Thursday, October 13, 2011

Night Passages

For many cruisers, overnight passages can’t be avoided.  It could be a necessity - because it will take you at least one night or more to arrive at your destination while under sail or motor-sailing. Or, it would be a choice – because you are faced with a sail of 10 hours or more and if you leave in the morning, there is a chance you won't make it before sunset to anchor safely with good light should you be delayed, or not sail as quickly as planned. Therefore, the option you have to consider is to leave in the evening around sunset, so that even if delayed, you will arrive in the morning with plenty of light for safe anchoring and avoiding hazards.  In any event, I think you will find sailors who love overnight passages and some who just prefer not to do them at all. 

Chris and I have done several overnight passages in our past lives - him in the Navy, both of us in yacht club distance races with six to twelve crew members. Together on Troubadour our longest passage was two nights, three days. Even with this experience, overnight passages can still be a bit scary for me. 

Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, My!

Chris, always the Navy commander, uses rational thinking to dispel my misplaced fears. He'll say, "What are you afraid of?" And I'll say something like, "the wind, the waves, the storms I can't see coming, stuff floating in the water, something breaking."

Chris will give me a perfectly logical explanation for each of my concerns, and although the fear hasn't totally seeped out of my veins, at least it's more manageable. I mean, I can't do anything
about the wind, and I have an idea on what's predicted, and it would sure be nice to sail, and I can trim the sails, and.... now, what was I afraid of? 

I guess, when I read this, it seems that the weather and sea state are my biggest concerns. So, armed with the mantra “knowledge is power,” before we pull anchor or slip the mooring we check the weather, listen to Chris Parker, and make our plans according to our comfort and our experience. This is important to consider when doing a night sail. If we followed more experienced friends out there, we might get into trouble. Therefore, we make plans based on our abilities and the capabilities of our boat. Yeah, at times, once we are out there, we might not like how it feels, but we get to expand our comfort zone for our next journey.

Safety gear

The use of safety gear on Troubadour for night sails and long passages is the same. It includes setting up the jacklines from cockpit to bow. We always have our ditch bag and EPIRB ready and near the companion way. We wear our life vests and tether ourselves to the jacklines if we have to leave the cockpit. Neither one of us leaves the cockpit unless the other is in the cockpit; and, absolutely no peeing over the side at night lest you fall in and the mate doesn’t see you. We also each have our own headlamp that sets to red light to protect our night vision (interior lights are kept off). We also talk through man overboard procedures, VHF communication, and navigation rules of the road. Knowing the rules of the road helps ease concerns about ship traffic at night. (Is that ship coming toward me or going away from me?) Chris also removes the dinghy engine and secures it either in the dinghy or in the lazarette. This is a safety maneuver to keep the dinghy engine from being caught by the seas and knocking the dinghy around on the davits. In addition, we let our family members and friends know our plans. And we regularly use our SPOT locator to indicate when we’ve arrived at a new destination. On our sail around Haiti we sent the “OK” signal from our SPOT locator every six hours.

Meals underway

Preparing for the overnight sail also includes meal planning. Truthfully, overnight meal planning on Troubadour is not all that different from day sail meal planning. I pre-make nearly all the dinner meals depending upon the number of nights we will be underway. You can't entirely predict the conditions, so having some meals ready to go is always helpful. In advance of the passages, I will usually make rice & beans, or choose simple meals such as opening a can of chili/stew to heat on the stove for dinners, making sure that my stove retainers are accessible for securing the pots. I prepare sandwiches/wraps with veggies/fruit for lunch, and breakfast is cereal or English muffins or Pop-Tarts (yes! we eat Pop-Tarts) - toasting these latter two items while the generator is running.

The overnight passage also includes pre-setting up the lee cloth in the main salon to make a comfy crib-like sleeping area; getting the headlamps accessible; having the foul weather gear in easy reach (even in the heat of the tropics it gets damp at night), and stuffing the snack bin. Snacks include baggies of popcorn (made in advance); granola and Clif Bars; peanuts; and chocolates. I boil water to pour into a thermos allowing each of us to create our own hot beverage - coffee singles for Chris, tea or hot cocoa for me. This works for us.  

