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Entering Harbors at Night

I originally wrote an article about night entries for Latitude 38 in San
Francisco  that was for cruising sailboats which one might assume carry a
compass and other navigational aids (like a depth sounder). While many
paddlers have a compass, not many of us install it for every trip. Which is,
by the way, why I've asked for a digital watch with a digital compass for my

I understand that most of us own a GPS but I'm not going to address the use
of that device here except to say that judicious use of a GPS is invaluable
for locating one's position. But paddling with your eye on the GPS can be
hazardous especially at night (not to mention hell on batteries). I think
that the GPS should be used as a tool but not as the only tool in the

Many boaters... perhaps most boaters... are reluctant to venture outside the
breakwater (or off the beach) at night.  This is not unreasonable. After
all, at night it's harder to see almost everything that's not lighted up
itself. In fact, it's often difficult even to see other kayakers since few
of us have navigational lights on our boats. Still, mariners have been
making night entrances to harbors and bays for thousands of years because
it's often more dangerous to stand off and wait for daylight.

Mind you, no one *wants* to make a night entrance; or almost no one. But
there are circumstances which force you into choosing between staying
offshore all night (no fun in a kayak) and making a night entry. And if you
paddle enough you may find yourself in this sort of predicament so it's a
good idea to at least learn the basics of a night entry when you can control
the conditions.

The first skill is to learn how to see the world at night. Our brains are
accustomed to dealing with the lighted world; if it's dark we light it up.
Just 200 years ago most people went to bed when it got dark but not us. We
don't have to deal with the dark unless we want to go for a romantic stroll
in the moonlight down a deserted beach. It's deserted because it's dark.
Everyone else is watching tv.

Let me say here that the tendency of some kayakers to simply keep a
flashlight or headlamp aimed forward is not, in my opinion, a very good
idea. For one thing it destroys your night vision (and the night vision of
everyone you look at). But more importantly it doesn't show you much... and
what it does show you is not usually that important. After all, right in
front of your kayak is almost always water and waves and they generally
don't tell you that much. There is no white line to follow and so, most of
the time, it's better to keep all lights off and keep your night vision
intact. Ship captains don't drive with headlights on for a very good reason.

Except on the darkest of nights, it's surprising how well you can see shapes
and land masses in the dark once your eyes become accustomed to the low
light of stars and the moon. In the daytime land masses are seen in detail
but at night they are often just a dark smudge or silhouette. Practicing at
night when the weather is safe and you already know where you are is a way
to become accustomed to using those shapes to help you navigate. So the
first step in learning to paddle in the dark is to go out and give it a try.

Preparation of your boat and gear is an important step. Use reflective tape
in long strips along the aft gunwales of your kayak on both sides. Forward
put a couple of vertical strips along each side of the bow. The different
patterns for bow and stern will let others see immediately which way you're
headed when they flash a light at you. Don't forget to put several strips on
your boat so they can be seen if it's inverted. These have to be placed
carefully as they'll get worn off quickly whenever you beach.

Put reflective strips vertically on the upper arms (biceps) of your drysuit
or whatever paddling jacket you use regularly and horizontal strips front
and rear on your PFD. Don't forget to put strips on the shoulder straps. A
couple reflective dots on your helmet or hat wouldn't hurt either. And a few
on your paddle... either shaft or blade. Makes it easier to find these if
they get loose too.

Be sure to carry at least a good flashlight; while most states (or the feds)
don't require navigational lights on a kayak they do require that you carry
a light that you can use to flash at other boats and yourself to indicate
your presence. A headlamp is not a bad idea but keep it off until you need
it; most people find that paddling with them on all the time in the dark is
a nuisance (or even dangerous). Practice turning your headlamp on and off
with your gloves on if you wear them.

Avoid using a strobe light on your PFD; instead use a steady light. Modern
LEDs are a wonderful solution to this since they last a lot longer than the
incandescent bulbs we used to use. In a seaway with high waves it's easier
to keep an eye on the steady light than on the constantly flashing (and
often over-bright) strobe.

On a calm night that's not *too* dark take your boat to a quiet lake with as
few lighted buildings as possible around it and launch. It's probably safer
to take a paddling partner with you for this. As soon as you've paddled 100
yards stop and carefully look around and back. Even a waterway you're
familiar with can look very different at night because the references you
depend upon look different (or may not even be visible) at night. Look
around until you're sure you can find this place when you come back. Take
special notice of details like how the lights in the parking lot line up or
how far the dock extends. When you are sure you can locate this spot again,
you can start your trip.

As you paddle stay as close to shore as is safe (try not to run into any
docks) and take note of the shapes of the land mass surrounding whatever
body of water you're floating on. Look ahead and if there is a point of land
not too far away, paddle towards it. There is a tendency for people to "aim"
at a point of land as if it's a target. Unless you actually want to hit it,
aim to be offshore of that point far enough to avoid any hidden (underwater)
dangers. Paddle around until you're comfortable with being on the water at
night and turn around and head back to your launch point.

