Distant harbors beckon the power cruising boater, but distant harbors take time to reach, which means you may need to use that second set of 12 hours we get each day—you know, the ones in the dark. So how does a cruising couple or small crew safely make a night passage? Let’s explore how to prepare your boat and yourselves to undertake this unique nocturnal experience.
Preparing your boat ahead of time is important for a safe passage and involves many steps, one of which is locating all of the items needed through the night and having them easily accessible. Two of my most valuable tools at night are a hat with red and white lights in the bill and a small battery-powered red glow stick.
Each enables me to move about the boat and handle things without turning on lights. Do as much as you can to keep yourself in the darkness of the helm during your shift.
Adjust all helm equipment lighting at night before you get under way. Many marine electronics not only have the ability to dim the screens, but also have a night mode that reverses the contrast or changes the colors. A problem for many glass helms and multifunction display screens so popular today is that they will dim, but not change contrast or colors.
Identify any other lights around the helm that will be distracting or interfere with your night vision. Make covers or tape film over them. Many auto parts stores still sell red film for repairing a broken taillight lens. This works well for making covers for gauges or control panels that won’t dim.
Several components in our eyes change in the darkness, allowing us to see more at night. The pupil is the first to react, improving our vision within the first 10 minutes, but other components are still adjusting after several hours. A light turned on even for a moment can set your nighttime vision back hours.
Learn all of your navigation electronics features. At night, you may use some of them that you’ve never needed during the day. There are pros and cons to creating a start-to-finish route and actually following it on your chartplotter, but if ever there was a time that it is most useful, it is on a night run.
Although all of your navigation equipment takes on a more important role at night, two of the most important are the radar and autopilot.
First, your radar. Become familiar with its tuning functions ahead of your night trip; having it tuned properly to return the most detailed images is vital to a safe passage. An ideal arrangement is for your radar to have the ability to overlay its image onto your chartplotter. It is reassuring to see the radar’s return images match up to known objects like navigational aids.
The MARPA (mini automatic radar plotting aid) tracking feature is a useful tool on radar for following the relative direction of another vessel under way. If your radar does not offer the MARPA feature, learn how to read radar echoes to determine the direction of travel and speed of other vessels.
AIS (Automatic Identification System) is becoming increasingly common on small recreational vessels as manufacturers meet market demand for improved and lower-cost systems. AIS offers good collision avoidance information. It is even more important if you are cruising in an area with a lot of commercial traffic.
The autopilot is a close second in importance to the radar. Manually steering a straight course during the day is enough of a challenge, steering one at night is almost impossible without the reference points we take for granted during daylight. Without a good autopilot, you are left to follow a compass heading or your position on the chartplotter. In either case you’re steering in a reactionary mode behind a real-time position curve. Locking your autopilot on your route enables you to focus more of your attention on other navigational equipment and, equally important, what you see outside the windows.
Speaking of what we are able to see through those windows, night vision technology is making itself quite comfortable on the recreational boat helm.
As with AIS, we are benefitting from advancing technology as well as market demands. Whether you choose a handheld monocular, binocular, or you invest in a fixed camera and video feed to a helm screen, night-vision devices will increase your safety and comfort. Also, don’t forget the benefit of conventional binoculars. Your trusty 7x50 binocular will do a surprisingly good job of improving night vision. On one of our recent trips we encountered a commercial shrimp trawler coming in an inlet while we were going out.
If you’ve never seen one of these at night, you can’t miss them—they light themselves up like Times Square, so much so that it’s hard to pick out their running lights against the bright deck lights. But in the pitch black with just our regular daytime binocular we could see its stabilizer arms were lowered, causing us to give it even more room to pass.
Last, on the vessel, make sure you inspect the running-light bulbs and fixtures. Besides a burned-out bulb, a rusted connection can create an equally unsafe condition, making you invisible to others. Carry extra bulbs and have the ability and tools to repair a problem.
The subject of crew size and watch schedules will likely generate the most conversation among experienced cruisers and professional mariners when discussing running at night.
