Make Your Night Moves

When nighttime falls, have your house in order, a strategy for the weather, and a plan to push harder than your competitors. "Technique" from our July/August 2007 issue

February 12, 2008


Courtesy Volvo Ocean Race

Whether it be the Volvo Ocean Race, the Chicago Mac Race, or an overnighter from one end of the pond and back, there’s one thing that’s true for all: if you really want to win, nighttime is no time to let up. You’ve pushed hard all afternoon, tacking on the shifts and trimming to every change in the wind, so why do anything different after the sun goes down? This is the perfect time to sail your hardest while the other guys ease off.

To stay at your peak performance at night it’s absolutely critical you have confidence in your equipment, and that everyone on board has raced the boat (preferably many times) in daylight. One thing you can’t afford is gear failure, which is often caused by crew error, whether it be a sheet run incorrectly or the wrong rope pulled at the critical time.

Next is taking a good, hard look at the weather, or better yet, get a professional forecast. In fact, it’s more important to have a better understanding of the weather patterns for the nighttime portion of the race than it is for the daylight portion. In the daytime you have the advantage of seeing approaching cloud lines and building their movements into your strategy. So this means your navigator and tactician must have a solid plan going into the evening, and know when to expect the first jibe or tack, what part of the coastline they want to be near, or what tide gate you need to avoid.


One of my memories from the 2004 Sydney Hobart Race, which we won on Aera [a Ker 55], was deciding to tack back onto starboard away from Tasmania. Earlier, we had tacked into shore to try to find smoother water at around 19:00, and at this stage we were the most offshore yacht in the leading bunch by a long way, but not winning on corrected time. A new weather file came through about an hour later and I was called to the nav station to discuss the new situation. Our plan had to change so we could maximize the expected left-hand shift, due to arrive in another five hours. We tacked back onto starboard, and sure enough we picked up the 30-degree shift, which won us the race on corrected time. This critical decision had to be made when we were all very tired after crossing the Bass Straight in 30-plus knots with fully reefed main and storm jib.

The easy decision would have been to continue toward shore and find relief from the conditions, but had our navigator [Huge Agnew] not been vigilant in trying to pick up updated weather forecasts we would have missed the opportunity.

Food for thought
For an overnighter you want to make sure the meals require minimal effort. This means simple food and no cooking. Ask those staying ashore-wives, boyfriends, or mothers-to make some ready-to-heat dishes. Whenever I’m sailing in England my mother-in-law makes sure I have her bacon and egg pies-and the boys never disagree. You need healthy, caloric snack food. A hot drink or cup of noodles can bring huge relief to the crew in the wee hours of the morning. Alcohol doesn’t do much for efficiency (or safety), except for maybe Vasco Vascotto. When he sailed with us on the TP52 Mean Machine one time, he brought along a bottle of red wine. It’s his secret weapon, and while it may work well with the Italians, not so for our mainly Dutch/Kiwi crew-five boats passed us shortly after he dispensed its contents.


It’s also important to be organized below decks so you have quick access to sail repair kits and toolboxes if you need to get to them. It’s very easy after a couple of watch and sail changes for the boat to look like a teenager’s bedroom, so keep order to where the wet weather gear is stowed, and tidy up immediately after sail changes, coil halyards, and sheets, etc. Any Volvo veteran will tell you that good housekeeping goes a long way.

Watches and rotations
If the race is just an overnighter you tend to push on through and get your sleep the following day after a couple of beers, but if the conditions are such that crew fatigue is going to be an issue, then it’s important you set up a watch system. I find the best watch systems are those in which there’s overlap so that a trimmer or helmsman stay on watch for at least 30 minutes after the change. This allows consistency between the watches and more importantly gets the new watch settled if the weather conditions are variable. What can happen is a new watch comes on deck eager to change the sails and push the boat when more often than not patience is the correct call. You want to avoid an unnecessary peeling frenzy because settling the boat down after a change at night takes even the most experienced crew twice as long to get back in the groove.

Points to be discussed during a watch change are windspeed and direction-what have they been doing over the last hour. This is very important so the new watch understands when the wind is really changing and not just phasing left or right and pulsing in or out. One person should poke his head up first and ask about the conditions on deck for clothing; you don’t want to spend 10 minutes getting all your kit on and then find out there’s a warm land breeze blowing. Worse is not having appropriate clothing on and having to go back below to put on more clothes, leaving the tired watch on deck for another 5 minutes.


Once on deck it’s important to have good torches on hand. You can’t have too many of them as they tend to get lost in tail bags and in the bilge. It’s a good idea to have small personal headlamps or torches you wear around your neck and can hold in your mouth to free up your hands. Of course, avoid lamping the helmsman as losing one’s natural night vision is never good.

