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The Magic Of Overnighting On Your Boat

You don't need a yacht, or a luxury locale, to experience the special pleasures that come from sleeping on your boat.

Sailboat Moored at Night with Big Full Moon in Background

Photo Credit: Getty Images/GDMoonKiller

Near the top of any list about the joys of boating is one you may not have considered: "opportunities." Sure, your boat can take you here or there, to do this or that, but the majority of us take our boats out for a day of fun — then park them again before nightfall.

What if you decided to play hooky once in a while and not come home?

Make this the summer for your first sleepover. Everything changes with the fading of the light — the sights, the sounds, the mood. Overnighting creates instant adventure; it feels like an exotic getaway, even if you're just a few miles from home.

An overnighter may seem intimidating, but there are many tips and tricks (see "Overnight wisdom from our editors" below) to get prepared. Done right, overnighting is downright addicting, as the following personal memories from your fellow BoatUS Members reveal.

The Editors

Come week's end, I released our lines, calling back to my husband at the helm, "We're free!" Grinning like traunts, we set out into a blazing sunset.

Pam Humbert

There And Back

Bound by life's obligations, we worked through our week while Morgana waited, tethered to her mooring.

Come week's end, I released our lines, calling back to my husband at the helm, "We're free!" Grinning like truants, we set out into a blazing sunset.

Hours later, the anchor dropped with the satisfying sound of clinking chain in a favorite gunkhole. Cocktails were served and cozy conversation came easily under a starlit sky. Playing for us in the background was the calming music of water lapping gently. Our snug bunk welcomed us and rocked us gently to sleep as the water music played through the night.

We stirred as dawn broke and the birds took flight. Soon the fish were jumping, and the smell of fresh coffee perking added to our awakened sense of well-being. We glowed that afternoon as Morgana headed joyfully in the breeze toward home.

Pam Humbert, New York

Off The Grid

We always feel blessed to find an empty Mud Bay on British Columbia's Cortes Island, aptly named for its good holding. It's home to seals, sea stars, raccoons, otters, and clear jellyfish with sand-dollar markings. Like a dog before it plops onto its sleeping spot, we circle around, then drop anchor in 15 feet to pin ourselves for a couple of nights.

What do we do there? There's no cell reception and only static on the radio. Here we have no appointments, no car, no wind – just a dinghy and, ashore, miles of winding trails. We have loons calling at daybreak and enough light at 10 p.m. to read our books in the cockpit. At midnight, the Big Dipper centers itself in the forward hatch as we lie in our gently rocking V-berth. Here it's just food, wine, and us.

Just time. Just peace.

— Karen Seashore, Idaho

Overnight Boating Wisdom From Our Editors

Bow of a sailboat pointing towards sunset

Photo: Courtesy, Chris Miller

Begin any overnight adventure with a game plan and lots of prep. Beyond going through your preflight checklist to make sure everything on board is working, here are our own tips from many happy nights sleeping aboard boats both large and teeny:

Pre-start. If you're anxious about your first night on the boat, plan at least one overnight at the dock as practice. Pretend you can't go ashore.

Practice makes (hopefully) perfect. Sure, you know your way around your boat, but practice anchoring, docking, and tying off in the daylight before trying it at night. You don't want to drop the anchor for the first time when it's dark and you're stressed.

No moonshots, please. Don't go too far. Make it an easy, safe, stress-free trip. Avoid a harbor with poor holding, big surge, lots of current, or traffic.

Watch the weather. Of course you will. But forecasts change daily, if not hourly. You don't want surprises.

Plan B. Be ready with alternate destinations if wind, current, or weather make your chosen spot unfavorable.

Check (and recheck) your supplies and lists. The last thing you want is to be snug and secure at anchor, then realize your phone charger is still on the bedroom nightstand. Or you forgot the coffee. Consider how good your favorite pillows from your bed will feel on this adventure. If you're going to overnight at another marina, make sure you have a shore power cord. Check to see that what you're going to use is working (stove, potable water pump, anchor windlass, lights, head).

Provision wisely. Think through your menu. Fully prepare as many meals as possible at home (especially smart on a small boat). Chili that just needs one pot to warm up, poached salmon that you can put on mixed greens and serve room temperature. Keep it easy. And spice it up! Zipper bags are great for a few favorites from your spice rack.

Consider two coolers. If you don't have an on-board fridge, one cooler for frozen goods and a second that will be opened more frequently for cold goods should more than cover a long weekend. Frozen half-gallon jugs provide extra (and cold) freshwater when they finally melt. For longer stays, consider getting dry ice in your frozen cooler. Bottom line: Take plenty of water.

