Night cruising (January 07)

We asked for your advice and stories from boating after dark.

We asked for your advice and stories from boating after dark.

Here are some of your replies:

Geoff Gritton writes:

I own a 29 foot Maxum and I keep it on the East Coast in Brightlingsea.

Because of its size and the sort of coast we have here we go out at night quite a lot.

I have to wear glasses now and I bought myself a pair of ski goggles, which have some lenses inside them. The goggles are orange and they help to enhance my night vision as well as keeping the wind and water away from my eyes.

People who do not wear glasses can purchase some yellow lenses glasses and this also helps a lot.

I have attached a photo for your amusement (shown here).

Captain Richard Gill writes:

Night time cruising is safe in the hands of experienced Skippers. He/she needs to be completely aware of the vessel and its capabilities. In particular awareness of the instrumentation available and how to operate the controls in subdued light.

The biggest problem for most people is to understand the “lights exhibited” and to interpret these to give a relative course and speed so that collision risk is ascertained. This situation is compounded should there be two or three vessels about with varying speeds, which may be far in excess of a small boat. If fitted with radar then this machine should have been trained on in daylight with the express purpose of visual sightings before radar calculations. Remember that a radar will only tell you what it has been asked for, and if not correctly set up may not tell you everything.

The Skipper needs to be aware of how small his vessel’s footprint really is on another vessels radar (if at all) and how far his lights can really be seen in rough weather (if at all).

A drawback of coastal cruising at night is the risk of debris such as fishing gear.

A huge privilege is the night sky in all its glory without any background light to dim the sky.

It should go without saying that a night cruise should only be undertaken by a skipper who is fully rested as it is easy to fall asleep otherwise.

In answer to your question do we go out at night? Yes we do but not very often. The case for night time cruising is particularly important as a training exercise because there are times when a daylight cruise may end up in the dark and at that instance it is not the time to start training!

David Hutchinson writes:

Part of the RYA Day Skipper course is to undertake a night passage. We had never done one before but had previously been tempted on many occasions to go out and enjoy the water on a clear, starry night. Our first attempt to venture out at night, under the supervision of an instructor, was postponed. The winds were blowing F7 and the sea state in the Solent was less than friendly. Lesson 1 — don’t venture out at night if the conditions are unkind; navigation becomes very difficult.

We planned a crossing from Cowes to Mercury Yacht Harbour on The Hamble, but going East out of Cowes Harbour towards Portsmouth and then back via the North Channel. The first stage was to prepare for the journey by making our own chart that could be viewed easily whilst on passage. Using a standard paper chart we prepared a large drawing, to scale using a black marker pen on white paper, showing all of the relevant lights and their positions marking them with specific symbols to differentiate between port and starboard buoys and cardinal markers. On the drawing we wrote the light sequence alongside the mark. We also plotted out the planned journey, determined bearings and distances for a course that involved buoy hopping. In practice all we had to do was to identify the buoy we should aim for using the light sequence and then steer a course towards it. The use of plotter was not allowed!

We waited in Cowes for complete darkness — then we set off. Initially the light in the harbour, complete with some familiarity of where we were, allowed us to easily navigate out of the harbour and then turn to starboard. Then the fun started. Picking out the buoy with the correct light sequence was not that easy — especially when there are many lights visible with car headlights and brake lights ashore some distance away. Lesson 2 — the planning is crucial.

Any white light caused problems for the helmsman. We masked the white navigation light to cast a shadow over the flybridge — a useful ploy as was dimming any navigation equipment. The use of white light torches was forbidden — we used a red lens in a mini-torch to aid viewing of charts. We did use a night sight — however the person using this should not be the helmsman as once again night vision is seriously affected. Lesson 3 — avoid all white light and the helmsman should avoid use of instruments that might affect his/her night vision. Ideally one person should steer and control the boat keeping a good watch, another should navigate and instruct. The night sight is very useful for spotting lobster pots and other navigational hazards.

The main problems we encountered were: finding it difficult to identify the buoy we were meant to be aiming for, being confused by lights ashore and simply aiming for the wrong buoy — on one occasion we were right next to the one we were aiming for and did not realise it. Lesson 4 — do it slowly, it is very difficult to navigate safely at speed, even if you know the waters! Recent accidents leading to serious injury reinforce this message.

Our plan to get back to our home berth from Southampton Waters and up the River Hamble has been used over and over again – it ensures confidence and is great fun. Of course, we cheat a bit also by double checking our position using electronics!

John Osmond writes:

I run a Nimbus 310 and after many years as a yachty thought that night trips would be interesting to entertain but…..

a) My boat, and I think many other powerboats, seem less well adjusted to night trips. The windscreens are canted back and in combination with generally light coloured interiors cause horrible internal reflections. OK…this can be put right with paint or dark material to cover panels etc but I do wonder how many power boats are really designed for night operation.

b) Externally the mast head light is a real pain needing a significant horizontal screen if white light is simply not going to flood the cabin roof. The same applies to the navigation lights where small size and proximity to white GRP sees green and red light emerging where you least expect it.

c) Obstructions… well, being single engine, I really do have a problem at night with fishing gear and would simply not wish to attempt night passages in some areas as I doubt I could see half the fishing gear I normally miss by day. On the occasions I have been out in darkness, I reduce speed to a crawl, stick my head outside and proceed very carefully…..

