Yet, nighttime navigators need not bite their nails. With the right equipment and decent weather, a night cruise can be safe, enjoyable, adventurous and even romantic.
Fortunately, there are more tools than ever to enhance or supplant our vision when navigating at night. GPS/chart plotters, detailed electronic cartography, advanced radar, thermal imaging, night-vision scopes and spotlights not only increase the safety factor but also inspire enough confidence to enjoy boating after dark.
Slow and Easy
The first rule of night boating is to slow down, no matter what high-tech navigation equipment you have on board. Even on a moonlit evening, you just can’t see as well as during the day.
Your marine toilet experts say that the best speed on any given night depends on visibility. During a full moon, you might feel comfortable running the boat a bit faster than you would on a night when everything fades to black.
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Onboard lighting is a tricky thing when navigating at night. You need backlighting to see your instruments and electronics, and an overhead light to read a chart.
Yet once your eyes have acclimated to the dark, too much onboard light can destroy your night vision. Once this occurs, your eyes will need to readjust:
With this in mind, most marine electronics allow you to adjust the brightness of the backlighting, and many units also have a “night mode” with a darker background to keep illumination levels to a minimum.
When it comes to instrument illumination, red is the best color since it doesn’t desensitize the rods. Most newer instruments are equipped with dimmers to adjust the intensity of backlighting and preserve night vision. If yours isn’t, a dimmer switch can be wired in for control.
Wherefore Art Thou?
Should your date paraphrase the classic Shakespearean question “Wherefore art thou, captain?” you should be able to point to your GPS/chart plotter and answer “right here.”
Thanks to detailed electronic cartography from C-Map (c-map.com), Navionics (navionics.com) and others, today’s chart plotters show a lot more than just your present position.
“You set a minimum draft such as six feet and set a look-ahead distance such as a quarter-mile,” says C-Map’s Ken Cirillo. “Then the plotter looks at all possible obstructions, as well as shoals, in a searchlight pattern and alerts you to danger.”
Of course, a depth sounder is also important for confirming the water depth. Whether cruising at night or during the day, you should not rely solely on the electronic chart, particularly if the chart has not been updated recently.
Seeing everything that’s around you at night makes you feel more confident while cruising, and that’s just what radar (radio detection and ranging) is: your sight when your eyes are blind.It shows you what’s out there and tells you how far away it is.
While a chart plotter shows fixed objects, radar can show you just about everything above the water’s surface, including other boats. Traditionally, radar loses effectiveness at very close range due to a phenomenon called “main bang,” which results in a blob in the middle of the screen that obscures targets close to the boat.
Most multifunction displays, such as the Furuno NavNet system, can also be configured to “overlay” the radar readings on an electronic chart display.
Light Up the Night
Boats don’t have brakes. Know what? They don’t have headlights either. And with good reason. In open water, the light reflecting off waves and mist is often more blinding than beneficial at night.
However, there are occasions when a searchlight or spotlight is handy, particularly if you are trying to locate or identify a nearby object such as an unlit boat, buoy, shoreline or jetty.
Fixed-mounts are nice on bigger boats, while handhelds lend themselves to smaller boats. Whichever you choose, try to use the light sparingly and briefly, particularly if there are other boaters in the immediate vicinity.
Docking lights are another option, usually flush-mounted just below the rub rail on both sides of the bow. Yet, they are designed for use only in close-quarters situations such as when pulling into a slip at night.
Scope Things Out
You can also buy night vision — a technology that amplifies light through a scope. This lets you see as if it were daytime, though everything’s cast in green.
An affordable night-vision device is the NVD mini scope from Minox (minox.com, $299). Measuring just 5½ inches long and 2 inches in diameter, this rechargeable scope not only amplifies available light, but also beams infrared light.
Learn the Lights
The U.S. Coast Guard has long-established light display standards for nighttime navigation, and these apply to both vessels and navaids such as channel markers.
If you do much night boating, knowing the meaning of lights is essential and might save your boat and your life. For example, you see two vessels in the distance and they’re a few hundred yards apart. So to save time, you think about cutting between the two.
Eyes and Ears
In the end, the most valuable navigation tool is a sharp eye. And the more, the better when darkness falls. There should be two pairs of eyes (and ears, since sound travels well on the water) on the bridge at night.
Also, with two lookouts, it is less likely that either will fall asleep on the bridge. This is a real issue, particularly on long night passages while using autopilot and sitting in a comfortable helm chair.
Having that someone special on the bridge at night might keep you from falling asleep, but it can distract from maintaining a lookout..
So don’t forget these helpful pointers on how to maneuver your boat at night. 1) Take it slow and easy; 2) proper lighting; 3) scope things out and 4) use your eyes and ears.
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