Under a blanket of stars

January 4, 2022

Reading time: 23 minutes

We finally did it. We made a full overnight crossing.

This might have happened months ago. We could have skipped over islands, or not sought permission to anchor for sleep. In retrospect, we just weren’t ready. We like the slow journey. And we didn’t want our first overnighter to be too long.

But from St Martin to the BVI, there’s only one option. It’s actually only around a 14-16 hour crossing, not even a full day, but far too long for a single day. Sure, some people will happily anchor in the dark, but we prefer to avoid it. Setting off late afternoon, sailing overnight and arriving in the morning in good light is to us the safest option. The only risk is moving too quickly and arriving in the dark, but we can always stay out at sea until the light picks up.

Doing this shorter crossing as our first overnight means that we can see how we get on with sleeping in shifts, knowing that we can crash in the morning. We can test out what watch length works best for us. And we don’t need to worry too much about preparing food underway.

If you’ve never done an overnight crossing before, this post will explain how we prepared, and how it went.

In the days before…

We’re crossing to a new country, the British Virgin Islands. Each country has a separate and unique set of entry protocols that we need to adhere to. We do our research well in advance and start preparing a few days before the crossing.


The first important thing to check is the weather. On this crossing, at this time of year, we’re pretty much assured of a smooth downwind sail. On others, there will be distinct weather windows you want to look for. On ANY crossing, you want to make sure the weather won’t be outside of your comfort and safety limits.

We start checking a week or so before, but keep a closer eye as the date of moving approaches. We also note what our rough course will be – the BVI from Marigot in St Martin is to the west and slightly north. Checking the weather the day before this trip, it looks like we’ve got steady 10-13kt easterly winds for our overnight journey. The wind will probably back to northeasterly towards the end of our trip, but it shouldn’t affect us badly. Basically, the wind will stay mostly behind us. It’s not a high wind, but it’s also not a lack of wind so we should be able to sail easily. There’s no significant rain due, but there’s always a chance of light showers.


The boring part.

It varies a lot, but even before Covid most Caribbean islands want you to pre-clear customs. The French islands are an exception to this. The BVI, along with a number of other islands, use a system called Sailclear. In theory, we should be able to fill out all of our details (with a heavy focus on the boat registration) online in advance, and not have to do so again. In reality, plenty of places get you to fill out a paper form when you arrive. We usually try to do this part of the clearance a few days before sailing.

This is the prep for clearing into the new country. We’ll also have to clear out of St Martin – we checked in advance where we can do this, and their opening hours.

In the pre-plague days, advance clearance was all you needed to do to prepare to enter a country. Covid has added some extra steps to the process.


Not all countries are imposing pre-arrival tests for fully vaccinated visitors, but the BVI is. We’ll need to take a PCR or Rapid antigen test within 48 hours of our arrival. We could do so within 4 days, but that would mean a second test on arrival. I’ve already checked out our testing location, a pharmacy in Marigot, and we’ll pre-register before going to test.

We also want to consolidate our vaccination records. Right now, because we were vaccinated in Bequia and boosted in St Martin, we have two separate records, but apparently, we can consolidate these at the pharmacy.

Because protocols change all the time, we check them regularly in the week before travel. We’re also keeping an eye on the cruisers’ forums on FaceBook as these are a great source of info, and talking to friends.

For the BVI, there’s an added complication in that they require you to have travel insurance that covers Covid. We don’t have travel insurance at all and aren’t eligible for many schemes because we’ve not lived in the UK in the last 6 months. Thanks to advice from our friend Debby, we’ve been able to find a single trip policy that covers us from a US insurer.

Boat prep

Before any passage, we stow loose items and generally clean up the interior as much as possible. We’ll be extra fastidious with this before this longer passage, and will do things like making sure any fragile items can’t chafe or fall. All of the safety features need to be checked, like our navigation lights and flares. Our handheld VHF radio will need to be charged. I’ll make sure the flare pack is easily accessible. So far, we haven’t put together a ditch bag, but I’ll do so this time – this will have passports and boat papers, water, food, a torch and spare radios. We’ll do a walk around to check our rigging. If it was a multi-day passage, Colin would go up the mast to check all the brackets.

We’ll take out waterproof clothing – even if it stays dry the warmth might be needed. For that reason, we’ll have jumpers handy too. Even on anchor, we’re noticing the nights getting chilly at the moment. We’ll also make sure we have tether lines and life vests handy. This will be vital should one of us need to go forward in the dark.

All the water toys need to come back onboard and be deflated (in the case of Daphne the duck) or stowed securely (in the case of Pepe and Popo, the paddleboards). I’ll check that lockers are tidy so that when we arrive in the BVI I can quickly and easily get mooring lines and the boat hook should we need to pick up a mooring ball.

