Written by Suellen Tomkins
There’s a romantic notion of cruising at night; sails billowing in a steady breeze and the ocean shining in the moonlight; nothing but the peaceful sounds of the sea. The reality can be far from this idyll. Firstly, there’s darkness and lack of visibility. Throw in fishing pots, unlit fishing boats, fog, rain, variable winds, strange lights in the middle of nowhere, cruise ships moving at high speed and dark navy vessels; then reality bites.
After 2 nights crossing the Bay of Biscay, I swore we wouldn’t do night passages anymore. “Only day hops from now on,” I said. I had pretty ordinary experiences of past night passages on overnight legs of a Sydney to the Whitsunday islands passage and then Tonga to the Cook Islands. It was ordinary because I was more seasick at night than during the day. Then there’s the anxiety of not being able to see in the dark, dealing with squalls occurring at night and just the sheer fatigue of broken sleep.
As things go, after the Biscay crossing, there were more night passages to do. Sometimes the sheer distances required it (like the coast of Spain to Sardinia) and other times because we wanted to make miles quickly. Surprisingly, the more we did, the “easier” it got. It was more comfortable on our catamaran and the experience just became more familiar. Safety and sleep are the primary concerns during a night passage, so it helps to develop routines.
Watches and sleep
Before sunset, we make sure we eat, and have snacks on hand, unusually dry crackers for those of us that get queasier at night. Then we work on a watch cycle of 3 hours on and 3 hours off. This cycle works well for a while during the early part of the night passage; eventually, the lack of sleep may take its toll more on one person than the other, so flexibility becomes essential. In this situation, the person feeling less tired will stay on watch longer to allow their sailing partner to get more rest.
Passing the time on watches
The regular watch routine is critical; checking for boats/lights, fishing floats, AIS, radar, sea state, sail set and navigation. I do these at frequent intervals. In between these checks, I star gaze and try to identify stars and planets. I may send the occasional email or SMS, but devices mess with my night vision, so I don’t do it for long. My favourite is audiobooks; listening to these helps to pass the time and is not as distracting as looking at a bright device, but I always keep an ear out for change in sounds of the boat and surroundings.
Before dark, we don our life jacket and harness, and the watch keeper tethers to the helm. We have strict “rules” during night passages:
- No alcohol just before or during a night passage
- Understand how to use the instruments and monitor the navigation
- Use life jacket, harness, PLBs and personal MOB device at all times on watch
- Do not go forward (or leaving the helm) without waking the other person, this includes managing sails
- Anyone going outside the helm connects to the jacklines
- If motoring, reduce speed to accommodate any lack of visibility
- Keep sail choices conservative and reef early
- If unsure about a nearby boat’s intentions, hail them on VHS and seek clarification rather than wait
- Maintain a log on watch
- Always do a briefing and handover to the next watchkeeper
Importantly, if in doubt about anything, wake your sailing partner.
How I feel about night passages now
In a word; okay. Actually, better than okay. The sleep deprivation is never fun, but it’s now part of cruising. If it’s a moonlit night, the weather is good, and the sails are out, it’s beautiful. Moonlight makes a massive difference to the experience because of the light and improved visibility. In these conditions, I look forward to the quiet contemplation and views of the sky and ocean. After the dark and solitude of the graveyard shift, there’s the absolute joy of watching the sunrise.
You can read more about our travels, and sailing experiences in the Mediterranean at www.wildheartgypsyspirit.com, including a map of our anchorages and marina stops. Please leave a comment if you have any questions or connect on Instagram: @wildheartgypsyspirit and Facebook: Travel Sail Explore with SV Wild Heart