Entering an unfamiliar marina at night. It’s what we’re told to avoid. Rightly so as it can be dangerous but sometimes you just can’t avoid it. Last Saturday the sun set as we were sailing towards our destination. We love a good night sail so we were actually quite happy but we knew it meant docking somewhere new in the dark, something we needed to properly prepare for.

Googling this topic surfaces just one article, so I’ll share some notes on how we prepared (they assume you’re within about an hour / 5 miles of your destination). If I’ve missed anything important, do let me know!

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, identify its bearing then locate it with a hand bearing compass on deck. 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 colour and characteristics (i.e. flashing pattern). This is especially important if the marina is backdropped against bright city lights as it’ll be twice as hard if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The pilot book will have details, as will your paper or electronic chart.

Check 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 arial view, 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 fumbling around in the dark, and at a time when you need all eyes on deck. Lifejackets, lifelines, torch (for inside the marina), head torches (with red bulbs).

Assuming you’ve got a working engine and the sea state and wind conditions allow, you could consider dropping sails whilst it’s still lightand motor the rest of the way. Alternatively wait until you’re closer in shore but do give yourself plenty of sea room.

Turn on your navigation lights and remember to switch when going from sail to motor.

Get 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/sails against the horizon (looks 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. We spent some time rummaging in dark lockers, lights in there would have been handy.

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, I do still suggest you avoid it. These ideas are just in case you can’t. 🙂

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