Essay by Gwen Hamlin

Why We Sail at Night
An Explanation for Nonsailors

The question has been posed - why do we sail at night? The main reason for sailing at night has to do with arriving at your destination in good daylight. We are not familar with many of our destinations; but even for places we do know, it is always sound practice to arrive with plenty of daylight available for maneuvering. When the trip takes longer than the eleven hours of daylight available, it becomes necessary to either leave or arrive in the dark. Leaving in the dark is usually preferable because presumably, you can see your departure area well enough to set up a safe way out. This is not always true. In Los Roches (Venezuela), we could not comfortably leave our anchorage without daylight because of shoals scattered around. Fortunately, that was a short enough trip we would still arrive in the afternoon.

The trip to San Blas (Panama) from the Rosarios (Colombia) was 140 miles. Our usual speed ranges from 5 to 6 miles per hour (pretty slow, huh!). Our speed is also affected by currents (with us or against us) and how big the waves are. Before we set out, we calculate the time range it is likely to take us to make the trip - 23-28 hours for 140 miles - and then figure out what time we need to leave in order to arrive in daylight. We try to have a big hedge factor in case we go slower than we expect. In this last case, we left at 9:30am from the Rosarios (a place we needed good light to leave) but we went faster than we expected, 6-7 knots, so in the early morning hours we had to take in sail and try to slow the boat down so that we would arrive with good sunlight.

Once you see a place, you may realize that your GPS waypoints could get you in safely even in the dark. But, in a place like San Blas, there are many shallow reefs and the area is poorly charted...probably last sounded by one of Columbus's guys! If major shipping isn't involved, the charts can be pretty antiquated. We have charts, but our best reference is a cruising guide with hand drawn chartlets of the whole area. These chartlets are in black and white, so I spent a couple of days coloring them in with highlighters (there are about 50 of them!) so we can more quickly tell islands, from reefs, from rocks! But even with these, we will do all our moving around the San Blas between 10 AM and 2 PM when the shallow reefs will stand out clearly in the sun.

It is amazing how many people don't stop to think how sailboats travel long distances. People think we stop and anchor for the night, but a second thought will recall that the ocean is way to deep to put an anchor down. You can "heave-to", a process where you use the sails to keep the boat in one place, or use a sea anchor ( a kind of parachute that creates drag in the water) but these procedures are usually called upon only in real rough conditions or by single-handers who need a real good rest. Most cruising crews just keep a watch schedule through the night, with one person up and one trying to sleep. Frankly, on single overnight passages, the body rarely gets the message. By the third day of a longer trip -- like the 3 1/2 day trip we made on Whisper two years ago straight from Trinidad to the Virgins -- one's body settles into the pattern, which obviously requires some sleep during the day as well.

Night sailing obviously has a few potential pitfalls, but most of these are overcome by modern technology. Radar, which we have on the boat, paints a clear picture of obstacles, which we call targets, and tells you exactly how far away they are. If we are worried about stuff too small to show up on radar, we have a night scope, a kind of military infrared monocular, which makes it look like day on the darkest night! Mostly we just try to time our passages with moonlight, as we did the other night, where we never even turned on the radar!

Also, no one leaves the cockpit at night without a harness on. On passage we have what are called "jacklines" which are webbing straps running from bow to stern on each side of the deck. The harness has a line with a big clip that hooks around the jackline and slides along the deck as you walk forward or aft. The one thing we absolutely never do at night is fish! It's hard enough to deal with a big fish in the daylight!