The first night sail on board a catamaran
The first night sail in catamaran is always a unique moment... A mixture of excitement and anxiety, this very special sail requires good preparation of your catamaran, of course. But what a pleasure it is to discover a new anchorage in the early morning!
Let's call them Lucy and Jo. Delayed by a few preparation problems, they have to catch up the lost time and meet up with friends who are waiting for them in Madeira. But what are they doing? The weather forecast is good. Why are they stopping in almost every port on the Spanish coast? Back from two years around the Atlantic, they admit it openly and even laugh about it: they had never sailed at night. And they quite simply didn't feel capable of it. Until the day when the friends in question gave them a gentle telling off over the phone, saying that they weren't going to wait all autumn. So they had to make up their minds to lengthen the stages, point the bows of their beautiful catamaran directly towards Gibraltar, and face their first night at sea.
This is a natural apprehension at the start. In our society, fear of the dark is anchored in the collective imagination. And it's nothing new. In Greek mythology, wasn't Night the sister of Darkness and the daughter of Chaos? Sends a shiver down the spine, doesn't it? If you add that as the human eye is extremely sensitive, it makes vision one of most effective senses, and you are seriously inconvenienced when night falls. What's more, as the town or city dwellers that most of us are, living 24 hours a day in an artificially lit world, real, complete darkness becomes synonymous with a loss of references. Human beings are diurnal animals, and the night is experienced as a break. In our childlike mind, when everything disappears from our field of vision, everything dies. It is this ultimate anxiety which is at the heart of our fear of the dark. Add an unusual environment which moves, changes and is unknown, and it's no surprise that spending a night at sea worries a lot of sailors.
Seeing at night. This may appear antinomic, yet it is the key. Fortunately, nature has given human beings lots of resources. Outside your proud multihull, the sources of light are finally numerous: moon, stars, navigation lights, instruments… Unless you are sailing on a moonless night with a thick cloud cover, once your eyes are used to the darkness, you will be surprised by what you can make out. You will realise even better when you return inside. In the shelter of the coachroof and smoked perspex, the night catches up with you. So, to avoid spilling the thermos of coffee on the chart table, or missing a step when answering a pressing need, a minimum amount of lighting will be necessary. Referring to our biology notes, we opt for a few sources of red light in strategic places. In fact it is the rods in our retinas which are sensitive to light. And more precisely, rhodopsin, also called visual purple. A photosensitive proteinic pigment, destroyed by light and only re-forming progressively in the dark. But as its name may suggest (purple), it is not sensitive to red light. Hence the use of this lighting in submarines (to simulate night), aeroplane cockpits, and for the compasses and chart tables of our boats... Notably at sea, when there is just one rule: no white lights. Brief the crew well to avoid them shining a headtorch or a hand torch in people's eyes. Getting back your optimal visual sharpness after an exposure to light can take up to 40 minutes!
To complete our natural assets and our faithful torches (remember to check the batteries!) the equipment manufacturers offer us new products every year for greater safety. Beware nevertheless, as all these devices specify that they are only aids, and nothing can replace vigilance, human observation and good nautical common sense. In many regions, including sometimes in Europe, the cartography is not as precise as your GPS position. You can thus find yourself anchored in 5 metres of water, and positioned on land on your plotter. And an error in this direction is not the most awkward! As this is the case, for the approach to the coast, coping with the traffic, or even anticipating squalls, modern radars, which use less and less energy, are fantastic allies. If you superimpose the chart of the AIS readings, not only will very little escape you, but you will know the course and speed of what appeared until now as Non Identified Floating Objects. From there to knowing the name, size and destination is perhaps verging on the superfluous, but it's all included! The latest brilliant advance: boats are no longer all grey in the dark! First possibility, the simplest and therefore our favourite – night vision binoculars. Binoculars or monocular, tomorrow perhaps in the form of glasses; they are based on electronic amplification of light. Two other solutions exist: infra-red and thermal. Camera manufacturers use this latter technology. They can be either portable or fixed. In the latter case, fitted in your rigging and remote controlled, they can turn through 360° and be inclined by up to 90°. The image which then appears on your screen at the steering position and/or the chart table is completely amazing and makes Star Wars look seriously out of date!
