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  • Writer's pictureDieter Peschkes

Sailing at Night

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Sailing at night can be both rewarding and challenging. On a summer’s night, under a full moon and on a downwind run, it can be one of the greatest sailing pleasures. However on a winter’s night in strong winds, cold and limited visibility, it can be challenging and stressful for many reasons.

But if you want to get the most out of your cruising or intend to undertake yacht deliveries, being comfortable sailing at night is an important skill and good preparation can make it easier.

Skippers would traditionally try to plan their arrival into ports during daylight hours as much as possible, to negate night sailing. However modern advancements have made night sailing safer. Chart plotters and AIS all help.

But even with modern developments, keeping a good watch and ability to use lights for position fixing is still essential. Not all vessels have AIS and similarly there is always that time your plotter/AIS unit fails.


Before leaving the marina:

  • Check torches are working and you have spare batteries

  • Crew familiarise themselves with the boat, location of emergency equipment

  • Familiarise the crew with the deck lay out in the light, reefing procedure.

  • Establish a watch system. To read more about watch systems check out our article on watch keeping.

  • Check your navigation lights work, consider having emergency battery powered back ups.

  • If the passage is over several nights the watch system is really important. On delivery trips we often find it takes about three days for your body to settle in to the rhythm of a watch system and once in it, it’s best not to break it if possible.

If lines are lead back to the cockpit through clutches, it is a good idea to label these so they can be found quickly at night if required. Some labels now are luminous in the dark so a torch is not needed limiting the sudden reduction in night vision when eyes are exposed to a bright light.


Our eyes take some time to adjust to the dark for our night vision to kick in and it happens in three phases.

First the pupils dilate to allow in as much light as possible. This can be anything from a few seconds to a minute.

Second, the cone cells in the eye adapt through chemical changes due to the absence of light. This can take up to ten minutes.

Finally rod cells which are responsible for black and white vision contain rhodopsin, which is reactivated in the absence of light. This takes several hours to fully adapt to dark. About the time of a full watch (so just as you go to bed!) you should be reaching your optimum night vision!

Although our eyes are good at adapting to the dark over several hours, it is destroyed within seconds of our eyes being exposed to a bright light.


All crew members should have a torch. A weak torch is good for finding lines at night without damaging night vision too much. A head torch with a red light/filter is better as red light has less damaging effect on night vision and it allows hands-free operation. However when turning to talk to someone face to face, it is still a good idea to point it down or turn it off.

Tip: If you think a vessel has not seen you at night, even the weakest torch shown on the mainsail can create a very visible large bright white triangle to gain attention.

It is a good idea to have a powerful spotlight on deck for rig checks, emergencies and looking for unlit buoys when entering harbours.

When sail trimming try and sail the boat on feel as much as possible. If you have to use a torch, use as weak a torch as possible and alert others on watch before using it so they can divert their eyes.

Below decks red lights are crucial for crew preparing to come up on watch. T here is nothing worse than coming out from a bright environment straight into the dark of night. More and more new yachts seem to not fit these, but if you intend to sail at night it is worth fitting some or fitting red filters/painting the lens red for night-time lighting.

If you have two separate light circuits below, consider replacing the lights on one of the circuits with all red filters.

Instruments should be dimmed at night, screens on plotters especially, but remember to turn the brightness up before sunrise or it can be difficult to see and find the setting once it gets light again and the screen is still dark.

A lot of skippers will routinely reduce sail area at night, especially if sailing short handed.

If you are not racing there is no need to fly an asymmetric or spinnaker at night, and if conditions are squally it is a good idea to reef the main – after all it is easier to start the engine in a lull to give you those extra knots than have to wake people up to put in a reef, especially if you have to leave the cockpit to do so.

Reefing lines and halyards can be marked at the correct tensions where they exit the clutches to avoid over tensioning. This is useful if using an electric winch which has no feel and could possibly cause damage to sails if over tensioned. A loop of whipping twine tight on the line can be used for this, as it can be felt and seen, or if you are on a delivery for a few days maybe mark the line with a permanent marker.

Mark the centre of the wheel for crew unfamiliar with the vessel. Often they will have a turks head knot at the centre, but anything else can be used if you are only temporarily sailing the vessel.

If you do have an issue with a sail forward at night, an asymmetric or furling issue with a genoa, a working deck floodlight is very useful, although they can fail and sometimes can be too bright. Just an ambient light will suffice to highlight the issue. In this case, provided there are no other vessels near by that can be confused, the steaming light can sometimes throw enough light out to see the issue, although once it is resolved it is important the correct night time lights are shown.


As already mentioned, a good watch system is crucial. Just as important is a well-fed crew, so ensure if possible there is a good meal in the evening before settling in to the night watches and there are snacks available for crew through the night. Just add hot-water snacks are easy, warming and can be made without disturbing sleeping crew. Rice pots, pot noodles are just two examples.

Depending on the climate and the vessel, set up two or three hour watches are usually long enough. Any longer can cause extreme tiredness if sailing for weeks without stops.

If you have enough crew, setting up a watch system with two people on watch enables sail changes to be carried out without the need to wake up off-watch crew. Having company can also make the watch more enjoyable. Some of the most interesting/weirdest conversations I have ever had were at 3am on a calm night discussing other vessels or landfall.

Personal equipment for crew to consider includes strobe lights attached to lifejackets and a personal EPIRB/AIS unit. Ensure your jackstays are in good order in case your crew have to leave the cockpit area for any reason.

Finally, make sure you are familiar with night time navigation lights, there are lots of apps available to help you familiarise yourself with these lights, Safe Skipper being our preferred.

Remember with proper planning and a well-equipped boat, night sailing need not be daunting and can be one of the most rewarding aspects of sailing.


Owner & Manager of Oceantrax Yacht Deliveries


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