Entering an unfamiliar marina at night, it’s something we’re all advised to avoid and rightly so as it can be dangerous. At some stage in your sailing career however you will find yourself needing to come into a new marina in the dark.
Here are a few tips on how you and your crew can get prepared:
Locate the marina and identify its bearing from your boat. Even if you think you’ve spotted it, it’s worth double checking as you may end up heading for the wrong one (if there are a few within relatively close proximity). Using either your paper chart, chart plotter or smartphone app find the marina, read off its bearing then up on deck locate it with a hand bearing compass. They’re a great investment if you haven’t got one.
Identify (and write down) what lights you should expect to see near the harbour entrance; both their colour and characteristics (i.e. flashing pattern). This is especially important if the marina is back-dropped against bright city lights as it’ll be twice as tricky if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The pilot book will have details, as will your paper or electronic chart.
Check the charts for any hazards on your route, and avoid them.
Check the weather forecast; what can you expect in the next few hours?
Familiarise yourself with the marina layout. Your pilot book will likely have an aerial photo, but if you don’t have the book to hand then Google Maps on satellite view will provide a better-than-nothing alternative. See if you can spot a fuel or visitors pontoon. Also check the depths so you know to avoid any shallow areas.
Get your night sailing kit prepared early to avoid needing to fumble around in the dark, at a time when you need all eyes on deck. This includes lifejackets, lifelines, a powerful torch (for inside the marina), head torches (with red bulbs).
Assuming you’ve enough fuel and the sea state and wind conditions allow, you could consider dropping sails whilst it’s still light and motoring the rest of the way. Alternatively wait until you’re closer to shore but do give yourself plenty of depth and sea room.
Turn on your navigation lights and remember to switch them when going from sail to motor.
Get the crew into lifejackets and clip-in those on deck.
Keep all eyes peeled for other boats. They’ll be tricky to spot so look for lights which move, or shadows of boats and sails against the horizon (they look pretty spooky).
Communication is key. If you see something, say something. Describe it clearly and indicate its position relative to the moving boat.
Call the marina beforehand to let them know you’re coming, they can tell you where to moor and help with lines. If there’s no answer, head for the fuel pontoon. Get fenders and lines ready; it’s safest to do this within the marina itself and not in open water (where you want to avoid people wandering on deck in the dark in a bumpy sea).
Finally, even familiar marinas can look very different at night. Don’t be complacent, plan your approach as if it wasn’t.
Just to be clear, we do still suggest you avoid it - these tips are just in case you can’t. 🙂