When my alarm startles me awake at 2:45 am and bleary eyed contemplation of a three hour night watch soaks through my groggy consciousness, its hard to be stoked. Some sips of green tea later I emerge into the cockpit where a vast sky of stars illuminates the ocean. This scene and a good morning hug from a friend who is ready to take some rest usually brightens my spirits.
The most glorious night sails have been downwind runs where Aldebaran the funky trimaran feels like battleship galactica in a sea of bioluminescent stars, with me at the helm, ruminating on life’s mysteries solo or with a friend, pushed along by the earth’s wind energy. We’ve been lucky so far, but I can imagine the worst night sails involve tough upwind bashes, choppy seas, cold nights, seasickness and sail changes which involve foul weather gear and gratuitous use of the sailing harnesses and jack lines that we rely on at night when working on deck to make sure no sailor is lost.
I’ve been dipping my toes in sailing for a few years now, but my first night sail with me solo at the helm was during our first big crossing, from just south of Ensenada to the San Benitos Islands, a small archipelago about halfway down the coast of Pacific Baja. Since then, we’ve put a few other night sails under our belts as we hustled down Baja, trying to get ahead of hurricane season, and just finished another big 38 hour, 220 mile crossing through the Sea of Cortez to Sinaloa on mainland Mexico.
With the normal open vistas of the ocean cloaked in darkness, night sailing requires more careful and frequent consultation of all our technology. We are also usually far offshore, with no land or landmarks in sight, so our compass, chart plotter and routing software on our GPS unit become more important.
On clear nights, these gadgets help set the big picture routes, but more delightful is to sail by the stars, always keeping a certain constellation or star in position near a fixed point like our solar panels or one of the stays that hold up the mast. My knowledge of the stars has expanded thanks to Kristian’s classic 1952 copy of The Stars, by H.A. Rey (the author of Curious George) a book I highly recommend to anyone wanting to develop their knowledge of the night sky.
We also consult our AIS (Automatic Identification System, which tracks speed and direction of large ships) to ensure our paths won’t collide with other vessels, and use our radar to see land outlines, ships, islands, etc. If the engine is on we keep an eye on various gauges.
Our autopilot, affectionately named “Ziggy” has been on the fritz lately, so we’ve had to steer manually. Kristian spent dozens of hours troubleshooting it and when we finally got to Cabo learned that it needed a new $600 part, which someone will hopefully bring down soon. Ah the joys of boat ownership….
At night we’ve come to rely on Luci lights – nifty inflatable LED globes that can be set to different colors, creating cool night moods in Aldebaran’s cockpit. Under sail we run the Luci lights on red to ensure our night vision stays intact.
We also have jack lines and harnesses, which we clip on at night if one needs to leave the cockpit. Falling overboard at night could be fatal, particularly when the sails are up and precise turning and steering is more difficult. The jack lines run the length of both sides of the boat, and you wear a harness to clip into it. Life lines are rope set up to run the perimeter of the boat to add an extra measure of safety.
Our first night sails we doubled up and I enjoyed getting to learn new things about my friends or have those philosophical talks that seem to happen in the middle of the night. Since then we’ve been doing solo shifts so we can sleep more and I’ve been enjoying silent contemplation or listening to music, audiobooks, and podcasts as I enjoy the tropical nights in my boardshorts. Ernest Shackleton’s epic tale of The Endurance, the story of 26 men stuck in ice in Antartica and their adventures escaping have reminded me how comfortable and good our lives are. Tim Ferris’ interviews with people doing great things inspire me and keep me in touch with the frenetic world back at home.
Night sailing has been a way for us to keep our relatively aggressive cruising schedule on track and save more daylight hours for diving, surfing, fishing, hiking and enjoying our adventures. Its become a welcome bit of “me time” in the close quarters of boat life. I love the magic of steering a boat pushed by wind with the stars and moon as my guides, bioluminescent trails off our hulls our only momentary footprints on the vast ocean. Its a soul satisfying and poetic way to travel.