How to sail at night

Not only is sailing at night a magical experience, but it enables you to cover much longer distances.

You just need to know what to watch out for.

Captains are often asked if it’s possible to sail at night. In the vast majority of cases, the answer is yes, unless you are just starting out. You just need to know the specifics of night sailing — the rules of boat lighting, beacon signals, have navigation and nautical charts handy, and most importantly, follow basic safety rules on board. So, do you know what night sailing entails?

You can’t do it without the correct lights

While on land, lights are primarily there to help us see, at sea it’s the other way around. All boats must be properly lit for other vessels to see. And, a boat doesn’t work like a car either, where we shine our headlights on the road ahead to see what’s in front of us. At sea we rely on navigation, nautical charts, lighthouses and the captain’s knowledge.

Basic boat lights include running lights, steaming lights and anchor lights. There are clearly defined and standardized rules for lighting a ship under sail at night. So the question of how to light a yacht at night has a very simple answer. Running lights, or side lights, show other vessels where your port and starboard sides are, with red indicating port and green starboard, and you must also have a white stern light on.

Lighting the yacht at night is very important because, unlike during the day, the helmsman cannot judge the distance and direction of other boats by sight. Running lights make the position and direction of the surrounding vessels visible, as well as their approximate distance, and helps to avoid possible collisions. Radar is also highly practical in this respect, as it shows the size and distance of the vessel.

However, when sailing there can be situations where the sails need to be lowered, and with that, the lighting also needs to be changed. If travelling under motor powera steaming light (masthead light) must be turned on, which shines at the same angle as the side lights. When a sailboat is not under sail, it has to abide by the rules set out for power boats by COLREG (The International Rules for Preventing Collisions at Sea).

Lighting regulations when at anchor are again different. When at anchor at sea, only the anchor light should be on. According to the regulations this could be either a 360-degree white light atop the mast, or a light suspended from the boom, above the foredeck or on a furled genoa. If the boat is moored in port, the light is not normally used.

Navigation, GPS and maps

Nowadays, GPS and navigation aids integrated into the boat or that work as mobile apps are commonly used to determine the position of the boat. Modern technology is very accurate and reliable, but it is still worth understanding, reading and checking your position on paper nautical charts. After all, almost any skipper will tell you that their GPS or navigation system has at some point told them they were on land, even when tens or hundreds of metres from shore. Thanks to nautical charts, you will not only know of possible danger spots, but also lighthouses, enabling you to easily and accurately determine your position with the help of a compass. Each lighthouse is different, being lit and flashing in a unique way. A nautical chart will tell you how to identify a lighthouse by the number of flashes, their frequency and the colour of the light. To determine your exact position, you’ll then need two lighthouses in sight that serve as reference points for each other.

Safety is paramount when sailing at night

Even during the day, there are clear rules regarding the movement of the crew on board. Basically, the crew should not stand unless they are engaged in maneuvers. In all other cases, they should be sitting on benches, at the side of the boat when heeling, or in the cabin. Apart from the fact that a standing crew member could obstruct the helmsman’s view, it also poses a greater risk of falling overboard. If you’re interested in getting to know this subject in more detail, check out our article Sailing Etiquette A to Z.

At night, the rules are even stricter to ensure the crew remain as safe as possible and avoid damaging the yacht. If a crew member is on deck at night while sailing, they should wear a lifejacket and ideally be attached to the boat with a lifebelt or harness.

Except for really experienced seafarers, the rule of thumb is that there should be at least two people on board when sailing at night. And the captain should schedule shifts so that there are always two rested crew members on board. After all, you need to be doubly vigilant when sailing at night, and staying awake all night is certainly not conducive to alertness — especially when manoeuvring or entering port. For the same reasons alcohol is prohibited when night sailing. While during the day, crew members other than the helmsman can toast Neptune or have one glass of wine or beer, drinking alcohol is not permitted during a voyage at night. By all means celebrate a successful journey upon arrival in port at a local tavern, but it definitely pays to keep a clear head at sea.

Specifics of night sailing and boat handling

Steering and controlling the boat is not particularly different during the day and at night. There are just a few nuances to make sailing that bit smoother. If you’re on a vessel you know well, that’s one thing, but if you’re on a charter boat, it’s worth marking the sheets and other lines so that you know your way around in the dark.

Sailing at night, it is also important to assess the weather conditions well. What you would normally do during the day can be significantly more challenging at night and requires a more careful assessment of weather conditions and weather patterns. It is always better to choose smaller sails and if you have even the slightest doubt about anything, postpone the trip. 

When entering a harbour or sailing close to shore, be doubly cautious. There are several risk factors. During the day, the surrounding boats, the rocks and the potential hazards on the surface and below are visible. At night you have to rely on navigation, charts and lighting. When entering the harbour, charts and GPS can provide you many clues but lights can cause issues. For example, you might get dazzled by the light from the shore, the anchor lights of other boats are easily confused with the lights on land, and, last but not least, you may encounter poorly lit fishing boats. However, if you keep in mind all of these potential risks, you will arrive safely in the harbour.

The magic of night sailing

When compared to sailing during the day, night sailing places more demands on the captain’s experience and knowledge of sailing regulations. But it is also a truly romantic experience. Millions of stars glistening in the night sky and the waves sparkling in the moonlight. If you’re lucky, sailing out of the mist from land on a clear night with a near full moon, it will seem almost like daylight.  If you’re serious about sailing and steering your boat, there are other benefits to night sailing. Navigating at night sharpens the senses and enhances the sailing experience as well as your experience of the sea itself. It truly gives a whole new meaning to sailing. But if all you want is to just enjoy yourself, night sailing is one of the most romantic experiences you can have.