At Sea with Monty - Navigating at Night

At Sea with Monty - Navigating at Night

Navigating into the small Devon port of Dartmouth, in pitch black darkness, can be a daunting task...

Tuesday - 04 June 2024

“You sure? You’re absolutely sure?”

“Of course,” I replied, slightly affronted that the question had even been asked. “I know this place like the back of my hand. Looking forward to it.”

I couldn’t see Justin’s expression during this exchange, as it took place in darkness as we sat just outside the river mouth, with Dartmouth Castle an eerie hulk in the gloom, and the land beyond an inky black void. Set against this were the lights of the town, a sign of civilisation and home, but also utterly confusing as a dazzling backdrop to the navigation markers we were supposed to be picking up en route.

“Well, okay, if you’re confident. But I’ll keep an eye on things as you proceed if that’s alright?”

It was indeed alright, because I was indeed supremely confident. I’d been motoring, paddle-boarding, kayaking and even swimming in and out of this river mouth for over a decade. Admittedly none of this had happened in total darkness, but that’s the reasons there were clear navigation lights in place, ones I had already researched whilst making my pilot plan. Justin could indeed keep a beady eye on proceedings, but he wouldn’t be required, and if anything might get slightly bored at the excellence of his skipper. 

There was an added element to all this which he had spotted, with all of his years of sailing experience, and I had not. We had set off from Falmouth ten hours previously, and had enjoyed a decent downwind run to our current position, just a mile or so from Sobek’s home mooring. But ten hours of sailing is still ten hours of sailing, of concentration, of physical effort, of bracing yourself against the undulations of the sea - and Justin knew that underneath the bravado and bluster, I was actually pretty knackered. And that effects judgement, reaction times, clear thinking, and decision making. As a sailor of limited experience, who was about to do his first ever night entrance to a busy little harbour, such things are not insignificant.

All of this was lost on young Hornblower at the helm though. 

Dartmouth approach night-time

“Right, let’s push on then shall we?” I was keen to get cracking, get alongside, and get home. 

The first marker was nice and easy - the red channel buoy blinking away outside the river mouth. I reached this within minutes, rounding it with a flourish, and snuck a look at Justin who was sitting being thoroughly non-judgemental in the cockpit. See? Piece of cake. Am I sure, indeed. Absurd question. Now to pick up the vector’d light in the first big bend of the river. 

This was easy enough, as there it was, showing red at me. Red means I was too far to port. Or, hang on, does it mean I should turn to port? What with inexperience, my foggy brain and squinting gaze, I couldn’t quite recall. Ermmm…. I know, it means I should turn to port. The light stayed resolutely red. Got redder quite frankly, a burning ember fuelled by pure hubris.

“Might want to just go a tad to starboard there, Monty” murmured Justin politely. 

I knew that, of course I knew that now he’d said it. Just needed to clear the foggy old synapses and we’d be back in business in a jiffy. I turned to starboard, and miraculously moments later the light turned white. A beacon of hope for my now slightly meandering track.

“Very good,” said Justin. “What are you looking for now?”

“The red light by the ferry slip” I said, slightly grumpily. “Obviously”.

Snag was, the red light by the ferry slip appeared to be moving at some speed across the river, with me obediently following it. 

“I think that’s the port light of the ferry Monty,” came the voice from the cockpit. “You might like to try aiming for the one attached to the harbour wall. The one that isn’t moving.”

M232 Thermal Camera

By now the night ninja at the helm was also dealing with the over-riding sensation that he was about to hit something in the hadal darkness directly in front of the bow, so slowed down a fair amount. Or, stopped. That might be another way of putting it. Dartmouth, my wonderful hometown, had suddenly become a mountain of flashing beacons, a pyrotechnic hill of deliberately confusing navigational markers designed specifically to trick me into crashing into one of the larger hotels. 

And this, of course, is where the electronics we’re so blessed to have at our disposal come to the fore. There’s no cure for my slightly baffled nocturnal navigational meanderings other than experience, but fortunately we now have the means to establish exactly where we are at the push of a button. And so, the plotter led me home, dialled right down to avoid excessive glare and the loss of night vision. We’re also very lucky indeed on Sobek to have a FLIR M232 Thermal Night Vision Camera, and I can’t begin to describe the primal surge of relief when I focused that on the stretch of water directly ahead of us, clear of lurking hazards, krakens, mines, and megladons. Failing the presence of a FLIR, a crew member on the bow with a powerful torch and a loud voice also works pretty well.

We came alongside ten minutes later, with 50% of the crew somewhat sheepish and considerably wiser, and the other 50% with the half smile of a man who’d seen it all before. In a nutshell, navigation at night is a funny old game, but the following ease the process considerably. Experience, impeccable pilotage planning, and utilising the extraordinary capabilities of the electronics we modern sailors are lucky enough to enjoy. For some, a large slice of humble pie may also provide nourishment to ensure success.

Monty Halls Night Passage and Tech Videos
Monty Halls Night Passage and Tech Videos
Monty Halls Night Passage and Tech Videos
Monty Halls Night Passage and Tech Videos