Safety first. You should already have your safety gear aboard. Check your life jackets, including a throwable, first-aid kit, flashlight, signaling device, fire extinguisher, Unlimited Towing from BoatUS (just in case). Create an emergency plan, and be sure to tell key people where you're going, how to reach you, and when you plan to return.

Stay put. Do you have the proper-sized anchor to hold if the wind pipes up? Be sure your anchors are right for the bottom where you plan to visit. Consult charts or other resources to learn the bottom and what anchor holds best to that bottom. Check if your anchor light is in working order, and use it every night.

Photo from behind boat at night with a family eating dinner inside the boat and a city in the background

Quality time with family or friends within the intimate confines of a boat is priceless, whether on a luxury power cruiser (above) or a modest, home-built sailboat such as Mark Lemahieu's (below) from Wisconsin. | Photo Credit: Billy Black

Photo of a home-built sailboat docked.

Photo Credit: Lorraine Lemahieu

Which boat is ours? Can you "see" your boat at anchor from a dinghy? Consider applying removable reflective safety tape in conspicuous places so that it's easy to find your boat from a distance with a flashlight.

Don't be afraid of the dark. Add battery-powered lanterns, a high-beam flashlight, and a bright LED headlamp — invaluable for a trip to the bow to check the anchor (to keep both hands free) or even just for a walk to the marina's bathroom. Bring extra batteries.

It may be colder than you think at night, so bring loose pants and a fleece sweater, even in warm climes.

Start the trip in daylight. As it gets gradually dark, your eyes will adjust. Turn down the brightness on instrument displays. What's good during the day will be blinding at night. Preserve night vision by using a red or blue light to look at the chart or pilot book.

Protect yourself from bugs. Mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and other bugs are not invited!

Do you have an extra handheld VHF? Bring it.

Head games. Make sure you know how to use (and unclog) the head. If not, it's the quickest way to cut short an overnight.

Night light. Bring a little LED camping light to give ambiance to the cockpit without using onboard power.

Bring a sun-shower bag for easy hot-water cockpit showering.

A Cruise Recovered

The first overnight aboard our recently purchased 1978 Helms 24 got off to a calamitous start when the first stop on our itinerary, a nice waterfront restaurant, was closed for the night. Then our outboard quit just as we left the crowded dock, and we had to dodge tied-up boats before we drifted to an open spot. After many pulls and much cussing, I discovered the fuel line had popped off. Once that was fixed, we got underway, and enjoyed the remainder of the early evening before anchoring in a secluded spot.

A bottle of wine and some cheese and crackers soon soothed my ruffled feathers. With nothing around but trees and water, the night sky turned brilliant. From the V-berth, we spotted a pair of meteors as we were serenaded by a nearby owl. The travails of the day drifted away. All was perfect again.

— Jim Connors, Tennessee

Generation 'Next'

Our children became crew on our family boat as soon as they could hold a line. Lisa and Adam grew up learning how to go fast and navigate the Great Lakes on buoy races, long distance races, and extended cruises from southern Lake Huron to Canadian waters of Georgian Bay and the North Channel. As they matured, other sports claimed more of their time. When highschool and college graduations loomed, we asked them to commit to one more family cruise.

We left our home port in the region known as Michigan's "thumb" on a warm mid-July evening and headed for Canadian waters. Lightning flickered as late-day thunderstorms waned. Our 36-footer romped along in 15-knot winds off the quarter with following seas. The long twilight turned dark. Lisa checked our course; Adam was at the wheel. My husband John and I grinned at each other. We went below and fell asleep listening to the water swishing by, our young adults murmuring in the cockpit. Our hearts were full, knowing our kids were fully capable, taking us north into the Lake Huron night.

— Nan Gebus, Alabama

Surprise Visitor

My wife and I enjoy exploring coves in eastern Lake Ontario and anchoring overnight in settled weather. One perfect August night, all was calm and the stars shining. I was alone in the cockpit at peace with myself and the universe. As I rested serenely, a great blue heron swooped down with giant wings and landed 5 feet from me on the edge of our dinghy. I was so pleased and honored to be this close to such a magnificent creature. This unexpected visit enhanced the joy of a night at anchor when all is in order and nothing mars the peace.

— Steve Schwartz, New York

Awakening

It was spring break, college senior year, when five buddies and I chartered a Soverel 36 out of Nassau in the Bahamas. By the time we arrived and provisioned, it was late afternoon, but we decided to set out for the Exuma chain anyway. We took turns at the helm and, as it got later, one by one the guys drifted off below to sleep. By midnight, I was the only one still awake — and loving it.

