Sailing offshore under a sea of stars is an experience beyond compare. On a clear, moonless night, you’ll never see more stars from anywhere on earth. With nothing but the wind in the sails and the sounds of the boat for accompaniment, it’s a peaceful yet exhilarating experience. Add the soft puff of dolphins breathing off your aft quarter and their shapes like glowing torpedoes in the phosphorescent foam, and it’s hard not to wax a little poetic.
On the other hand, sailing close to shore at night in busy waters can be a panic inducing experience if you haven’t planned to be out late. There’s a reason most charter companies don’t let their customers sail at night – it can be dangerous if you’re not prepared and don’t know where you’re going.
But if you know what to expect and you’re ready for it, you can capture some of that offshore magic close to home.
One of the first things you see after dark, especially with no moon, is that the waters in front of you look different. Distances are very hard to judge, especially lighted buoys which all sort of look the same in a sea of green and red flashing lights. Unlit land is hard to see, and when you see it, it looms out from the darkness and you can’t tell how far away it is.
If you look long enough, you can filter out some of the noise and pick out individual lights, and in your home waters you’ll be able to identify those same comfortable marks you sail by on sunny weekends. Buoy lights are bright and look similar even when they’re far apart, but the careful eye can discern which look a little closer, and you’ll be able to make sense of them by comparing them to the charts.
You’ll need to rely on your eyes, but they can fool you since distances are harder to judge on dark nights. They’re not your only sense, and you’ll need to look at your charts and instruments.