For keen racers, technology is advancing, and phosphorescent sail shape visualisation strips could very quickly become illuminated, thanks notably to possible applications of fibre optics. In the meantime, habits, justified or not, (because I have no scientific explanation), are hard to get rid of. Thus Figaro sailors have for a long time required their white (to be lighter) spinnakers to have navy blue 'shoulders', so they can be seen better at night. Is this due to the contrast between the two colours? Or because the blue is the colour of the light? But whilst talking about sails, what should we think of the sensible advice given by the old sea dogs, who recommend that you systematically take in at least one reef at night? In your humble servant's opinion, if the weather is stable, it's not a panacea. Slowing the boat is never good for the morale, and can even become physically uncomfortable. When the speed is no longer in proportion to the sea state, your multihull is like a boneshaker at 5 – 6 knots on a road which feels very poorly surfaced, rather than speeding along at 8 – 9 knots or even more, surfing on the waves. What is true for the mainsail applies perhaps a little less to the headsails. The spinnaker notably is the nightmare of many nights. How many times is it rolled round the forestay in the early morning? Why not prefer the gennaker? More stable, more versatile, easier and safer to roll up on its furler than it is to furl the spinnaker (even with a snuffer), it's the ideal companion for the night. And if the trade winds are resolutely stuck to your sugar scoops, taking you on a dead run towards the pleasures of the West Indies, you can try attaching your gennaker to the windward bow. You will see that this will take care of course, speed and stability.
The secret: good preparation
Finally, preparing in advance, to have a maximum number of reference points and a minimum number of unpleasant surprises once the sun has set, is undeniably the best solution, for spending a serene night. A little check-list to give you an idea; to be completed and adapted according to your own experience:
- Walk round the deck: check the sails, the rigging, the anchor lashing, that there are no lines trailing in the water; untangle and coil up control lines so that dropping a sail or taking a reef can be carried out as smoothly as possible. Take in the fishing lines.
- Take out of their stowage and put within easy reach: warm clothes, shoes or boots, depending on the latitude, gloves, waterproofs, lifejackets, harnesses, life lines.
- Check that all your chosen means of lighting and the electronics work. Don't wait until the last minute to understand the sometimes devious illumination of the instruments. Adjust the level to the minimum, you will see that you quickly get used to the lowest level of lighting. In addition, this saves your batteries.
- Prepare your navigation for the night and if possible, get a last weather forecast.
- Have a good hot meal, and provide a thermos of hot water for coffee, tea or soup, depending on taste. Don't forget to have a stock of everyone's favourite nibbles, to make the time pass pleasantly, as at night you have the excuse that you need the calories to keep going.
- Organise the watches: neither too long (so you don't fall asleep) nor too short (so that those off watch can really rest). Without going into the too-complicated studies of sleep, the watches should of course be adapted to the number of crew members, and everyone's' state of fatigue, affinities or rhythms, and take account of who will be on watch at the key moments in the passage that you have anticipated. If you are spending several nights at sea, don't forget to organise a rotation of the watches, so that it's not always the same people who are lumbered with the dreaded 1am – 4am!
- Brief the crew on the night to come: waypoints, potential encounters, weather developments... Insist on the safety rules: never leave the cockpit when you are alone on watch, don't pee overboard, wear a lifejacket and clip on when you are going to carry out a manoeuvre. Don't hesitate to ask for help - to carry out a manoeuvre safely, in the case of the slightest doubt about possible collision course, when approaching the coast, or if the weather changes in one way or another. Remind the crew of the collision regulations, starting with the basic 'Red to red, go ahead...!'
- Provide a berth for each person. Certain saloons can be converted, by lowering the table, into a dormitory for children and off-watch adults. A good way of reassuring the children, but one which exposes them to the cold wind from outside, and the comings and goings of the watchkeepers.
For your 'first time', prefer ideally a cruising area you are familiar with. Take care with the weather situation, to limit the risks of encountering a complicated situation. Prefer mild temperatures, but always provide plenty of warm clothing. Even in the Tropics, a bit of humidity combined with a bit fatigue, can create a surprising contrast to the day's heat wave. Keep away from the coast and areas of heavy traffic (fishing, commerce). Don't try a night entry to a port straight away: at Concarneau, for example, at springs, on the evening of the 'fete des filets bleu' it is hard to distinguish the channel buoys amongst the colours of the fireworks! Finally, why not take advantage of the experience of a more hardened sailor (friend or professional skipper) by inviting him or her aboard for this first time?
There you are, you know everything. You are no longer anxious, and can therefore enjoy the magic of nights at sea: dolphins, just for you, phosphorescent plankton in your wake, the shooting stars... It's the opportunity to brush off your notions of astronomy by looking for the constellations you learnt about as a child. To listen to your favourite music without being disturbed. To take the time to reflect. To appreciate the calm when the children are sleeping. To be the fastest, during your watch. Or the slowest, as you wish. To enjoy the relative coolness of the night, if you are lucky enough to be sailing in a warm region. To trim the sails as you wish. To bake bread or brioche for breakfast for your favourite crew. To raid the stock of chocolate bars, incognito. At night, you are king (or queen). The boat belongs to you completely. Enjoy it soon; the hours pass quickly, you'll see!