Chris settles in for night passage to Royal Island, Bahamas

Night  watches and sleeping

Our night watch schedules are still being worked out. In the beginning we just took turns sleeping when we got tired. But that doesn't work well for two people who like their sleep. What has worked on our last several passages is a 3-on 3-off schedule overnight, with naps during the day if on a long passage (like our passage around Haiti). The first watch is mine, 7-10pm. While I'm on watch, Chris usually reads and snoozes because this is too early for bed for him.  I take the first watch to "shake out" those fear bugs. Chris will offer to snooze in the cockpit, if I am especially anxious. We wake each other ten minutes prior to the watch, which gives us time to wash our faces/brush our teeth, get coffee or tea and a snack. We discuss our position, the conditions and ship contacts/sightings. Then we change watch. Chris uses music as his "timer" scanning the horizon after every couple of songs on RadioMargaritaville. I like the three hour watch because it is long enough for me to stay awake and not get too nervous. During my watch I read (red-light on head lamp), watch the sea near and far every ten minutes through the binoculars for ship traffic, and check the radar every 30 minutes for ships or heavy clouds that might indicate storms. I check the sails for adjustments and watch our instruments for changes in the wind speed or direction and check our position and make course changes when we reach waypoints or as needed. Sometimes I do seated yoga stretches or just watch the bioluminescence in our wake and sing along to RadioMargaritaville. Jimmy's on night watch with me!  I guess with all this going on, who has time to be scared?
Although a necessity, sleeping doesn’t come that easily. There are noises that keep us awake: the whoosh of the ocean rushing by the hull, the whistling of wind in the rigging, the creaking of the floor boards or jiggling of the jib car or mainsheet shackles…and sometimes the thrum of the engine. The darkness only seems to magnify these sounds, but after a time you just sort of let them hypnotize you into a state of rest. I know I’ve slept on my off watch, but I promise you it has never been the full three hours, more like half of that time.

 Troubadour arrives at dawn at Puerta Plata,
Dominican Republic after an all night sail.
A new day dawns

Once I do get the gremlins out my mind, the beauty of the moonlit sky or the stars is mesmerizing. I search for constellations or planets, watch for falling stars and marvel at the Milky Way. Watching for the first signs of morning light on the horizon infuses me with the peace of knowing we made it through the night and we’re ok. Chris is usually at the helm at sunrise, and I awake to find we are almost near our destination. Time to put on a pot of coffee and take in the morning.

Our next night sail is likely to be from the British Virgin Islands to St. Martin sometime in early spring. I’ll listen to RadioMargaritaville, read a book, watch the stars and maybe not be so scared
this time.

Will you share what you've learned on your overnight passages, what works for you? We'd love to hear from you!

 Troubadour at rest after a 320 NM passage to Ile a Vache, Hiati.

Our experience

Here are some of our overnight passages, and some brief comments – most had beautiful sunrises and sunsets, lights glowing on island landscapes, and even dolphins playing in our bow wake.

Ponce Inlet, FL to St. Augustine, FL (shakedown cruise) - 18 hours/ 50 NM

We left on the afternoon high tide during daylight; an offshore storm overtook us bringing 35 kt wind gusts, lightning, thunder and sheets of rain. When the storm passed, conditions were flat
calm. After hours of sailing at 2 kts, we ended up motoring into St. Augustine in the late morning.

Marsh Harbor, Abaco Islands to Royal Island – 16 hours/90 NM

We wanted to arrive in the morning for best light to see in the anchorage. After leaving the Sea of Abaco through Lynard Cut, the ocean trip began with wind on the stern and following seas,
putting us ahead of our estimated arrival, and just when you get excited about that, the wind fell off, but the swells continued. Yuck. We put a preventer on the boom and motor sailed watching
the lights of Nassau in the distance.

Big Sand Cay, Turks & Caicos to Puerta Plata, DR - 15 hours/ 100 NM

Perfect.  We sailed the whole way; arrived early morning.  Chris was asked by a tug and tow to change course, and though we were under sail he agreed to fall off to pass astern of the HUGE
barge being towed. This is the rule of the road known as “the rule of gross tonnage”.

Manzanillo, DR to Ile a Vache, Haiti - 60 hours/320 NM

We sailed until we arrived in the Windward Passage where we ... lost wind, and were forced to motor between the “arms” of Haiti. After rounding the SW point, we were finally able to sail for
the last few hours into Port Morgan.

Catalina Island, DR to Ponce, PR - 28 hours/175 NM

We motor sailed into prevailing trade winds to cross the Mona Passage during the night lee. We made 7 kts when the current was with us, about 4 when against the current or big swells.


  1. Great post Linda! This has a lot of information, and your comments from some of your overnight passages make me feel a little better! While we'll be a little anxious on our first night passage, we'll also be very excited!

  2. Great writing Linda! Super good tips for everyone to get something out of!! Cheers to you and Chris!


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