With the right planning the rewards of cruising after dark can far outweigh the risks.
The sun is setting, but does that mean a day of boating is over? Absolutely not. There are plenty of reasons to stay on the water through the evening, either to extend a fishing trip or get more miles under the keel during an offshore run. Still, many skippers approach boating at night with fear and apprehension. That’s healthy and to be expected, but those who learn the skills necessary to navigate safely over the course of a long evening can be rewarded with unforgettable sunsets, clear starry nights and the amazing beginning of a new day on the water.
Manufacturers of marine electronics are doing their part to make night boating easier and safer. New radar units offer sharper, more accurate images, and night vision cameras provide a better view of your surroundings than ever before. But technology can’t help you manage the most important aspect of safety aboard the boat—your ability to stay alert.
Most recreational boaters who are new to night running will choose to be out for just one evening, and on the surface that sounds safer than manning the helm for multiple nights. But the truth is, this strategy can be risky, in large part due to the nature of sleep patterns. Skippers who often run long distances offshore know it takes several days for the body to fall comfortably into the sleep cycle necessary for extended voyaging. A recreational boater on a single overnight doesn’t have the opportunity to settle into that routine. There are, however, some ways to make the process safer and easier.
In addition to the nervousness that a crew can feel before an overnight run, there is excitement, and everyone on board usually wants to share in the experience. Unfortunately, this can mean everyone gets tired at the same time. Then, when it gets late, one of the tired crew is left at the helm alone while others try to get a few hours of sleep. Instead, you should ask one person to get some sleep earlier in the day. By doing so, that person will be ready to take the helm later in the evening. If your boat has a two-person crew, setting a sleep schedule is critical to the success of an overnight run. Most people prefer shifts of three to four hours. The off-duty person who gets less than three hours of sleep will not be well rested, and for the helmsman, four hours at the wheel may be too long to stay on-duty. Ideally, you want a schedule that accommodates the individual preferences and traits of the crew. If one of you is more of a night person and naps easily in the afternoon, set the schedule to accommodate.
If you are running for multiple nights, it’s important to continue the shifts through the daylight hours so that crew members can achieve enough rest. Whether the off-duty crew sleeps near the helm will depend on your boat’s layout. It is typically best to rest somewhere removed from the helm, so radio chatter and alarms don’t disturb this crew member. However, it’s also important for the helmsman to be able to wake the off-duty crew should the need arise.
For the helmsman, it’s also important to keep at those tasks that can keep you alert, such as logging your position and engine readings at set intervals. The driver should also set an alarm on a smartphone or tablet that must be silenced every 15 or 20 minutes. Some autopilots have this alarm feature when engaged.
Good seamanship involves learning to operate a vessel in all conditions. The solitude and serenity of cruising after dusk can be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have on a boat. Just remember, your ability to stay alert at the helm could be the difference between a nightmare and a dream cruise.