Frankly I am disappointed that the last point really precludes serious night passages which I have enjoyed under sail. The technical issues in a) and b) can be sorted but I wonder why I would bother if some unmarked fishing pot is going to cripple my boat at night and leave me in a very difficult position. As a natural fan of single engine boats, this issue does highlight that two well separated shafts can be useful, but at what a huge expense!

In short I don’t do planned night motoring. A real shame, but a pragmatic view.

Michael Knight writes:

We take the view that we cannot see the crab pots and lobster pots at night and that we are inevitably going to get our props snarled up. We are therefore likely to become another casualty for the RNLI to help – yet another motor boater on the statistics. We therefore have a rule that we will not have a passage plan that requires a night passage.

That said, I have made night passages with our local RAFSA school in their RIB. I found that it was impossible to count the light flashes because the waves interfered with the view and therefore timing. We had to rely on our compass course to find the buoy and read its name, and for that a powerful torch is a must. This could still be a problem to a sportsboat or to the inner helm position of a flybridge motor cruiser.

I also found the strength of the lights varied and in some cases the buoys were only visible from a cable or two.

One certain thing is to get out from behind the windscreen. The improvement to vision is startling.

Julie Proudfoot writes:

Do plan your route. The best way is to make up your own chart of the route. Keep it simple – use symbols for buoys with their light sequence by them.

Have a dull torch that can be used to read your map/chart with but does not affect the others night vision.[keep real charts close for reference]

Make sure that your steaming light does not cause a bright cockpit. If you can use something to shadow the helm area, this improves night vision 100%. Do make sure you have a good idea of what lights you may see, and you’re your reference handy.

Wrap up well, as it’s always colder at night.

Plan the trip for 10 knots max in busy waters, it’s easy to work out increased speed and decreased speed if plans change.

Have some kind of hot drink available if your trip will be longer than an hour.

Before you get to your berth, make crew jump up and down or do a jig to get circulation going again before they do rope etc.

Always make sure someone knows where everyone is at night. If someone goes MOB, it is very difficult to find them at night.

Ivan Fomin writes:

We have sailed/motor boated several times after dark. There are many points to recommend about night boating:

i) In some ways safer as you can see other vessels and marker buoys far easier

ii) In many waterways the quieter time to cruise is at night

iii) The wind often calms during the night (may pick up again though) so smoother passages may be possible

On the other hand, there are different issues to consider:

Are you too tired from the day’s activities?

Have you got enough experienced crew to complete the passage?

Imperative that you and the crew wear life jackets as the chances of falling overboard must increase with tiredness and darkness.

Get used to working in the background light as any artificial light will impair your ‘night vision’ for several minutes.

Make sure moorings/marinas are able to accommodate you after hours.

Graham Anthony writes:

Darkness brings an added dimension to sailing, it being both exhilarating and very satisfying. Watching the sunrise on Orford Ness after a single-handed crossing of the North Sea was for me a very special moment.

You really must know your lights. Sorting out a tug with a tow is relatively easy. If it happens to be passing a fleet of fishing boats with bright lights on deck to attract the fish, then that really is very difficult. It has happened to me.

Fishing boats present a special problem because you must sort out where their nets are. Frequently I have had lone fishing boats change direction onto a collision course. This is a relief from boredom for the skipper, who is only coming over to have a look at you. Nevertheless it can be alarming.

You must have a powerful handheld search light to hand. If in doubt, shine it first on your topsides and then flash at the oncoming boat. You will usually get a flash back.

Keeping your night vision is important. Close one eye if you do have to use a bright light. I have a red light in my cabin, just bright enough to find things, to read the pilot, or to make a cup of tea.

Bright street lights and flood lights on shore, especially if it is raining, now make it IMPOSSIBLE to pick up the flashing navigation lights when entering places like Ramsgate or Newhaven. The safe thing to do is to use your GPS to arrive at the outer marker and then steer through the approach channel, taking great care to identify the pier head lights. By the way, use your binoculars at night, they work very well.

You can of course call up port control so that they know you are on the approach. I rarely use my VHF now, but when the going gets difficult, then it makes sense to tell either the Coastguard or the port what you are doing. They will then keep an eye on you with their sophisticated radars.

I have never relied on my radar for navigation. I have never been properly trained to use it, and would not trust my own ability to use it in a real emergency. I know how to use the basic aids, and that is what I stick to.

Now to big ships at sea, which seem to scare the pants off novice skippers. I have seen so many good skippers change course the minute they see a big boy’s lights come into view. This is quite the wrong thing to do. The proper thing is to hold your course, work out which way the big ship is going, and assess the speed that he is crossing your path. I have rarely had to change course for a big ship, although sometimes it is prudent to make a small change to keep well away from his stern and avoid the worst of his wash.

Finally, it always makes sense to go off-shore with a competent crew. However, being alone at sea at night has left me with some of the most wonderful memories of my life. If you feel confident in yourself, then do it. You will not regret it.


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