Fueled up

Before going, we’ll make sure we’ve taken our garbage ashore, and we’ll check our water tanks. We’re making extra water today so we have plenty. We’ll also check the oil levels in the engine, and the fuel levels of both the boat engines and the dinghy. We’ll make sure we have plenty of easily accessible food (nut bars, crisps, and pot noodles). The fridge will be stocked with Colin’s Coke Zero to save replenishing underway. I’ll fill a couple of spare water bottles in case it’s too bouncy to easily replenish. The saloon seats will be set up as a crash space in case whoever is on watch uses that instead of the cabin. I’ll do the same with one cockpit bench.

The day of departure

We wanted to not make the day too busy, so we have time to have some rest during the day. That’s slightly backfired as yesterday didn’t feel too productive despite being busy.

We wake up at 8:30, and move the boat around to Marigot as soon as we’re dressed. This short move gives us a chance to be certain the engines are all good. It also means we’ve spent the night in the calm, quiet Friar’s Bay anchorage and had as much sleep as possible. After breakfast and making sure the anchor is well set, we go ashore.

Covid testing

Our first stop is The Sun Pharmacy, for rapid antigen tests. This is a convoluted process. We registered online yesterday, but they seem to be expecting most people to register on the day. A small makeshift office prints out everyone’s registration forms. Because we filled ours out in advance, they’re not automatically printed, so Colin has to get them to look up our records. Once we have our printed paper, we go into the pharmacy to pay, then back out to test.

We also want to see if we can have our vaccine papers consolidated. This is possible, but the pharmacist isn’t sure he’ll have time today. We email the papers through just in case, knowing that if he can do it we’ll have to go in to pay later.

Noses swabbed, we walk to Super U and buy a few final things, then it’s back to the dinghy.

Onboard prep

Colin gathers our papers so that he can clear us out at Island Waterworld. He also needs to buy a new water muffler for the starboard engine. I get on and tidy up, check the rigging, and prepare safety equipment and a snack bag. I take the outside window shades off, and stow heavy items like the washing machine and air fryer. I’m pretty much finished all but final checks by the time Colin gets back. He makes an attempt at the engine work, but needs a hose so quickly goes back out. Island Water World is now closed for lunch. We eat our own lunch while we’re out of things to do.

Once it’s after 2pm Colin goes back to the chandlery, then finishes the engine work. I try to take a time out to calm any anxiety by watching a few episodes of Sex and the City. Then I do the rest of the prep needed inside the boat, and Colin showers. Then I prepare us to refuel by putting out fenders and mooring lines. We have one last check of the weather – now easterly throughout the passage, and we agree that we’ll attempt to have two two-hour watches, and two three-hour watches, covering the time between 8pm and 6am.

Finally, we tell friends and family that we’re setting off, our route, and our predicted ETA. This is especially important as we don’t have AIS onboard to broadcast our location.

Soft launch

At around 4.20pm we pull up the anchor and motor towards the fuel dock. Frustratingly there’s a power boat there, and a small boat waiting, so we’re left holding off until the dock becomes free.

In the end, the power boat shows no sign of leaving. The fuel dock closes at 5pm and we need to get moving comfortably before the sun sets. We decide that we have enough fuel to be safe, and to just get moving.

The passage begins

We officially set off at 16:45. We have the sails up and engines off within 20 mins. As in many of our longer passages, we see a rainbow soon after setting sail.

We both stay on deck to watch the sunset, which is a clear green flash horizon sunset. After it’s passed, I take my contact lenses out so I don’t accidentally sleep in them. I shower and dress in long comfy trousers and layers. I try to nap for an hour, first outside, and then inside when I feel chilly. In the end, I don’t do more than doze.

I cook cheese tortellini and pesto, and we eat at 7pm. The food wakes me up a bit so I take the first watch from 8pm to 10pm.

First watch

Once I’m at the helm, I set a 15-minute timer on my Apple Watch. In my two hour watch, nothing happens. Really, nothing. I see no other vessels, and only need to make small adjustments to our course. We’re trying to keep the wind off our starboard aft quarter without going too far off course. We’re averaging 4-5.5kts, which isn’t amazing but is okay.

Every 15 minutes, when my timer goes off, I get out of the seat. I check the blind spot on our port bow caused by the sails, then I look at the stars. Once I spot it, I look at the bioluminescence in our wake. Then I go back to looking at the horizon from the helm. I see one shooting star on this watch. There are the occasional light clouds, but mostly I’m under a blanket of stars. There’s no moon.

I start with The Lakes by Taylor Swift as an earworm but as I often do on long journeys I’m singing musicals in my head so it’s soon gone. I charged my headphones to use but I’m happiest listening to the water on the hull.

