How to Sail at Night: 9 Important Tips!

The act of sailing is like an extension of us, the people who built and perfected the sailboats in the first place: it’s complex in form and in emotion.

Sailing gives you a feeling of freedom, confidence, self-sufficiency, it can be a way to release somber feelings and dig deep into a personal reflection.

It’s marvelous, but if you haven’t experienced it at night, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.

There’s untold natural beauty that you’re not going to see in the middle of the day. We’re all so used to this manufactured world around us that we forget to take a deep breath and just explore what’s around us.

If you’re planning on a night sailing trip (which you should definitely do), we advise using the knowledge from these tips under your belt to ensure everything goes off without a hitch.

1. Invest in a Quality Searchlight

Sailboat Searchlight

Visibility is important at night, that much goes without saying, but what often happens is that people underestimate how much power their spotlight actually needs.

Passing boats and ships in the night need to be able to see you, as well as port authorities and anyone working on the shore at night. For that, you need to objectively assume that your boat is a tiny lightning bug in a big open forest.

How are you going to make yourself bright enough that everyone will notice you?

The answer is in the lumen rating of your searchlight. Lumens help to define th7e light volume and power of a flashlight, lantern or a searchlight.

The higher the lumen output, the brighter it is, but you have to be careful. Over a certain amount, and you could actually blind other vessel captains or accidentally give off an SOS signal.

2. PFDs Are a Must

A PFD is a personal flotation device, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be wearing a constricting life jacket.

There are multiple PFD types available, including high chest pads with shoulder straps for better shoulder flexibility and range of motion, strip life jackets that don’t crowd your chest or arms, and full-sized zipper vests.

If you fall off a small vessel in the middle of the day, it’s easy to spot where you are, and once the boat has stopped you can get back on deck. At night, it’s like you become invisible.

There are the threats of the rudder/motor of the boat that you fell off of, being hit by a passing boat that can’t see you, or drowning after fatigue sets in over the course of hours.

If you’re the night watch on a small voyage, then your PFD is all the more important. It’s also a good idea to be tied on.

3. Learn the Language of Lights

Language Of Lights

So long as one of your crew has a working knowledge of the language of lights, you should be A-okay.

This is essentially when you see strobe lights off of upcoming ships or boats, and read them accordingly to proper navigate out of the way.

It’s also important so that you can ensure your boat is following light language protocol to prevent collisions from the perspective of the other sailors.

A green strobe light indicates the starboard side, the red light indicates the port side, and a sternlight (white light) only blinks off the back of the ship to let other vessels know which direction you are going in.

If they can’t see a sternlight, then they know that you are headed in their direction, and can change their path accordingly.

It’s important to learn codes for multiple lights and different blinking patterns before you head out on a night voyage.

4. Dress for the Occasion

During the day back on land, the ground absorbs a certain amount of heat from the sunlight.

This dissipates over the course of the night, but even when it does, the land remains more hospitable and balanced than the ocean does.

The ocean water reflects heat, it doesn’t retain or store it. You’ll need to dress accordingly: have waterproof trousers and a jacket handy.

The trick is not overpacking. Look at your charted course, and determine where you’re going, and do your best to research average local weather conditions for neighboring settlements for the time of year that you are traveling.

If you’re packing rather light, breathable shirts and fabrics, it’s important to bring a dry bag or waterproof backpack to keep them dry in the even of mild swamping.

5. Inspect Waypoints

Using GPS While Sailing

As time goes on, everyone is relying more and more on technology for just about everything.

We even have enhanced GPS navigators to use at sea, some of which can electronically steer your boat with AI.

To avoid errors, it’s important to keep the human element front and center, and manually inspect upcoming waypoints.

There was a famous issue in the Newport to Ensenada race a while back, where the sailors likely didn’t enter their waypoints properly and relied too much on technology.

We have the tech, but you should still strive to be a natural Wayfinder to the best of your ability. Keep a lookout and plan for waypoints properly.

6. Rock it Steady

The last thing you should be trying to do at night is hit full speed.

It’s about leisure and enjoying the beauty of the night, while also getting a little bit of light cruising in.

Keep the boat nice and steady and reduce your speed as much as possible. You can cover plenty of ground (well, water) at night if you have someone standing watch and you keep everything below one knot.

The primary issue with going fast at night is that if you and another vessel are headed towards each other at five or six knots, you’re only going to spot each other when it’s a bit too late to slow down.

It could make for some close calls. You can cover about twenty to thirty miles of ground over the course of the night while taking it slow, putting you in a better position than you started.

7. Stand Watch

Man Sailing At Night

If you’re going for an overnight trip or multi-day trip, you need a night watch, period.

If you’re going solo, sailing at night becomes more like anchoring at night and leaving your lights on.

If you’re going for the night just to sail around a bit, you’ll be the one standing watch.

This is actually one of the most tranquil times on any night fishing trip: the water is flowing quietly under the boat, there are uninhibited stars shining in the sky, and nothing but you and your thoughts.

Standing watch is imperative for spotting oncoming vessels, unexpected land masses, and enjoying some of the nighttime-exclusive beauties that we’ll be discussing later in this post.

Ideally, an overnight trip will consist of three people, allowing you each to have some leisure for the day as well as eight hours of maintaining/steering the boat, and you can alternate between night watch positions.

8. Your Eyes Take Time to Adjust

It takes an average of twenty to forty minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness.

If you’re cruising at sunset, you’ll gradually slip into your internal night vision, but it can still take some time to get acquainted with it.

During this period, you and other skippers on the water are at their most vulnerable state for a collision or mishap purely based on the lack of visibility.

If you’re waking up at 11:00 PM for night watch, don’t just take the shift immediately. Even though you had your eyes closed (which will help you adjust to the nighttime darkness better), it can still take a few minutes to calibrate, if you will.

