I was snookered one night when I confused a lighted buoy for a light structure. Both aids showed similar light characteristics and were within 100 yards of each other. As we proceeded south, we kept the flashing light ahead just off the starboard bow. Suddenly, our spotlight picked up the reflective tape of the light, 50 yards off the port bow!
Lighted-buoy - easy to confuse with a light structure sometimes
We made a sharp left turn at the last moment to leave the light structure to starboard. We were high up on a flying bridge that night, looking down into the water, and the light structure got lost in the shore lights.
From this incident was born the concept of S.T.O.P. It's easy to use and works most anywhere. We used the technique described below to train students at the Chapman School of Seamanship in nighttime operations inside narrow, tricky channels with multiple turns and lighted and unlighted buoys and beacons.
At first, they were a bit apprehensive. Just the concept of being underway at night was as foreign as a new language to many of our students. But in just a short time, they saw how fast and easy S.T.O.P. could clear up confusion, provide rapid orientation, and boost their confidence to navigate at nighttime.
Follow these easy steps to success:
S -- Slow or Stop:
After you arrive at a prominent aid to navigation such as a light structure or lighted buoy, slow to a crawl or stop or anchor. Use this first step for safety before you go any further. That way, you will not risk sailing outside of the channel limits or running aground on a shoal.
T -- Take a Bearing:
Use your nautical chart for this step. You should already have plotted your magnetic course to the next light structure or lighted buoy. Use a handbearing compass to locate and confirm the next marker. Stand on the centerline of the boat and align your body so that you are in line with the bow. Hold the handbearing compass to your eye. Turn your entire body until the bearing matches your next plotted magnetic course.
For example, let's say your next plotted course will be 175°Magnetic. If you use a handbearing compass, hold the compass to your eye. Concentrate on the bearing--not any object ahead. Turn your body until the magnified handbearing compass bearing reads 175°Magnetic. Stay in position; lower the handbearing compass from your eye. Look straight ahead and you should sight your desired light or lighted buoy. Shoot a quick second bearing to the marker to confirm.
Turn the boat to that bearing and head for the marker. Note: Confirm the light characteristic with timing (see Sailing Tips box below). If you have a spotlight, check the color and name (numbers, letters, or number-letter combination) as you approach the marker.
O -- Orient to the Big Picture:
Familiarize yourself with the visual picture before you move on. Scan to the right, left and ahead of your boat. Time and confirm the next light that lies ahead (see Sailing Tips box below). Turn off the spot light (if being used). That way, you will retain your night vision.
P -- Proceed When Ready:
Know what lies one or two steps ahead. Navigators call this 'keeping ahead of the boat'. As you proceed, verify the color, name, and shape of each unlighted beacon or buoy that you pass. When you pass one pair of markers, already be familiar with the characteristics of the next pair coming up.
Use this same technique with course changes. Keep at least one step ahead of the boat with the next course ahead. Will you turn left , right, or continue straight at the next lighted marker? If you lost an engine and had to clear out of the channel, would deeper water lie to the left or right of the dredged channel? Stop if in doubt and go through the four steps of S.T.O.P. again.
With this well proven technique, you can experience the magic of nighttime sailing in confidence and safety--wherever in the world you choose to cruise.
John Jamieson (Captain John) with 25+ years of experience shows you the no-nonsense cruising skills you need for safer sailing worldwide. Visit his website at www.skippertips.com and sign up for a free weekly sailing tip-of-the-week. Discover how you can gain instant access to hundreds of sailing articles, newsletters, videos, Free e-Books and more!