Once you’re settled in on your night watch, it’s important to keep the pedal down. For this, trimmers and helmsman must be confident sailing “off the numbers.” The trimmers should set the sails to an agreed upon apparent-wind angle, and then the helmsman should lock into that number. This is especially true if a staysail is in use because keeping the boat in a groove with multiple sails is difficult. It’s very important for the navigator to manage this well, defining clear boundaries to which the guys can sail the boat. If conditions are too variable to lock in on apparent-wind angle, then the trimmers will need to match the helmsman’s course. Here it would be smart to fix a narrow-beamed torch on the front sails to illuminate the telltales so constant monitoring can be achieved with out creating too much light for the helmsman.

With regard to sailing off the numbers, I focus on just a few key numbers: true-wind angle, windspeed, and boatspeed. Then I glance at true-wind direction, apparent-wind angle, and heading a couple of times a minute. But my main focus is speed and angle combined with the feel of the boat. If the yacht you are sailing on is not high-performance, then heading can be more important as boatspeed is relatively constant.


At night we tend to sail with a slightly more all-purpose sail inventory. The goal should be to sail as you would during the day, but minimizing unnecessary sail changes. This may mean skipping a code of jib if you know the wind is increasing. For example, you may go from your No. 1 straight to your No. 3, or even your No. 4. Fundamental to sail selection is constant communication to make sure everyone is on the same page with regard to trimming and helming goals. You should discuss what feels good as a helmsman: Is there to too much power or not enough? Should you be pumping on the waves or not, sailing lower in the puffs and up in the lulls? No matter what you do, keep moving, because your best night moves will get you to the finish faster.

Tips from A Pro

Andrew Lewis’ best sailing moments were not surprisingly those surfing down Southern Ocean waves into the pitch dark at 30 knots on board ABN AMRO Two. Only in this environment can one really learn how best and how far to push at night. Here are his top five pointers to keeping pace when the night watch starts.

1. Talk to the sailor who was helming before you to get a feel of what you are getting into. I ask questions like, What windspeed have you seen? What true-wind angle are you sailing? How is the boat feeling? Then we get a feel for the trimmers depending on what sail we have up, what they have been doing (i.e. are they easing the sheet a couple of inches, or if they are oversheeting a bit because the apparent-wind angle is flying forward too fast down the waves and they can’t sheet in quick enough.

2. Finding a safe average number to sail to is very important because you don’t want to be slow. My best way to find this is at the beginning when you start helming. Keep the boat on its feet and steer at 80 percent. When you start feeling more and more comfortable, push a bit harder until you know you’re at that critical edge. Sometime you might steer at 80-percent most of the night because you are sailing in tough conditions.

3. Be honest about how long you can steer. The best helmsmen are the ones who can admit they’re tired or their elbow hurts from steering too much. Any distraction will hinder your boatspeed and leave you vulnerable to wiping out, or worse. We always rotated around an hour or so depending on the conditions. It can also be a call from the watch captain when he notices the speed straying from targets.

4. Being comfortable is important. Everyone steers differently, so you need to know what you like. Making sure you are comfortable will keep you more alert and safe. Ialways had coffee or something to give me a bit of a kick start, but when it’s full-on conditions you’re probably already fired up.

5. Use your senses as much or more than the instruments. Coming from a Laser, I wasn’t very keen on using the instruments, but when night sailing you have to learn to use them to the full extent. I was very lucky to have a few training watches from guys like Mike Sanderson and Mark Christensen. They just tell you to keep the boat under your feet, anticipate the boat’s movements and feeling, watch the true-wind angle, and keep it in the fastest window around that number. The only way you can get better at it is to get out there and do it.

Seeing In the Dark

There’s no shortage of flashlights on the market, but splurge for a lightweight, waterproof unit. An LED flashlight delivers a direct and powerful light, but be careful where you cast its beam, lest you temporarily blind your helmsman. Here are three of our favorite flashlights.

Tactikka Plus Adapt
A torch on the head means two free hands, and thankfully headlamps keep getting lighter, more powerful, and more versatile. The Tactikka Plus Adapt (78 grams) is one of the best units available. Four LED bulbs on an
adjustable fixture blast out plenty of lumens (at three different intensities), but its best feature is the red flip-down filter for better night-vision preservation. It runs on three AAA batteries. $55.95,

Coast V2 6 Dual Chip Color Tactical Torch
With origins in military and public service sectors, the Coast V2 6 Dual Chip Tactical torch is also perfect for nighttime racing applications. One red LED and five white LED bulbs give you the option to toggle between bright- and low-light uses. It has an aluminum casing, a belt sheath, and is powered by three AAA batteries. $49.99,

PeliLite 1800
Pelican flashlights have been a marine staple because they’re rugged and watertight. A popular one among racers is the PeliLite1800, a 6-inch, 3-ounce unit (without batteries) that is submersible to 500 feet. Two size-C batteries will get you eight hours of burn time. Its Xenon bulb throws a bright, direct beam, useful in foggy conditions. $28.95,


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