Pulling an All-Nighter
By Cyndi Perkins

Motoring and/or sailing your boat from 1 in the afternoon until 8:30 the next morning might sound like a crazy way to travel, unless you’re a cruiser. But seasonal weekend boaters can benefit from this strategy. My husband Scott and I have been running our 32-foot sailboat Chip Ahoy at night for several years, using longer passages to travel farther afield on precious three-day weekends.

The routine went like this: The captain admits to superstition about leaving on Fridays, so we’d normally depart sometime after midnight. By noon Saturday Chips was closing in on some of Lake Superior’s most outstanding destinations: anchored at Isle Royale National Park, or just a few hours away from the Apostle Islands or seven hours from Ontario, Canada. Because Scott set a Tuesday-Friday summer schedule at our electronics shop, we were able to enjoy our destination Sunday and sail home on Monday.

Even with a crew and watch system, overnight passages can create a sleep deficit. Jay Haugen of Faith Afloat snoozes in Port Huron, Michigan, after a marathon trek across Lake Erie, up the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers to the mouth of Lake Huron.

Traveling the lake on a calm clear night is a beautiful experience. Night watch rewards include shooting stars, Northern Lights and simultaneous sunset/moonrise vistas. Even when it’s cold and the waves are black and nasty, the experience can be exhilarating.

When we began cruising full-time in August 2003, embarking on America’s Great Circle Loop, we continued sailing and/or motoring at night. Often it was our choice. Traveling down Florida’s West Coast in December 2003 jumps of 20 hours or more in the Gulf of Mexico were a means to reach warmer weather. At other times, particularly in the heartland river system, we ran out of daylight and with current against us were forced to find our next port in the dark.
Buddy boating certainly came in handy in those situations. We kept in touch via marine radio or walkie-talkies. Cruisers in speedier boats that had passed us earlier in the day were, bless them, waiting to help us dock in unfamiliar territory.
On a 22-hour jaunt across the armpit of Florida from Pensacola to St. Joseph Bay, we checked in every couple of hours with our 35-foot Catalina buddy boat Faith Afloat, of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. In the dark before dawn, the hours when weary or inexperienced passagemaker need it most, even the lamest joke can boost morale: “It’s 2 a.m., do you know where your boat is?”

Captain Scott refers to the paper charts to ensure we’re on track; during overnight passages we spend off-watch sack time on the salon settees.

On another Gulf of Mexico all-nighter, the sailboat Rikava, a Pearson 38 from Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, made the 26-hour passage from Apalachicola to Tarpon Springs with Faith Afloat and Chip Ahoy. With the fastest boat of the trio and the most experience sailing the Gulf, Rikava’s husband/wife crew Rick and Kathy saved us major headaches by alerting us to the thousands of crab pots liberally peppering the approach to our destination. “They’re hard to see in these waves, so keep a sharp lookout,” Kathy advised on the radio.

Alone or in company, having the equipment and a plan for managing a longer passage involving night travel are key to reaching your destination safely. Radar is a must, as far as we’re concerned. A spotlight and a floodlight are also essential for dead reckoning. We have both aboard, hand-held types with long cords to ensure maximum reach. They’re stored in a handy spot and regularly tested. We make sure all flashlights are in good working order as well, and stash them in key positions around the cabin, engine room and cockpit.

Face of an All-nighter: I’m not a pretty sight after the 3-7 a.m. watch, but the sunrise off Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Lake Superior sure is beautiful.

An autopilot and laptop chart plotter are nice, not needed. That said, Chip Ahoy’s set-up linking laptop charts and plotter with GPS and autopilot is an efficient and enjoyable way to travel long distances. Especially for a crew of two, the autopilot is an important team member, relieving captain and first mate from the tedium and fatigue of extended time at the tiller or wheel.
Adequate sleep is crucial to successful passagemaking. For safety’s sake it is necessary to slumber in shifts. Don’t con yourself into taking a chance on this. That’s how those collision horror stories happen. Listening to music, reading (visually scanning the area and checking the radar every few pages) and cockpit calisthenics are just a few ways to stay awake and aware. When all else fails, we pull out the wind-up alarm clock and set it to go off every 10 minutes.

Radar and laptop chart plotter interfaced with GPS and autopilot help guide Chip Ahoy down the Big Bend of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.

In our first summers cruising on Lake Superior, my husband wasn’t comfortable sleeping while the inexperienced sailor (Yours Truly) was on watch. As I increased my skill level and we talked to other couples about their watch strategies, he was able to catnap. Now Scott can relax enough to catch a few hours of quality sleep at a stretch. And I actually sleep better when it’s my turn, knowing he’s reasonably rested.

Rather than a 24-hour watch schedule, we have a night schedule of two-three hours on, two-three hours off, or more if the captain decides to let me sleep. Beginners may opt for one-hour watches. Just remember that in bad weather nobody sleeps!

Cyndi Perkins is a freelance writer and full-time cruiser traveling with her husband, Scott, aboard their 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The couple completed America’s Great Circle Loop – a nine-month, 6,000-mile journey - on June 4, 2004. Since returning to their Lake Superior homeport in Houghton, Michigan, they have been visiting and revisiting favorite destinations on the lake. Cyndi will be sharing other top northern and Midwest destinations with readers in her regular “Cruiser’s notebook” feature.