you can learn all the different constellations. If you are in the Southern Hemisphere you can use the Southern Cross to find south.

7. At Anchor

And your night time adventures don’t end when you reach port. You are bound to sleep better than you did at sea, but boats still make plenty of weird noises to keep you awake at night.

Boats at anchor need to show one all round white light from the top of the mast. Note that I have heard that if another boat hits you at night, then the first thing the insurance company will ask is if your anchor light was on.

Another friend mentioned that they sometimes leave another all round white light lower down illuminating the bow area – sometimes that white light at the top of the mast can be hard to see when you are looking straight ahead.

If you are on a mooring in a designated mooring field then you don’t need to show an anchor light, but if there are lots of boats coming and going, and you are on-board, then I’d be leaving mine on.

Many people like to set anchor watch alarms. This means that if your boat moves from within a defined radius, an alarm will sound. It is good to be wearing sensible pyjamas as sometimes you can be up and down all night if it is windy!

Keep your headlamp torch and spotlight close by the bed.

If you are heading ashore, and plan to come back after dark, then be sure to turn your anchor light on before you go. I have also heard of people putting reflective tape on their boats, so that when you shine your bright torch you can easily identify your boat. It can be quite hard to find them in the dark.

If you are entertaining, then it is nice to have some mood lighting. I have recently discovered these awesome Luci Lights. They are solar powered, inflatable, waterproof lights that come in either white or multicoloured. The multicoloured one has about eight different colours and also a rotating setting where it changes colour every 10 seconds or so. The white one has two levels of brightness and also a flashing setting. I think they are very cool.

You can also get these cork lights, they charge up in a USB port and you put them in the top of a bottle and it lights up the bottle creating a lovely ambience.

Both options are much safer than candles.


Do you have any other night time sailing or at anchor tips you can share?

You can read some of the crazy things that run through my head in this blog post, written one night as I was sailing up the coast of the South Island of New Zealand.

It was great to get feedback from other sailing friends after writing that post, that they too had been given the fright of their life by the moon!


15 thoughts on “Sailing at Night

  1. Those Luci lights look a good idea. Agree with everything you say here. Distance from shore is another difficult thing to judge at night too. I once thought we were passing a ship only to realise that we were close inshore and they were a block of apartments. I once focused on a bright star to navigate on my first-ever night-sail. Suddenly the star dropped down a bit. This confused me and I thought then it was a satellite. Later the ‘star’ got brighter and brighter until it flooded my vision while hovering above me. I got quite frightened, thinking it was a UFO going to land on deck. Then it flew off. I realised then it was a sea plane. It must have been the coast guard who are always suspicious of night-sailing-boats. They might have been checking we weren’t drug or people smugglers.


  2. Nice article Viki, I remember Geoff Wright helping me bring Vailoa down from Auckland, it was the first time I lost sight of land, I felt releaved not anxious, nothing to hit at night!!!, One thing that stuck in my mind was about 100 odd km from land but no sight of it he said “do you smell that” , ITS LAND!!, and yes, I could smell the woods earth smell, another navigation aid to hand 🙂


  3. Great article, Viki, and having just done a 3 night passage, it’s spot on. I just learned a new trick, picked up from sailing with a nurse: if you’re not sure you need seasickness medicine or you don’t know how much you might need, you can dissolve a pill in a glass of water and sip the amount you need – a fourth of a glass, wait 20 minutes, another sip if you still feel oozy, etc. Great way to keep from getting more than you need.


  4. This is a really great post!
    I live in Trinidad, in the Caribbean and we have 11-12 hours of darkness and yes it does feel like an eternity those 11-12 hours when sailing throught the night but a beautiful, beautiful eternity. I’ve seen more shooting stars than I can count in a night’s sail from Grenada to Trinidad.
    I think I prefer sailing at night because it is so much cooler than during these very hot days.


  5. Interesting experience with fatigue, after a long day of issues on a delivery trip. One issue was the auto helm always wanted to go back from where we came from, so hand steering was order of the day. I took the first night watch after several hours, the low clouds started looking like trees and then the taxis came past. 100NM from Robe (SE South Australia) so I knew that they were not real! The owner appeared in the companion way and asked innocently how are things. I responded with are you real? To which he said yes with a laugh. I only said good you can steer cause I’m going to sleep!
    Generally love sailing at night, did an over night sail last week, the water was phosphorescent and a pod of 15 dolphins swam around the boat. leaving trails of pure magic!


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