Night Cruising Tips

Considering heading out on the water at night? Read our top tips for stress-free night cruising.
Sailing towards the sun

Being out on the water at night can have its advantages - there may be less noise with fewer vessels around, you may hear or see nocturnal wildlife, and looking up at the heavens on a clear night without light pollution can be a spectacular view. However, there are a number of things to consider that will help you to prepare for a night cruise and ensure that it goes as smoothly as possible. 

Here are a few points to consider ahead of your next night-time cruise dependant on the ability of the skipper and the crew:

Plan your route

Thoroughly familiarise yourself with your route and select check points along the way that will be easily identifiable in the dark. Many GPS / chart plotters now have a night mode option which allow you to navigate your route safely without dazzling your eyes at the same time. If you are using a paper chart, you can also purchase overhead and chart lights in red lighting, which will help preserve your night vision.

The RYA recommends that small craft sail defensively, by which it is meant that you avoid creating the situation where the ship is the give-way vessel that may be on a collision course and in close quarters with you in 'stand on' position.

Know your lights

Your boat must be fitted with the correct navigation lights that comply with The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs). This will depend on whether you are motoring or sailing and the length of you boat.  This is important as the navigation lights that you display will tell others what type of craft you are and which way you are headed. The rules mandate the exact colour of the lights, the minimum distance each light must be visible for, the arc over which it must be seen, and the position on the vessel. The requirements vary and the rules must be read in full, to completely understand one's obligations.

Today modern LED lights are becoming increasingly common and use far less power, this is an important consideration particularly on a sailing boat. If you are still using incandescent lights then it is wise to carry spare bulbs of the correct wattage on-board, together with other electrical spares such as fuses. It is also prudent to carry an emergency alternative to your fixed navigation lights in case they should fail.

It is useful to have several large and reliable torches available on-board not only in case the power fails, but to warn off ships that you think might not have seen you. 

Night vision

Being able to see well at night is important for both your convenience and your safety.

It takes our eyes in the region of 10 - 15 minutes to adjust to their best level of performance in the dark but just a brief exposure to white light will re-set the adjustment your eyes have made, hence the red chart lights. 

Caution must also be exercised with white light on deck. If you choose to wear a head torch, you should consider that each time you turn to face someone the light will shine straight in their face. If this is white light, their eyes will have to start from scratch adjusting to the dark. Switching on deck lights should be avoided and torches / head torches should have a red light wherever possible. Keeping the brightness on any electronic equipment low will mean your eyes won’t have to adjust as much. It is worth remembering that ordinary binoculars are a very useful for improving your vision at night. 

Motor boat approaching beacon at night 

Keep watch

In general, when at sea overnight, a watch system should be set up, to ensure that someone is nominated for the helm and an adequate look out is kept, whilst still allowing all of the crew sufficient rest. 

If you are intending to undertake a longer passage, watch systems cover more than just who is at the helm. They should include keeping the log, making the dinner, washing the dishes, daily checks and maintenance i.e., a system which manages the running of the boat.

Depending on the number of crew and their levels of experience, the skipper may or may not opt to be included in the watches. Even if the skipper is technically “off watch” the crew should be encouraged to wake the skipper whenever they feel the need and the skipper should ensure that the crew are clear about any circumstance to which they wish to be alerted.

Clothing and food

Remember to prepare yourself and your crew with appropriate clothing for the trip and conditions ahead. It always gets cooler at night, so layers of clothing and a spray jacket are essential kit.  Hot drinks and high energy snacks should be available, Thermos flasks are handy for a ready supply of hot water. A cold and uncomfortable crew can dampen everyone’s spirits and will affect everyone’s experience. 

The skipper should check that everyone is fitted with a suitable lifejacket and that they know how to operate it should they need to.

Clip on

Keep yourself and your crew safe by using safety lines and are clipping on. Remember that preventing the wearer from falling overboard is still dependant on the length of the safety line and the part of the boat it is attached to. Safety lines can only work effectively if there are adequate attachment points on the boat. Ensure that your crew are aware of where clipping on points are located. 

All journeys require an element of planning, and it is important to remember to also include your regular safety checks, look at predicted tides and currents, identify places of refuge, and to share your plan with someone onshore.

You can find more advice and tips for your next night cruising adventure on the RYA Safety hub on the RYA website.