Nighttime on a boat can be magical. Everything, even familiar territory, takes on a new feel which can be strange but far from scary. In fact, boating at night not only lets you potentially venture farther in one outing, it can also become your favorite way to spend time aboard.
Boating overnight can include either navigating and maneuvering in the dark, or spending a safe night at anchor or in a slip. Let’s break down these two concepts and highlight some tips for how to do each.
Under Way at Night
Whether you’re coming back from a waterfront dinner, taking a moonlight cruise, or heading to a distant anchorage, you’ll need to be ready for nighttime operations.
1. Prepare the boat and check the safety gear
Locate all personal flotation devices (PFDs), put fresh batteries into your headlamps and flashlights and place the binoculars near the helm. Check that the engine, radio and electronics are in good working order. Test the running lights and bilge pumps.
Gather your crew and lay out the rules of engagement including staying in the cockpit, wearing PFDs and safety harnesses, and following the protocol for an emergency be it crew overboard, collision, fire, etc.
Agree on communications with the captain and set a watch schedule. Know how to call for help in case of an emergency. It’s best to not single-hand at night due to fatigue. If you must make a passage at night alone, set an alarm for every 30 minutes in case you drift off while standing watch.
2. Boat defensively
Visibility is reduced and your senses may play tricks on you in the dark. Distances are harder to judge, and boats, markers, and obstacles are difficult to see. Slow down and be methodical in your navigation. Familiarize yourself with the charts for the area where you’ll be boating well ahead of time and learn the aids to navigation you’ll encounter along the way. Learn your light signals (on other boats and on shore) before departure.
Preserve your night vision by using only red lights inside the cabin or in your flashlights. Scan the horizon a full 360-dgrees every 15 minutes – more often if you’re in a busy traffic area. Turn off music and listen. You may hear fog horns, whistles, bell buoys, or other boats approaching.
3. Keep an eye on key data
Is the engine running smoothy with a steady temperature? Is the bilge pump running more often than it should be? Is all gear (and lines) secured? Trust your instruments but make sure your chartplotter is updated and your radar and instruments are working before you leave the slip. You should have checked the weather forecast before departure but keep an eye on changing conditions.
4. Dock and anchor with caution
When maneuvering at night, don’t use headlights or spotlights until you’re close to your destination whether that is a dock or an anchorage. Use light too soon and you’ll destroy your night vision. As the old saying goes, approach a dock only as fast as you’re willing to hit it. Advise crew to move slowly and deliberately when stepping onto a dock or tying lines to cleats. Double-check knots and hitches before leaving the boat unattended.
It may be difficult to judge a good anchorage in the dark including how far from shore or other boats you are when you drop the hook and whether there’s a current running. Slow down and take good bearings, making sure you have room to swing. Be extra careful when working with the windlass at night when fingers, clothes and hair can get caught before you notice. You may need to set an anchor watch with your crew or set an anchor alarm on your plotter.
Sleeping aboard a boat at night
- Temperatures on the water at night can be cool even in midsummer so plan on bringing extra blankets, sleeping bags, clothes and dry gear.
- Bring bug spray, especially in hot and muggy climates.
- If in a slip, check the lines before retiring for the night. Are you secured to good cleats, is there any chafe in the lines, and is there loose gear on deck that could go overboard in a breeze or be stolen?
- If anchored, check periodically that you’re not dragging anchor. The best way is to take two bearings as close to 90 degrees from each other as possible. Allow for some swinging room but overall, your bearings should be fairly constant. Don’t anchor in active traffic channels, near rocks and docks, or too close to other boats that may swing differently from you. Use proper scope of 7x the length of anchor line to 1x the depth.
- If at a sandbar, the boat should be pulled up and secured with lines to trees or an anchor on the beach in case the tide rises and sets the boat adrift.
- Secure kids and pets for the night. You don’t want anyone getting on deck and possibly going overboard.
The best experiences
Nighttime is the right time on a boat for so many reasons. You may see phosphorescence as fish swim by or a night sky like you don’t experience on land. You may hear dolphins exhaling as they amble by. You may be rocked gently to sleep in an idyllic anchorage.
Most importantly, running through the night will expand your horizons. Once you stretch your wings, you can explore distant marinas where you can get a slip to get that good night’s rest aboard. (Check out Snag a Slip for slip reservations as you travel.)
The key is preparation, vigilance and a methodical approach to everything from driving to tucking into a warm berth. Then, enjoy all that the wee hours on a boat can bring.