Night Sailing

“Teed?” Hagg pokes his head down into Blue Eye’s cabin where I’m sleeping, “Can I get your advice on something up here?”

“Your bum looks great” I mumble, a little dazed and confused perhaps. Or maybe that’s just what ten weeks of living together on a small boat does.

We’re sailing through the night and currently crossing a shipping lane – imaginary channels in the sea that large ships have to transit to avoid collision. Unfortunately, every now and then we have to pick our way across them to get to our next destination, and it invariably coincides with the sun being on the other side of the world.

I clamber up into the cockpit and out into the night air, clad only in boxers, and squint in the direction Hagg’s pointing. Given that we usually sail double-handed, the night watches tend to be taken solo so that the other can rest, but it can make moments like this somewhat nervy for the individual trying to make out the night lights of the vessel in question. As such, we often seek a bleary second set of eyes on the matter.

I can see his predicament, is that a massive boat really far away or a small one quite close? Which are his navigation lights and which are his working ones? By that I mean, which are his lights used to display his size and intentions, and which are for his own benefit to work around the deck? And that red light, is that his port light or is it indicating he’s a vessel engaged in fishing? It can be hard to tell, but such are the challenges of night sailing.

If he is fishing, this could be interesting. It might sound ludicrous that a boat would be fishing in a shipping lane – and frankly it is, it’s akin to hunting on a dual carriageway – but it’s certainly not unheard of. He could be using a net, trawling great big lines off the stern, or, if he’s really unfazed by the internationally recognised maritime laws of channels, he might be laying pots. These operations could have him going in circles, zigzagging back and forth, or writing his signature in the sea. We don’t know and I doubt he has much of an inkling so, at great inconvenience to us, we’ll stay well clear of him.

There’s particular fun to be had in this respect along the Moroccan coast. Local fishermen head many miles offshore in their tiny wooden boats, taking with them a fairly relaxed attitude to the night light situation. Indeed, often the best you can hope for as a watchkeeper would be for them to possess what are essentially Christmas tree lights wrapped around a pole at the back of the boat, which they’ll flick on when they see you approaching. There’s nothing more confusing than popping your head up to scan the darkness around you, the same darkness that was clear five minutes ago, to discover that Father Christmas has just landed in the water fifty yards off your port bow. This only needed to happen once for us to decide that the radar would be on for the remainder of our Moroccan night sailing.

So it has it’s challenges, but night sailing is part and parcel of cruising, and more often than not it is thoroughly enjoyable. Night may be perceived as a time that hides things away, particularly at sea, but it has revealed so much more to me than I could have imagined. I’ve been in thick fog in the dead of night and seen huge schools of fish dance around the boat, illuminated in a phosphorescent glow. I’ve been in the middle of the Atlantic and seen the entire ocean and sky lit up by a meteoroid entering the atmosphere. I’ve seen more sunrises than my parents would have ever thought possible after my lazy teens, and more stars and shooting stars than I ever knew existed. And I’ve been hit in the leg by a flying fish blindly catapulting itself through the darkness. That was a weird one.

It’s probably the most questioned topic we get from non-sailors (being out at night, that is, not kamikaze fish), and I can appreciate that. Even when I was working on a motor yacht and doing watches with the officers – well, more like making them cups of tea and nervously keeping an eye out when they went for a fag break – I found it hard to grasp that people would sit outside on their little boats, in their little cockpits, open to all the elements, and sail through the night.

And then in the build up to this trip I would often lie in bed at home at night, taking in the stillness, safety and warmth around me, and question why I was trading that in. Indeed, there have been sleepless passages where those questions have re-emerged, but they are by far outnumbered by the nights I have felt humbled and awe-struck by what is around me. And that doesn’t always require a shooting star or a meteoroid; sometimes just letting nature carry you through the night’s tranquillity is enough.

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