There’s this romantic notion of night passages; sails up 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, here’s the 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 and dark navy vessels; then reality bites. 

After 2 nights crossing the Bay of Biscay, I swore we wouldn’t do anymore night passages. “Only day hops from now on” I said. In the past I had pretty ordinary experiences of night passages: on a sailing trip from Sydney to the Whitsunday islands and then Tahiti to the Cook Islands. I was more seasick at night than during the day, then there’s the anxiety of not been able to see in the dark and just the sheer fatigue of broken sleep.

As things go, after the Biscay crossing, there were just more night passages to do; sometimes because of the distances (like the coast of Spain to Sardinia) and sometimes because we simply wanted to make distance quickly. Surprisingly, the more we did, the “easier” it got and it was certainly easier on the catamaran. By easier, I mean, the experience became more familiar. Safety and sleep are the primary concerns during a night passage, so it helped to developed routines around managing the boat and rest.

Watches and sleep

Before the sun sets, we make sure we’re fed and there are snacks on hand during the night, especially dry crackers for those of us that can get queasy at night. Then we work on a watch cycle of 3 hours on and 3 hours off. This 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. 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

First there’s the regular cycles on watch of checking for boats/lights, fishing floats, AIS, radar, sea state and sails and route. I do these at frequent intervals. In between these checks, I can star gaze and sometimes identify stars and planets using the Night Sky app. I may send the occasional email or SMS. But devices can mess with my night vision so I don’t do it for long. My favourite is audiobooks; listening to these just 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 put on safety harness and anyone on watch is tethered at the helm. We have strict “rules” during night passages:

  • no alcohol just before or during a passage
  • understand the instruments and navigation
  • harness, PLBs and personal MOB device at all times on watch
  • no going forward (or leaving the helm) without waking the other person, this includes managing sails
  • if motoring, reduce speed to accomodate any lack of visibility
  • keep the sail choices are conservative
  • if unsure about a nearby boats intentions, hail them and seek clarification rather than wait
  • if in doubt about anything, wake your sailing partner
  • maintain a log on watch
  • alway do an orderly handover to the next watch keeper

How I feel about sailing at night now

In a word; okay. Actually, better than okay. The lack of sleep is never easy but it’s now part of cruising. If it’s a moonlit night, the weather is good and the sails are out it’s a joy. Moonlight makes a huge different to the experience because of the improved visibility. In these conditions, I look forward to the solitude, quiet contemplation and views of the sky and ocean.

I be interested to know how you manage sailing at night? Do you love it or hate it? How do you pass the time?

First published in Multihull Solutions e-newsletter.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

3 Replies to “Night Passages – love or hate?”

  1. Wonderful article, which totally resonates with me…
    I love night sails when the seas are kind but can fully understand the apprehension with all the possible night sail dangers. We used to work on 2 hours on, 2 hours off.

    Many thanks for stopping by my Travel and Photography blog.

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