Many of us paddle regularly from marinas or other harbors which have
navigational aids on the water but are next to a city or town with lots of
lights. Just finding a lighted navigational aid at night can be difficult
with the lights of a city or town confusing the issue. Is that flashing red
light a buoy or a stop light? To learn to find your way back to the harbor
at night go out later in the day but while it's still daylight. If there is
a buoy or nav aid you use to enter the harbor during the day, go over to it.
Then use your compass to determine the course back to the marina (make sure
you know the tide and current directions) and wait for dark.

At this point you know where you are and where you want to go. As it gets
dark the lights of the city will become more prominent and may either
disguise or overwhelm the navigational lights you need to get back into the
marina. Paddle a few hundred yards away from the nav aid you have been
hanging around and turn around to see how it looks at night in relation to
the background light "noise". For one thing, at least from a kayak, the
light will be higher than you expect it to be. Often buoys have distinctive
light patterns. They may flash several times and then be dark for a few
moments, then repeat the pattern. Navigational charts will show these
patterns as will the "light list" available from your local marine

These buoys and nav aids have not been designed for kayaks or yachtsmen but
for the eyes of people high up on the bridges of tugs and ships which travel
at speeds up to 15 knots so they are farther apart than we might like. But
try to find all the entrance buoys you can and make a note of the light

When you're bored with this or cold or wet just head back to your original
buoy and use your compass to get back to the marina entrance. It's really
not difficult or dangerous since you've probably familiar with this area.
All you need to do is to correlate what you remember from daytime trips with
what you see at night. Unless you've chosen a really dark night for this,
your eyes will still be able to see the forms of the land mass on your way
in. Keep a watch for logs and unlighted docks, be aware of any current, and
paddle home. At least now if you are late paddling home you'll have a plan
and some experience for getting back to your launching area in the dark.

The real test of your night entry skills come when you are caught out late
in the day and have to enter an unfamiliar bay after dark. The first thing
to remember is that many bays look similar at night. I've had friends run
their sailboats onto a reef because they were one major bay south of the bay
they really wanted. Other than that - and the fact that the lights of the
city at the end of the bay weren't visible - it all looked the same; even
the compass course was pretty much the same. It wasn't exactly the same
though and that should have been a clue. The skipper also talked himself
into believing that landmarks which were not quite the same were "close
enough". So keep your wits about you and if something doesn't fit, stop and
double check. This would be a good time to turn on your GPS.

A compass and a compass course are the essentials for a safe entry. On a
sailboat it's easy to go below and plot your course(s) but not so for a
kayaker. If you are on a planned trip take the time before you go to plot
some compass courses for your route. Draw lines on the chart and pencil in
the actual headings and keep your charts available during the voyage.

Navigational charts often have fathom lines plotted so that boats with depth
sounders can simply follow, say, the 10-fathom curve right into the
anchorage. No depth sounder on your kayak? I didn't think so. So we have to
follow the land mass into the bay or to the beach. Make sure you stay safely
offshore. Check your charts for rocks or other hazards on which surf may be
breaking and circle them. These are usually indicated on the charts but may
not be in undeveloped countries. In fact, the charts for these areas are
often based on surveys carried out in the 19th century from sailing vessels.
You can even see the tacks the ship took by looking at the pattern of

Watch for the flash of light from breakers and be especially aware of the
way the sea "humps up" around underwater obstructions. In a regular seaway
feel for the confused set of waves that may be reflected from a rock close
ahead or to the side.

The key to night entries is preparation and experience. Become familiar with
being on the water in the dark and practice the skills it takes to be out
there safely when you are in control of the situation. Learn to recognize
how the bottom of the sea is often an extension of the nearby land mass.
Steep cliffs are likely to arise from deep water but fallen rocks from those
cliffs often pile up into underwater dangers. A gentle point will extend
underwater some distance and one might expect to find breakers farther out.

Don't make your turns too quickly rounding a point. Make sure it's well aft
of you before changing course to avoid getting too close and being set into
danger. Know the tides and the currents for the area you're paddlilng.

Use your GPS to check on your position and progress but don't just turn it
on and leave it on unless you are navigating a particularly tricky area in
seriously impaired visibility. The batteries on your unit are likely to fail
just when you need it the most so use this tool sparingly but don't hesitate
to use it when you need it.

I always enjoyed night voyaging on our sailboat and have made a lot of night
entries into unlighted coves and bays. It's always a treat to wake up the
next morning and see where you are. Of course, with a kayak the paddler has
to make it onto a beach and set up camp. Night surf landings would be a good
topic for another writer to address.

Craig Jungers
Royal City, Washington