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When the Sun Goes Down: Sailing at Night

Sailing at night gives you an experience like no other if you’re prepared. Whether you’re on an offshore race or out for a long weekend, many sailors find the time alone at night to be the most satisfying part of their journey.

A cruising sailboat sailing at dusk

Achluophobia, the fear of the dark, is the third most common phobia in the world, with nearly 75 percent of adults reporting some level of fear when the lights go out. According to researchers at the University of Toronto, the fear of darkness is directly tied to the fear of the unexpected. To truly enjoy the peacefulness and beauty of nighttime sailing, the only thing needed is proper planning and preparation to reduce the anxiety that the unexpected can bring. 


Weather and Course
All good sailors know that planning is essential to a successful trip, but when sailing at night it is paramount. Check multiple weather sources frequently and especially in the hours leading up to sunset. Make sure you have studied your charts and know your nighttime route thoroughly. Know which areas could be problematic, the estimated time you will arrive in those locations, and who will be on watch during that time. Put your most experienced sailors or those familiar with the area on shift when entering your identified “danger zones." Click here for a review of forecast sevices and apps to help.

Emergency Exit
While you are examining your charts, identify a few key locations (if applicable) you can divert to in the event that you face unexpected inclement weather. The lee of an island, a protected bay, or an alternative harbor facility are all options.  Always have a backup plan for wind shifts and emergency situations such as injury or mechanical failure.  

Plan the arrival at your destination during daylight hours, especially if you are unfamiliar with the passage or harbor. Arriving during the day gives you better visibility for unlit markers, natural hazards, and the advantage of knowledgeable harbormasters and dockhands to assist you. This may mean you need to purposefully slow down, turn off course, or speed up by motoring to arrive at your destination during the day. 


Unless you are sailing solo, it is a good idea to put in place a structured schedule to dictate watchkeeping duties while sailing at night. A clear schedule gives all crew members accountability during the passage and prevents individuals from getting overly fatigued and making potentially critical mistakes. 

Standard watchkeeping is set in four-hour rotations which is the amount of time needed for a full cycle of REM sleep. If there are two people aboard and you are traveling only for one night, the recommendation is to establish a four-hour solo shift, followed by a one-hour shift with both people on watch, followed by a four-hour solo shift. The hour shared shift gives the two crewmates an opportunity to make any sail changes; do a perimeter check of the boat to look for anything unusual; and check the weather, charts, and course together and make any necessary deviations from the plan. This schedule allows the person coming on shift a bit of time to thoroughly wake up before being left alone on deck. If you are keeping a watch schedule for more than one night, stick to the four hour increments so that you can continue the watch schedule for a 24-hour period. 

If there are more than two people on the boat, set up a rotation with a primary, secondary, and off-shift person. The secondary person is “on call” for assistance that the primary watch keeper may need while the off-shift person gets uninterrupted sleep. 

Personal Safety & Comfort 

Safety is always the most important factor to consider when sailing, and there are several safety rules that should always be observed when sailing at night. 

The first and most important rule is always to wear a life jacket...and wear it correctly. It's a hotly debated topic whether you should choose an automatically inflating vest or a manual one (read about The Great Inflatable PFD Debate and get the lowdown on the different styles from an expert). It's important you do your own research, assess the pros and cons of each type, and pick the style that is best for you and your adventure. Regardless which way you go, wearing a life jacket really is a no-brainer: It’s the single most important piece of safety gear a sailor has and is worthy of the investment needed to get one that is as comfortable as possible and includes features such as a strobe light, built-in harness, and a whistle (or someplace to store one). This is your first line of defense against a potential disaster. Life jackets may not always be fashionable or comfortable, but they are absolutely necessary while on deck - especially at night.  

Buddy System
In addition to having your PFD on at all times, it is paramount that no one ever leave the cockpit of the boat at night to check a potential issue without observing the buddy system. If the issue is minor and can wait until the next person is on deck, try your best to delay waking up your crewmates. If the problem requires immediate attention, wake up the secondary person and explain the issue. Once that person is on deck, attach yourself to the boat using a tether and proceed with the necessary repairs or sail changes. Never leave the cockpit without alerting another crew member and waiting until they are on deck. 

Stay Fueled + Warm
Food, hydration, and proper attire are important considerations for nighttime crew that are easily overlooked. Having snacks, water, warm beverages, and plenty of layers within reach can make your night shift more enjoyable. Try starting with more layers than you think you will need, including a hat, socks, and gloves (even in tropical climates). It’s much easier to remove layers as you become warm than to search for the clothes you need once you become chilled, which takes energy you need for staying alert during your watch.   

Think Ahead
Lastly, think of all the things you may need on deck during your shift and have them ready when the time comes. A good kit might include a headlamp, spotlight, smart phone, headphones, Chapstick, Kindle, logbook, and writing utensil. Being prepared is also being considerate of your crewmates by limiting your movement on deck or going below and turning on lights to look for something you forgot. Your night-shift experience and your crewmates’ attitudes will be more positive if you spend a few minutes preparing for your watch before the sun goes down.

Vessel Considerations

Conserve Energy
Keep in mind the needs and capabilities of your vessel while sailing at night. It is likely that you will use more power than you are making. Running your navigation lights, autopilot, radar, refrigeration, heat, air conditioning, water pumps, and other electronics will suck your batteries dry if you are not careful. Unless you have a wind turbine, running a generator may be the only option to keeping your battery bank from getting dangerously low. If you have to run a generator, again, be considerate of your crew mates and try to run it while you are all awake or for an equal portion over two shifts. Be mindful of how much power your vessel draws, and try to reduce your consumption as much as possible by using headlamps or flashlights instead of overhead lighting and hand steering for the first hour or two of your shift. Stock up on unrefrigerated snacks and beverages so you can eliminate opening and running the refrigeration systems. A significant amount of power can also be used if your vessel is set up with electric winches and roller furling systems. If possible, use the opportunity to practice trimming sails by hand. Your boat and crewmates below will thank you for conserving power and keeping noise to a minimum.  

Be Ready for Changes
If your vessel is not equipped with roller furlings, make sure that you have prepared before dark for potential sail changes, reefing, and wind shifts. If you think the wind is going to lighten up halfway through the night, have a larger geneoa rigged and ready at the bow for a quick and easy change between shifts. If the wind is going to build, make sure you know how to reef the sails and do a take-down if necessary. Always be more conservative with your sail area when traveling at night. Reef and reduce early to give yourself a wide safety margin.  

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The Discussion

Doug Penland
Doug Penland

This is great information. After sailing from San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas I can see a lot of good ideas in this article that we didn't think of. Good work!