Thoughts on Hitting Things in the Water at Night

Updated: Sep 6

West Greenland Ilulissat Jakobshavn Jacobshaven sky sunset

I remember once pulling in to Sandy Hook Marina, New Jersey. It was pretty late at night, and we were dodging lousy weather coming in from the East River. The entrance is well defined but with unlit buoys. So one crew member (me) was holding on to the forestay in wind and rain with a giant flashlight we had trying to locate the next buoy in the channel. So that got me thinking of how best to spot obstacles in one’s path, be it fixed to the bottom or not, as the case may be. My eyes are what they are, and no point in going on about it. I’m 60 and have worn glasses all my days. Mr. Magoo springs to mind. As I see it we have a few choices:

  1. Eyeball

  2. Forward-Looking Sonar

  3. Spotlight

  4. FLIR

Forward looking sonar – credit Ecopilot.com

So I then looked at forward-looking Sonar. Most Sonar is of the “fish finder” variety, basically tells you where you have just been. It has its uses but is not going to give a warning of much. Go up the price tag pole, though, and they get more creative. Entry-level seems to be B&G, EcoPilot, or Panoptix, but the drawback remains their short forward range even under good conditions. Bear in mind that at 8 knots, your yacht is covering about 4m/s. A 10-second warning gives you 40m to do something less, of course, how far back from the bow the sensors are mounted. Great for following contour lines or finding the edge of a channel but not much for finding a floating container or growler. Hmm. Spend a lot more, and you get into the realms of Far Sounder. Big yacht technology and primarily out of the scope of mere mortals, but the distance issues still hold, though to a lesser extent.

High beam marine spotlight – credit CFXsearchlights.com

I then thought of searchlights. With modern technology, Xenon lamps, and high-power LED, there are some very bright and wide-angle sources out there. It would be like Sandy Hook again but with more light and no soaking. However, I remember a night spent on the Monkey Bridge of a general cargo ship years ago. We were in Port Stanley harbor, Falkland Islands. Russian-built ship with a colossal searchlight fixed above the bridge. A public alert as one sailor was late returning from shore in a RIB, single-handed. We spend 3 hours looking with that searchlight, time enough for all hope to fade given the sea temperature. Even with its massive scale, it simply lit a small area of sea. One operator and four sailors looking hard could not find him that night. Found dead the next day on the shore of Sparrow Cove, capsized. There is a place for search and spot lights and we will fit some but they will be supplemented by other technologies.

Bridge illuminated in IR spectrum – FLIR.com

Then we turned to Forward-Looking Infra-Red. In other words, the systems used by police helicopters to find missing persons and the likes. Everything not at absolute Zero Kelvin will emit a heat signature. These devices work in full daylight to total darkness. Enhancements include visible image camera overlay and both digital and optical zoom. They can also be enhanced with long-wavelength Infra-Red lasers to light up the target at a frequency detectable by the optics. I’m a newbie at this though the market seems to be dominated by the aptly named FLIR. FLIR makes units from a few $1000’s to nearly $100,000 depending on what you want, the stabilization, and the sensitivity of the optics.

Marine traffic at night – FLIR.com

It looks like FLIR technology is a game-changer for the short-handed sailor at my present level of understanding. They can see ice and logs in the water from perhaps a mile or two. Man overboard can be located at two miles or more, depending on sensor elevation. Other boats detected at 3 or 4 miles in complete stealth. The software can lock on and track a target. Entering Sandy Hook would be like entering it in daylight with the color removed (or not in some systems). The final decision boils down to “is the price worth it,” only you can answer that decision. But I will tell you this, there is a choice in the market, and the price is only moving one way over time.

Finally – I have a sneaky suspicion that lighting up a US Navy vessel out of Norfolk, VA, with a high-power Infra-Red tracking laser might ruin one’s day. Perhaps best not aim it in that direction? 🙂

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