The stars were brilliant, and the warm beam breeze kept us skimming along the calm waters quietly at 6 knots. It was the boat, the sea, the sky, and me. Exhilarated, I fell in love with sailing that night.

— Roger Philips, California

Cruising In Company

On our way south on the Intracoastal Waterway in our 27-foot Catalina, we pulled into our anchorage at Queens Island, Georgia, in view of the red and white striped Sapelo Island Lighthouse. It was an October sunset to remember. The moonless night was warm and clear, the stars brilliant, the Milky Way visible.

My partner Phil laid on his back in the cockpit looking for shooting stars, but my attention was drawn to the water. I heard soft rippling sounds as if someone was dangling his or her feet in the water. I peered into the dark ripples but couldn't see anything. Then, from a few feet away, I heard a loud huff. It scared me; it was strangely human, as if someone was letting out an exasperated sigh.

"What's that?" I whispered. We were quiet for a while, listening. Another huff, farther off, broke the silence.

"Dolphins. Breathing," Phil whispered.

They surrounded us in the dark water. Scanning the surface, I saw a reflection of our cockpit lantern in a round circle. An eye! They were watching us, too.

— Kay Dolliver Harrison, Florida

Fishing slowed after a few hours, and relaxation was the mode. We weren't prepared for the most amazing, dazzling display of northern lights that emerged.

John F. Briggie

One Special Night

It was 1978, off the southern shore of Lake Erie, near Port Clinton, Ohio. My friend and I set out in my old wooden 21-foot Lyman for some overnight catfishing. Anchoring about 1 mile offshore, away from all city lights, the atmosphere was dark.

 

I lit a gas lantern and began fishing. It wasn't long before the drags on our reels were screaming perpetually, and one after another sizeable catfish were boated. Fishing slowed after a few hours, and relaxation was the mode.

We weren't prepared for the most amazing, dazzling display of northern lights — Aurora Borealis — that emerged across the open waters toward the Canadian coastline. The sky was crystal clear, enhancing each dancing wave of color. This went on for about an hour at its peak.

We'd never seen such a thing. It was a night to remember.

— John J. Briggle, Florida

Keep Calm And Carry On

We shared a charter to the Dry Tortugas on an old, traditionally rigged 55-foot ketch. All five passengers were Type A personalities, including a politician, a doctor, and a lobbyist. We left the dock in late afternoon, prepared to share watches on an overnight motorsail. Winds were forecasted for NE 8 to 12 knots. Perfect.

At sunset, we detected a tear growing on the genoa, so we stowed it. Next, the captain told us there was also a problem with the main. Then the wind died, so we fired up the iron jenny. Then the motor died. Out of cellphone range, in winds under 5 knots, it seemed everything that could go wrong did.

We had a choice: We could turn back to Marco Island for repairs or resume a very slow sail to the Dry Tortugas under the two remaining sails. We all had jobs to go back to in four days, but we unanimously voted to keep going. Under a full moon, with occasional puffs of light wind into slack sails, it was so quiet we heard dolphins splashing alongside. It was the best sail – and best decision — ever!

— Denise (& Bill) Sears, Florida

A Night At Sea

Four of us were delivering a 36-footer from Norfolk, Virginia, to Lisbon, Portugal, and I was on watch in the early morning somewhere between Bermuda and the Azores. The sky was a solid black canopy pierced with thousands of stars. No moon interfered with the starlight reflecting on the smooth surface of the ocean. I was possessed of the impression of floating in the sky under a small jib and main, as there was no horizon.

A luminous wake followed me into the firmament. Slowly my consciousness was penetrated by a whooshing sound, like people opening cans of vacuum-sealed coffee. Then there was a strong smell of fish. It was a whale, easily longer than our boat. An ethereal mist engulfed me and, to my left, I watched a huge green luminous shape flow under the boat, extending beyond our bow and stern. The whooshing sound reoccurred to starboard before slowly fading away.

— James Shinners, Minnesota

Rich Armstrong

The New Jersey shore and lakes of lower New York defined Rich's childhood. But when he bought a 21-foot Four Winns deck boat and introduced his young family to the Connecticut River, his love for the world of boats flourished over the years from there. A journalist by training, he worked in TV news and at several newspapers before combining his passions for 18 years at the boating publications Soundings and Soundings Trade Only, where as Managing Editor he reported on everything from boat and product innovation, to compelling feature stories, and built his reputation in the marine industry as one of the most thorough reporters in our business.