Sailing at Night

What is it really like?

How scary is it?

One of the biggest question marks in my mind before we started cruising was sailing at night. It’s hard to find good information about it or a video showing what its like because of course: it’s very dark!

So, as you can pretty much learn some sailing theory online from Youtube or other websites and Apps it’s very hard to know what to expect when the sun goes down. First things first: I love it. To be honest most of the time the night is my favourite time of any passage. There are some exceptions which I will explain later.

‘My mind settles down and often I sit there for hours just listening to the ocean and the boat”

Our first Overnight Sail

Falmouth, UK  – Canary Islands, at the End of November 2020

The first overnight sailing (or rather motoring) we ever did on Adhara was leaving Falmouth in the UK to cross the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay. It was at the end of November, the first night of our passage to the Canary Islands. Not really the ideal time of the year but the weather looked good and we had experienced crew with us. The nights during this time of the year are long and cold but we were lucky and we had a bright full moon and an unforgettable sunrise just when we saw the coastline of Brittany on the horizon. It was cold and there was no wind at all but it gave us a first taste of night time navigation. Do you remember all those light signs you had to learn when you did your skippers license? Three red lights? One green and one white? It was so abstract and so hard to remember!

Well, it turns out they are actually extremely useful to know when going through the night. I remember sailing along the coast of Portugal with a lot of traffic from Cargo ships and fishing vessels. It was so helpful to know where they were headed and if they were potentially coming our way, just by identifying their lights! Not everyone has AIS, and fishing boats especially are known to turn AIS off.

Where is everybody going?
Cockpit Views as the Sun goes down

Things to look out for


1. Learn Your Lights! 

Although identifying lights help a lot it can also get a bit confusing sometimes. When we were about 200 nautical miles to the Canary Islands I was sitting in the cockpit during my shift on a starry night when I noticed the yellow deck lights of a big cargo ship on the horizon. I checked the screen for an AIS target but could not find one and when I looked back at the light again it was suddenly much bigger and closer than a minute before. My heart started racing and I was just about to run down below to alert the crew when I realized that it was actually the rising moon that I was looking at. It’s not only the sleep deprivation. Evaluating lights on the horizon appropriately is a challenge! Many times, you have to take a second look to see if you are looking at a mast light or a star on the horizon. When you’re offshore, with no light pollution around you can see the stars all the way down to the horizon – it’s incredible!


2. Stay in the Cockpit and watch the Night! 

One of my favourite things about night sailing is seeing the ocean starting to light up in green and white when the bow of the boat is slicing through the waves. The bioluminescent light is actually millions living organisms that you cannot see during the day. We have seen these glowy lights in every ocean we have been cruising so far and during a quiet night on the Atlantic we noticed dolphins coming towards our boat. When they came closer, they looked like neon green torpedos about to hit Adhara. It was an amazing thing to watch and until this day is definitely one of my fondest memories.

Things to prepare for the Night

3. It can be dark – very dark! 

Of course, there are a couple of downsides to sailing at night. When there is no moon or overcast it can be quite dark and disorienting. Surprisingly you can still see the outlines of clouds but it is definitely harder to spot big clouds or squalls which could have a lot of rain and wind in them. In that case we are happy that Adhara is equipped with radar which we fire up at night and helps us see squalls miles in advance.

4. Snack Time!

Night time is snack time! It might not be the healthiest thing but if you sail through the night, or have to get up at 2am for your shift we inevitably get hungry. Even more so when it’s cold! Prepare a good dinner before you leave (Casserole Dishes in the Oven are perfect and can be reheated easily or even eaten cold), make some tea and have snacks ready. Salty Pretzels are our favorite but sweets are also nice and comforting!

A Cruise Ship is as bright as a city at Night
Bioluminesence is hard to capture

When Things can get scary

5. Try to avoid Landfall at Night

We try to avoid arriving at new destinations at night. There are a couple of things that can make sailing at night close to land uncomfortable. Often times big masses of land deflect the wind and it can quickly increase by 10 to 15 knots when coming around a cape. It is much harder to spot white caps on the water or other signs of an increase in wind when it’s dark. Another thing to consider when approaching land at night is that often times fishermen put their nets where the ocean floor rises to around 40m of depth. It is already very difficult to spot these nets during the day as they might only be marked with empty transparent PET plastic bottles. Getting close to shore with a line wrapped around your prop is not a nice way to start the day! So, when we arrived in Martinique after our Atlantic crossing, we slowed down the boat intentionally to avoid arriving at night. We sneaked into the anchorage of St Anne just past sunrise on a beautiful morning

Sometimes it can also be quite difficult to spot navigation lights of other boats when you are going towards a lively coast with a lot of city lights. When we arrived in Estepona in the very south of Spain, just before going through the strait of Gibraltar we were approaching land and for a period of time we could not match the lights on land with the navigational charts. As the current was quite strong and we had slowed the boat down significantly our bow was pointing 40 degrees off where we were actually going. It took us a while to realize that as we could only see lights but no landmarks for reference.

There’s nothing quite like it

All of these disadvantages aside, for me sailing at night during passages are among the best things about cruising. The boat is quiet and everybody else is asleep. You can only hear the sound of the ocean and see the lights of the stars and moon. My mind settles down and often I sit there for hours just listening to the ocean and the boat. And the best thing is that every night ends with a beautiful sunrise.

Happy sailing everyone,

Stuff to make Sailing at Night more fun: