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How Should a Sailboat Be Lit At Night? (Expert Advice You Need To Know)

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

Are you a sailboat enthusiast looking for ways to ensure your vessel is properly lit at night? Our expert advice will provide you with the information you need to know.

From US Coast Guard regulations and lights for longer vessels, to testing lights and the advantages of searchlights, we will cover all the details necessary for proper illumination.

Well even give you some tips and recommend the best accessories to help you navigate the night.

Lets get started on how to light your sailboat at night!

Table of Contents

Short Answer

At night, a sailboat should be lit according to the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

This includes displaying a white light at the masthead, a white light on the port side, and a red light on the starboard side.

Additionally, a stern light should be visible from the rear of the boat, and a deck light should be used to show the length of the boat.

Finally, a 360 degree all-round light should be used to show the boat has a length of less than 50 meters.

US Coast Guard Regulations for Sailboat Lighting

When it comes to sailing at night, it is essential to have proper lighting on board your vessel.

According to the US Coast Guard, all sailboats should be equipped with at least one all-round white light that is visible at a distance of two miles.

This light should be at the highest point on the boat and should be able to be seen from all directions.

Additionally, if a sailboat is longer than 39.4 feet, it should also be equipped with a masthead light, red/green sidelights, and a sternlight.

These lights should all be visible from a distance of two miles and should be arranged in a specific order in order to clearly identify the direction of the vessel.

All of the lights should be kept in good condition and should be tested regularly to ensure that they are functioning properly.

It is also recommended that any sailboats that are out after dark should also be equipped with a searchlight.

This will help other vessels identify the boat’s position and its direction of movement, ensuring the safety of all sailors.

It is important to remember that the lights should be clearly visible and should not be obscured by any other objects or sails.

Additionally, if you are sailing in an area with other boats, you should be aware of their lights as well.

By following these guidelines, you can ensure that your sailboat is properly lit and can be seen from a distance.

Necessary Lights for Longer Vessels

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

When sailing at night, it is essential for all vessels to be properly lit.

This is especially important for sailboats, which can be difficult to spot due to their low profile and lack of power.

The United States Coast Guard recommends that sailboats be equipped with certain lights to ensure that they can be seen from a distance of two miles.

For vessels that are longer than 39.4 feet, they should be outfitted with a masthead light, red/green sidelights, and a sternlight.

These lights should all be visible from a distance of two miles, and should be arranged in a specific order so that they can clearly identify the direction of the vessel.

It is important to remember that these lights should be in good condition and should be tested regularly to ensure that they are functioning properly.

Additionally, it is also recommended that long sailboats that are out after dark should also be equipped with a searchlight.

This will help other vessels identify the boats position and its direction of movement.

A searchlight can be particularly useful in areas with a lot of traffic, as it ensures that other vessels are aware of the sailboats location.

Proper lighting is essential for a safe and enjoyable sailing experience at night.

By following the recommendations of the United States Coast Guard, sailboats can ensure that they are properly lit to ensure that they are visible from a distance of two miles.

Furthermore, the addition of a searchlight can also help other vessels identify the boats position and its direction of movement, making it easier for them to navigate around the sailboat.

Testing Lights Regularly

When it comes to sailing at night, it is important to ensure that your boat is properly lit.

This means not only having the correct lights, but also testing those lights regularly to make sure they are functioning properly.

According to the United States Coast Guard, any sailboat out after dark should be equipped with all-round white lights, masthead lights, red/green sidelights, and a sternlight, all of which should be visible from a distance of two miles.

Furthermore, these lights should be arranged in a specific order to clearly identify the direction of the vessel.

Testing your lights regularly is the best way to ensure that they will work when you need them to.

This means checking for any cracks or damage that may have developed over time.

Additionally, it is important to make sure that the lights are still functioning properly, as the bulbs can burn out over time, leaving you without the necessary illumination at night.

It is also recommended that any sailboats that are out after dark should be equipped with a searchlight.

This is especially important when navigating in unfamiliar waters, as it can help prevent collisions with other vessels.

By testing your boats lights regularly, you can be sure that they will be working properly when you need them.