Colin emerges at midnight, I tell him how it’s going. He tells me he’s been able to sleep, so I know he’s alert and ready to watch. I rinse out my mouth with mouthwash but don’t want to turn on the light to brush, then I curl up in our cabin. I use the fan to block noise from the sail above. It clunks but I can doze through it for my two-hour rest.

Second watch

I’m up at 00:00, for a three-hour watch this time. I still don’t brush my teeth, and I regret it. I make a cup of tea and put a couple of madeleines in my pocket.

Colin gives me his report. The wind had dropped right down but it’s picked up again. There’s a cruise ship on our starboard bow. Colin doesn’t think it looks like it’s moved, which could mean a collision course. I need to keep an eye out on its position.

The stars are less visible, possibly because of cruise ship lights. I’m surprised that the glow of St Martin is still visible and there’s still no moon. I eat my cakes and drink tea – I regret it as my stomach wasn’t awake and even the small cakes sit heavily.

I’m feeling warm so I take off my hoodie. By the end of my first 15-minute timer, it’s clear that the cruise ship will pass out of our course quickly. I can see a container ship so keep an eye on that, but it’s quickly away too.

As time passes, the stars become more visible again, and I see six more shooting stars on this watch. We’ve slowed down since my first watch, to 3-4.5kts. I’m a little concerned that we gave people an eta, and we won’t be able to let them know that we’ve just been slow.

I wake myself up at one point by scraping the top of my foot on the footrest.

My sleep created two new earworms. Hips don’t Lie by Shakira and I’m with You by Avil Lavigne. They merge strangely in my head. Instead of mentally singing musicals, I write. I’m using night mode on phone, so it won’t mess up my eyes.

The dreaded oilies

Around halfway through the watch, I dare to go below to use the bathroom. It’s getting chilly again, so I put my jumper back on.

It starts to drizzle and I don’t want to risk getting wet. It’s time to try out the old oilskins left onboard by the old owner. They consist of an overall type trousers and a waterproof jacket. They have those awful smell that all things stored in marine lockers develop over time. And they are made for a much larger human. I find myself sitting at the helm as the brief shower stops feeling like a child playing dress-up in adult clothes.

At my next alarm, I take a good look at the clouds and decide I can take it all off – the smell is overpowering and I don’t want to end up smelling of it when I go for my next nap. I leave the overall trousers in a puddle, fireman style, just in case. I can see clouds behind, in the east, so I make a mental note to check them carefully on the next alarm to see if they’re going to catch us up. 

Powering through

By 2am it doesn’t look like the clouds in the east will catch up but I can see small clouds to the north and south. It also looks like there may be a larger cloud ahead. I’m prepared to jump back into the oilies at the first drop of rain, smell and all.

I’m feeling pretty proud that I’m still awake and alert at the point where my last watch ended. It’s now 2/3 of the way through the longest part of my night. 

I’m also really proud that I haven’t had to wake Colin up, so I’m slightly disappointed when he appears. He can feel that we’re going slowly and decides to put the port side engine on. I’d decided I wouldn’t wake him or do this unless we were consistently below 3kts. I’m glad though that he’s taken the decision out of my hands. We start to get 4.5-5kts. It’s not great but means only arriving 3-4 hours later than planned and not dangerously close to the end of the day.

I mention the missing moon and he points out that it’s a new moon. My dyslexic brain has a tendency to think a month passes between the new and full moons. It’s pathetic – I’ve studied and understand moon cycles pretty well.

The final hour

Engine on, Colin curls up on the port side cockpit bench and I continue my alarm-observe-stars-water routine. Taylor is back in my head. At some point, Colin moves inside to the saloon sofa. I can still see the glow of St Martin, but around 2:30 I can also start to make out the glows which I think are coming from Anegada and Virgin Gorda. I get a sense of time passing from the movement of the constellations across the sky.

It’s just after 3 when Colin comes to relieve me, and we’re just over halfway through the journey. We should ideally have been 2/3 through, but I’m happier safe and slow than in wild weather.

Resting up

I can feel a slight gnaw of hunger that would keep me awake so I eat a nut bar and refuel my water in the dark. I manage a vague attempt at brushing my teeth before lying down this time.

I’m like Goldilocks. I can’t work out where to sleep. Our bed has too much vibration from the engine beneath it. The saloon has too many noises. In the end, I crawl between the piles of sheets and food store in the forecabin. The pillow in there isn’t comfortable but I end up sleeping soundly.

An unexpected third watch

I was so eager to crawl into a bunk that I forgot to set an alarm so it’s 6:30 when Colin wakes me up. I brush my teeth again and stumble into the cockpit to take the helm. We didn’t officially agree on watches beyond this point as we knew we’d both want to be awake for sunrise. It’s an understated one – there’s too much cloud cover at the horizon.

Colin goes to lie down at 7, so I essentially take another watch. It’s only fair after he let me sleep late.

As well as being able to see Virgin Gorda clearly, I can see Tortola and the smaller islands in front of it. I can make out buildings as soon as the sun is high enough to cast light on the hills. We’re still 2-3 hours behind our planned ETA but it feels good to see land. What I’d thought was Anegada’s lights in the dark had apparently just been another cruise ship just below the horizon.

I don’t set a timer at first but I’m soon nodding off so I go back to my 15-minute checks. I pass some time detangling my hair with my fingers, but as soon as I’m done I’m sleepy again. My earworm has become Die Antwoord. I end up playing mahjong and solitaire to keep myself awake while Colin gets an hour or so of sleep.

The final slog

Colin gets up and turns on the water maker then takes over the helm at 8:30. He leaves it only to change our French courtesy flag to BVI one, adding a yellow quarantine flag. Originally we’d expected to arrive around 9am and our journey would have been over by now. It’s looking more like it’ll be 11-12. We haven’t had a working phone signal yet which is frustrating. 

Colin eats some madeleines for breakfast. I’ve got that churning bloated feeling you get when you have an overnight flight. I think it happens because you don’t sleep long enough to digest properly. Still, by the time I’ve been awake for 2.5 hours, it feels like I should eat so I boil the kettle for instant noodles. While it boils, I do last night’s washing up. I also swap my long trousers for shorts and shed a layer on top, and switch to sunglasses. As I’d hoped the smell of the chicken noodles wakes up my appetite, and the noodles wake me up.

I settle into reading as we pass Virgin Gorda. At some point, we get internet so I update people on our delays.

Into the BVIs

We pass through Round Rock passage at 10:00 and start to see the odd fishing float. By 10:30 we can see plenty of boats out sailing – we’ve arrived in the Caribbean’s most popular charter destination. The wind isn’t helping us to reach our destination, so we take in the sails and put the second engine on. It means the sails are no longer creating a visual obstruction in what can be a busy channel. 

It’s great to have finally made it to the BVI on our own boat. We started our sailing journey here in 2015 with our first practical courses. In fact, we’re motoring the reverse course of the first track I ever took the helm on, between Road Town and Dead Chest.

It’s 11:45, exactly 19 hours since we set off when we drop the anchor in Road Town. We’re a little unsure about where we’ve anchored. It’s marked as fine in our cruising guide but the navigation software on the iPad suggests it’s restricted. Since we’re only here for as long as it takes to clear in, and we’re beside two other boats flying Q flags, we decide it should be fine.

Colin gathers our papers and heads ashore. I use the time to clear away all of our safety gear and extra food. I also replace the blinds, curtains and window shades – we usually keep these in place all the time to keep the interior cool. 

Caribbean bureaucracy

It’s 2pm and I’ve been reading for an hour when I start to get worried. I don’t have a charged SIM, so we can’t communicate. I’m genuinely concerned that Colin has been detained. I fuss around trying to find a SIM that works, but as I do so he gets back. It’s just been incredibly bureaucratic and slow.

I quickly make sandwiches while Colin stows the dinghy and I eat mine one-handed as I remove the snubber from the anchor and direct Colin as he raises the hook. It’s moments like this that I know I’m a sailor.

By 3pm we’re finally fully cleared in and anchored in Brandywine Bay and our longest journey on Mirounga to date is over.

We survived!

It’s silly to be jubilant about such a straightforward crossing, but I am. On past night sails, during training, I’ve really struggled with staying awake. I’m also really crap at falling asleep. I was worried that sailing overnight would be the same as flying overnight is for me – 30+ hours of no sleep.

I also don’t take the helm too often, and it’s nice to feel I was fine doing so. There was no stress for me in making adjustments to our course to keep the wind. We both enjoyed the peace of being alone on deck with just the stars and the water.

I feel proud of prepping the boat well and actually making some good safety precautions, which we’ve tended to overlook on shorter crossings.

We looked after each other well, making sure we both got as much rest as possible.

We’ve learned that it’s best to give friends and family a more realistic view of our ETA, with a good buffer in case of low wind. It’s possibly time to stop telling the navigation software that we average 6kts.

We’ve also passed, on this journey, the 1000 nautical mile mark since we took ownership of Mirounga in April.

In a few weeks, we’ll be starting to head south, which will involve between 2 and 4 overnight crossings, on longer passages. This first experience has given me a lot of reassurance and given me a love of sailing in the dark I never knew I’d have.

And now? We sleep.