9. Identify Fatigue

Sleeping While Boating

Our minds are often stronger than our bodies.

While your brain will fire off signals telling you that fatigue is about to overtake your body, we all have a bit of an ego and think we can muddle through. Even if you can, it’s not recommended.

Identify when you are fatigued, and immediately do something about it. Your body will feel lackadaisical, your mind will feel foggy, and your cognitive abilities will be greatly slowed down.

Decision-making, spatial awareness and reaction times will take a hit, so just take a load off and return to top deck when you’ve had proper rest.

What Are AIS Transmitters, and do I Need One?

An AIS transmitter stands for an automatic identification system, and it’s become an absolute necessity for night sailing.

This is basically your main way to avoid collisions.

While commercial charters and ships have preset channels that they follow, you could be one of five-hundred other night sailors on the water just looking to enjoy the night.

That’s a lot of opportunity for something to go wrong, but an AIS transmitter will constantly update local maritime traffic control stations on your location so that they can notify you via radio if there’s a potential collision coming up.

But do you need one?

If you like to keep it close to the coast, then it’s definitely something you need for night sailing. Some night sailors prefer to head out while it’s still light, sit five to ten miles offshore while they enjoy the night, and travel back during daylight.

There’s still an associated risk if international container ships are crossing nearby, but obviously a much lesser risk. An AIS is a good idea period, but it’s not exactly cheap.

A system with a halfway decent range is going to run around $3,000 to $5,000. It’s an investment, but a hefty one at that.

What’s it Like to Have to Sail at Night?

Sailing At Night

It’s very uneventful, and we mean that in the best possible way.

Night sailing puts you in an entirely different mental state.

If you follow our tips and you’re still awake, alert and ready to go, that’s good, but you can still enjoy the more tranquil parts of the night.

Sailing at night gives you a lot of time for personal reflection, to discuss things with yourself about your life, to view things in a clean and new perspective.

Everyone has a part of their life that they don’t like, and that shouldn’t be the case.

On the night waters, you’re removed from that potentially toxic situation and have the time to sort things out in your head.

It’s a life-changing experience if you can make it out there a couple times a year.

Apart from the excellent mental health aspects, there’s also a tactical element that you can’t ignore.

What’s it like to have to sail at night?

It’s exhausting after a while, which is why having a night watch is a necessity. You’re hardwired by this point in your life to sleep at night, and it can be a bit difficult to ignore that voice in your head telling you to go to sleep.

How to Spot Ship and Shore Lights While Sailing?

Spoting Shore Lights At Night Sailing

That’s what the language of lights is all about.

The issue is when you run into short vessels that are less than 23 ft long, where there are more lax laws on lighting at night.

Ideally, every boat and ship around you are going to have proper lighting (or spreader lights for even more visibility), which will indicate port, starboard, and stern, but if that’s not the case, you need a searchlight.

Whoever is standing watch is going to be listening to the waves and watching the waters to the best of their ability.

Other boats aren’t going to just move silently, and if they are, they’re moving slow enough for you to spot them and navigate out of the way.

Shore lighting will be present at ports and waypoints/points of entry, and so long as you communicate with the maritime traffic controller for larger ports (if you plan to dock at night), they’ll be able to guide you in properly.

Why Should You Sail At Night?

One of the main reasons that people enjoy night sailing is for the serenity coupled with fantastic views.

You’re not going to see these from your front porch at home, no matter how hard you try to look for it. If you’re going to spend time night sailing, you absolutely can’t miss:

The Sunset

Sailing At Sunset

Everyone romanticizes the sight of the sun dipping down over the horizon, but most of them have never seen the sight that you’re about to see.

The water reflects sunlight all throughout the day, no matter what angle it’s coming down, there’s a grand glisten to the water.

During the hours of sunset, the sun is hitting a specific angle of the earth as we revolve to its dark side, sending multiple colors and moods across the ocean waves.

It’s something that Kincaid couldn’t even capture in a painting, and you deserve to see it.


This magnificent sight isn’t something that you can see everywhere, but when it does appear it’s a magnificent sight to behold.

Sunlight reflects off the water, but a little bit of it penetrates the ocean (otherwise it would be pitch black any time your view dipped below the waterline).

This can essentially charge algae like your solar walkway lights at home, at which point they emit that light at night.

If a wave comes over the ocean and moves that algae around, it feels like the ocean is lighting a path exclusively for you.

Mix that with the view of bioluminescent fish and creates in the water, and you’ve got something that belongs in a Disney movie.

The Sunrise

Sailing At Sunrise

We’ve gone through the night, seen the glorious moon and dazzling stars, and now it’s time for it to come to a close.

Watching the sun peak over the earth is almost as wondrous as watching it disappear below the horizon.

When you’ve spent time with the sun as it goes away, and you’re there for the very next sunrise, it feels like greeting an old friend, like you’re in sync with something greater than an arbitrary time-based schedule.

If it sounds like this is getting deep, just bear with us: this is just a sample of the thoughts that go through your head when you’re night sailing.

Early Hours of Dawn

This is a tranquil, calm time that gets you prepared for the rest of the day.

You’re awake while most of the world around you is asleep, just getting ready for the day, and you can take in that silence and appreciate it.

Apart from the glorious views, this is when you’ll begin to prepare your day and feel like you got a great head start. By the time 10:00 AM rolls around, it’ll feel like the day is half over.

What’s Keeping You From the Night?

If you’ve yet to actually take to night sailing, then you owe it to yourself to see what all the fuss is about.

Your first-night sailing experience surely won’t be your last, just be certain to prepare adequately before any voyage, and keep vigilant while you’re out there.

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