There is no question additional crew offers increased safety with the extra eyes on watch or extended resting time away from the helm, but a cruising couple or crew of two can safely make night passages. It’s a matter of controlling as many of the other variables as possible.
The most difficult challenge for the cruising couple is getting adequate sleep and maintaining alertness after multiple days of interrupted sleep.
Some will argue that a short cruise of one or two days is more dangerous because your body isn’t allowed to adjust to a new pattern. However, numerous studies have shown there is a cumulative toll taken from inadequate sleep. You may be able to tolerate a reduced amount of sleep for a day or two, but it will eventually have an effect on your judgment and health.
With a two-person crew, setting a schedule is the most important part of making it successful. Most experienced couples work in two- to six-hour shifts during the night and as needed during daylight hours.
I prefer shifts of three to four hours. For me, less than three hours off duty does not provide enough sleep and more than four may be too long on duty.
Work with the individual traits of the crew; if one is more of a night person and naps easily in the afternoon, set your schedules to accommodate. Whether the off-duty person sleeps near the helm is a function of your boat’s layout. It is important to be able to wake the off-duty crew should the need arise. I prefer to rest a distance from the helm so radio chatter and alarms don’t disturb my sleep during off hours.
Commercial ships use a bridge navigational watch alarm system to keep the officer on watch alert. The on-duty watch must silence an alarm set at a predetermined frequency. If they do not, it sounds in the off-duty crew quarters, requiring one of them to go to the bridge to silence it. I use my smartphone with an alarm set every 15 or 20 minutes when offshore in open water. Some autopilots have this alarm feature when engaged.
While there are many examples of cruising couples circling the globe involving multiple day or even weeks-long passages, it is this captain’s experience and recommendation that passages exceeding one or two nights should have a third crew member. Much of this will be determined by the voyage; the farther you will be from assistance, the more vulnerable you are with only two persons aboard.
If you have a need or an interest in making an overnight passage, one of the ways to practice is to make a departure several hours before sunrise. This gives you the experience in the dark for a short period of time. A practice run like this will make your first overnight run less intimidating. Be careful, however, if you choose to do this. As with your first full overnight passage, try to do it in familiar waters. Handling close-quarters maneuvering or an unknown inlet in the dark could actually make this trial more difficult or dangerous.
Whether in known waters or not, review the passage route ahead of time in detail. Know the depths all along the route. Make note of intersecting bodies of water that could be the source of other boat traffic crossing your path. Obtain knowledge of local traffic: Do commercial shrimp boats frequently depart a harbor you will be passing in the pre-dawn hours? Could there be heavy commercial traffic in the area or early morning recreational fishing boats?
Avoidance of collision with other vessels or stationary objects is your primary challenge at night. Knowing the likelihood and timing of encountering other traffic is important.
Identify distinct or major lighted aids to navigation you will be passing. Note an approximate time and direction at which you will first see them and mark them off as you pass them. Even in the day you should follow your route on a paper chart, logging your position at regular intervals. The truth is, few do this anymore, because modern electronics are so reliable.
It is important to practice this at night. Getting a fix on your position during the day with dead electronics can be difficult, getting it at night can be impossible.
If your passage will be along a coast from inlet to inlet, having previously identified bail-out ports is important. Note their location in your plotter and on your paper charts. Know when it might be best to turn around, as opposed to going on to the next port.
Timing the end of your passage is as important as anything during it. As a matter of fact, your time of arrival may be the original reason for the overnight passage. Safe entry in many places in the Bahamas or Caribbean requires arriving at midday, or just after, in order to have the best light to judge water depth. Or the timing of the tide and current at a particular inlet may dictate a departure the night before.
Experienced cruisers will often say running at night is one of their favorite things. It is a dichotomous experience of peacefulness and adrenalin. Take the experience. The only way to expand the comfort circles in which we operate is to push at their edges. Many of us boat for the sense of adventure and accomplishment that goes with it. One of the greatest will be your first overnight passage.