Night Watch

I remember my first night watch well, sailing west across Lyme Bay in August. As night fell we became aware of a wonderful meteor shower, lots of sparkling lights dropping through the blackness of the sky; an unforgettable sight, made more spectacular by lack of light pollution out on the water. My second experience was a strange one. Departing from Dartmouth at midnight to catch the tide we found ourselves following a yacht with a bright stern light. We seemed to be catching her as the light grew brighter and higher. When it disappeared we were perplexed; had it been turned off or had the boat sunk? There was nothing on the radar. It was not until we were discussing the mystery with the rest of the crew that we realised it was no yacht we'd been following but a bright star or planet, possibly Venus, rising in the evening sky before disappearing behind a cloud.

A Different World

Night sailing can be magical, but the dark world out at sea is a very different place from the daytime environment. Familiar landmarks disappear and are replaced by flickering lights on the distant shore. It's much riskier than boating during daylight hours. You can't see where you are, where you're going, or where you've come from, and while it can be very enjoyable and even romantic, it requires special preparation, attention to detail and extra safety measures.

Be Prepared

Good preparation is essential for a successful night watch.

  • Work out a watch system taking into consideration the experience of your crew. The larger your crew, the shorter the watches can be, but when shorthanded and doing solo watches don't make them too long, just long enough for those sleeping to get a bit of rest. In my experience it's sensible for at least two people to be on watch together. It's easy to nod off on your own and another pair of hands is always useful.
  • Encourage those not on watch to go below and rest (even if they are not sleeping). They are no good to anyone hanging around getting cold and in the way and they will certainly not be ready for their watch.
  • For novices doing their first watch system, explain the importance of wearing life jackets, clipping on at night and having all their gear handy to put on quickly without disturbing others.
  • During consecutive night sails, make sure the watches are changed each night so each group does different times. Not many sailors want to permanently do the 12-4pm "graveyard" watch when they've neither sustenance from an evening meal, nor breakfast to look forward to.
  • Check your navigation lights and make sure they're all working and in the correct positions well before setting off, when you can easily correct any problems. You should of course make sure that you're displaying the correct lights for your type and size of boat – so do your research.
  • Make sure your crew understand how to interpret other vessel's navigation lights and understand the importance of good night vision which can easily be destroyed by bright torches and cabin lights. Even a binnacle-mounted chart plotter and instruments may compromise your night vision without you being aware of it.
  • Eat early before a night watch so those who are sleeping first have time to digest their meal. Encourage those on first watch to rest before going on duty.
  • Have some pre-prepared snacks so that night time hunger does not involve crashing around in the saloon and waking up the sleepers. For those on the dreaded 12-4am "graveyard" watch, here's a tip from a round-the-world sailor. Boil in the bag treacle pudding, eaten straight out of the bag, not only gives you a quick sugar hit and helps to keep you awake, but it warms your hands as well.
  • Stress the importance of quiet in the cockpit so the next watch can get their sleep. Music and loud conversation to keep the working crew awake or even the clattering of clips from their harness, is a definite no-no.


Distances are much more difficult to judge at night. You need more time to work out what all the lights mean and the distances and directions relative to your boat, so adjust your speed for the circumstances. There's no definite "safe speed" as so many factors are involved, such as visibility, wind, capabilities of the boat, competency of the crew etc. so common sense plays a big part.


Navigational Lights – It's just as important for other vessels to see you as it for you to identify them. There are legal requirements governing the navigational lights you must show between sunset and sunrise. These not only have a certain arc through which they can be seen, but must also be visible from a minimum distance. Make sure that all your crew know and understand the COLREGs.

Shore Lights – Bright lights on shore can cast misleading reflections on the water and navigation lights can become lost amongst the glare of sodium shore lights. Red and green traffic lights can be confused with the port and starboard lights on other vessels and buoys. In areas with a lot of background shore lighting consider using just deck-level side and stern lights rather than a tricolour at the top of the mast. Commercial vessels can see the lower lights more easily from the bridge against a background of water. The higher lights could easily be confused with the mass of shore lights.

Lights Below Deck - Make sure these are kept to a minimum. You don't want to be blasted by bright lights every time anyone goes below. Use dim lighting or red lights. The disadvantage of red lights is that they can cause strange effects and may make reading the chart difficult.

Torches, Searchlights And Binoculars – Whereas a powerful searchlight may be useful in a MOB situation, it will seriously destroy your night vision, as will a head torch, as you blind everyone you look at. A small torch inside the companionway is usually adequate for most needs and a good pair of binoculars is surprisingly good at bringing faraway lights into focus.

Change Of Watch

Make sure everyone knows the routine. Take the sting out of waking up the next watch by offering them a cup of tea and then writing up the log and putting a plot on the chart, while they're coming round. When they are on deck, brief them about their position, vessels you have spotted, weather, hazards and sail set. Then leave them to enjoy their watch while you turn in.

Special Dangers

Some areas are more dangerous at night when vision is restricted. These need extra care and you must keep a good look out at all times:-

  • If you're sailing close inshore, near headlands, beware of rocks and overfalls, obvious in daylight but invisible until you collide with one in the dark. The safest option is to sail further out.
  • Pot buoys are almost impossible to spot in the dark and you don't want to foul your prop by running into one. In some areas they seem to go on for ever, so don't push your luck, sail further out and hope you'll miss them.
  • Take extra care to avoid collisions with other boats. It can be far more difficult to judge their trajectory and speed in the dark, so even if they seem to be a long way off, take avoiding action early (even if it may not be necessary). Remember there's no guarantee that the other vessel has seen you. If you have radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System) make sure you know how it works and if the skipper doesn't volunteer the information - ask him.
  • Man Over Board is more dangerous at night time. Insist that everyone wears lifejackets and are clipped on at night. Clip-on as you come up the companionway into the cockpit in case anything should happen before you are safely connected. If moving out on deck, consider having two life lines so that you're never unclipped.
  • Always give fishing boats a wide berth at night, particularly if they are trawling as pair. Be aware that they are constantly changing direction and may not have seen you.

Call The Skipper

The skipper needs a well earned rest while you are on watch, but he'll not thank you for leaving him to sleep while you sort out something way outside your comfort zone. He is in charge of the boat and responsible for the vessel and safety of the crew. He's also usually the most experienced sailor on board. If you have the slightest amount of doubt – wake him up. It would be a very unreasonable skipper who made you feel you'd done the wrong thing.

Enjoy your night sailing and remember that without the dark you'd never see the stars.

Author – Dee White

Change units of measure

This feature requires cookies to be enabled on your browser.

Show price in:

Show lengths, beam and draft in:

Show displacement or weight in:

Show capacity or volume in:

Show speed in:

Show distance in: