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Basic Marine Navigation Lighting

Recently, I read an article about another boating accident.  This one occurred at night and the two boats involved in the incident apparently collided head on.  When I hear about incidents such as this, I often wonder how it happened.  Was someone operating a boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs?  Was someone just not paying attention?  In the case of this most recent incident, one of the boats involved apparently did not have any navigation lights on.  The incident resulted in at least three individuals losing their lives.  None of the passengers on either vessel were wearing life jackets.  We often hear safety reminders about wearing life jackets and boating under the influence but what about navigation lights?

There are a lot of boaters that do not boat at night and therefore, never use their navigation lights.  As a result, many of us never give a thought to maintenance and some of us don’t even know what they mean when they are observed out on the water.  There are a lot of variations for marine navigational lighting based on the size and type of boat but for the purpose of this discussion, I am going to focus on what you would typically see on recreational boats.  

Your typical recreational vessel (those less than 65 feet) will have a red light that can be seen from directly in front of the vessel around to 112.5 degrees to the port side.  There will also be a green light that can be seen from directly in front of the vessel around to 112.5 degrees to the starboard side.  If you think about it, these lights correspond to the navigational rules.  If you are on a potential collision course with another vessel and you see its green navigational light, then you are the stand on vessel and can maintain course and speed.  On the other hand, if you see the red light of the other vessel, then you are required to change course and/or speed to avoid a collision.  If you see both the red and green lights then the other vessel is heading straight for you.

In addition to the green and red lights, each vessel will have a white light.  Depending on the vessel size and type, it may be a single 360 degree light (typically vessels less than 39 feet) or it may be two lights with one facing aft (stern light) in a 135 degree arc and the other facing forward (masthead light) in a 235 degree arc (typically vessels over 35 feet).  When underway, this ensures that a vessel can be seen from astern and also serves as a method of establishing  orientation of the vessel when viewed along with the red and green lights from the side or front.  When at anchor, a vessel should display only a 360 degree white light and no red or green lights.  Displaying full navigation lights when at anchor can be a dangerous situation as other vessels in the area may falsely assume that you are underway and that you can make changes in course and/or speed to avoid a collision.  

This is how a boat with a 360 degree while light would look at night.

This is how a boat with a stern light and masthead light would look at night.

A Few Tips

LED Lights - If your navigation lights are not already LED, consider replacing the existing ones with LED lights.  They use less power and will last practically the life of your boat.  This is really helpful if you are not diligent in checking your lights before heading out on the water.

Accent Lighting - In most areas, it is okay to display additional lighting on your boat such as underwater lighting or accent lighting provided the following applies:

1.        The additional lighting must not interfere with another vessels ability to properly interpret your navigation lights.

2.       The additional lighting must not create the potential to cause the vessel to be mistakenly identified as a law enforcement or rescue vessel. 

3.       The additional lighting must not be bright enough as to blind operators of other vessels at night.

When to use Navigation Lights – If you are out on the water, you should use your navigation/anchor lights starting at dusk and continue use until dawn.  Navigation lights should also be used during periods of reduced visibility such as when it is foggy or raining.

Sail Boats – Navigation lights on sailboats can be a bit different than powerboats.  If a sailboat is under sail, it should not display a forward white masthead light.  If it is under power, it should display the forward masthead light.  Sometimes this light is also called a steaming light.  It comes from the old days because it was used to differentiate if the vessel was under steam power or not.  Don’t forget that boats under sail have the right of way over power boats at all times (This applies to a recreational powerboat when it encounters a recreational sailboat. The rules sometimes change when other types of vessels come into play).  If a sailboat has its engine(s) running and propeller engaged, it is considered a powerboat. 

Happy Boating

Captain Frank
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