This will help ensure that you are visible to other vessels, and that you can clearly identify the direction of your boat.

Additionally, having a searchlight onboard can give you an extra layer of protection while sailing in unfamiliar waters.

Searchlights For Extra Visibility

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

When sailing at night, it is important to ensure that your boat is properly lit for other vessels to identify your position and direction.

One of the most important pieces of equipment for night sailing is a searchlight.

It is recommended by the United States Coast Guard that boats sailing after dark should have a searchlight in order to make themselves more visible.

A searchlight is a powerful light that can be aimed in a particular direction to indicate the position and direction of the boat.

The light is made up of a powerful lamp, a reflector, and an aiming mechanism which allows for the light to be focused and directed.

Searchlights can be powered by either electric or battery power and can be mounted on the mast or stern of the boat.

The searchlight should be powerful enough to be seen from a distance of at least two miles, just like the other required lights.

It is important to make sure that the searchlight is in good working condition and is tested regularly, as it is the most important light for identifying the boats position and direction in the dark.

The searchlight also serves as an extra level of safety for the boat and its crew, as it can be used to identify other vessels in the vicinity and to determine their direction of movement.

In conclusion, a searchlight is an essential piece of equipment for any boat sailing after dark.

It is important to make sure that the searchlight is in good working condition and has been tested regularly.

With a searchlight, other vessels will be able to easily identify the position and direction of the boat, providing an extra layer of safety and helping to ensure safe night sailing.

Advantages of Searchlights

Searchlights offer a number of advantages to sailboats that are out after dark.

They can help other vessels identify the boats position and its direction of movement, making it easier to avoid collisions.

Additionally, they provide a convenient way to scan for other vessels, buoys, and other obstacles in the water.

Searchlights also offer greater visibility in foggy or low-light conditions, helping the boats crew to maintain better situational awareness.

Finally, they can also be used to signal to other boats, as many searchlights come with a variety of colors and patterns, allowing for more effective communication.

All in all, searchlights can make sailing at night easier, safer, and more enjoyable.

Tips For Proper Illumination

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

When it comes to properly lighting up your sailboat for night sailing, there are a few key tips to keep in mind.

First, always be sure to equip your boat with the required lighting.

The United States Coast Guard requires that sailboats be equipped with at least one all-round white light that is visible from two miles away.

Additionally, vessels longer than 39.4 feet must also be equipped with a masthead light, red/green sidelights, and a sternlight.

All of these lights should be visible from two miles away and should be arranged in the proper order to clearly identify the direction of the vessel.

Second, be sure to regularly test and maintain your lights to ensure they are in working condition.

The lights should be tested at least once a month and any faulty or damaged lights should be replaced immediately.

Additionally, it is a good idea to clean and polish the lenses of the lights every few months to ensure they are not obstructed by dirt or dust.

Finally, if you are out sailing after dark, be sure to also equip your boat with a searchlight.

This will help other vessels identify your boats position and its direction of movement.

It is also a good idea to carry a few spare bulbs for your lights in the event of a malfunction.

By following these tips, you can ensure that your sailboat is properly lit for night sailing.

Be sure to always adhere to the regulations set forth by the United States Coast Guard and always practice safe sailing.

Recommended Accessories

When it comes to sailing at night, it is important to make sure your boat is properly lit.

According to the United States Coast Guard, sailboats should be equipped with at least one all-round white light, which should be visible from a distance of at least two miles.

Additionally, any vessel longer than 39.4 feet should also be equipped with a masthead light, red/green sidelights, and a sternlight.

These lights should all be visible from a distance of two miles, and should be arranged in a specific order to clearly identify the direction of the vessel.

All of these lights should be kept in good condition, and should be tested regularly to ensure that they are functioning properly.

This will help other vessels identify the boat’s position and its direction of movement.

In addition to these necessary lights, there are a few other accessories that can make sailing at night safer and more enjoyable.

A deck light is a great accessory to have on board as it will help light up the deck and make it easier to see any potential obstacles.

Additionally, it can be used to help locate items that may have been misplaced.

A strobe light is another great accessory for night sailing, as it can be used to signal for help in an emergency.

It is also wise to have a set of navigation lights, which will make it easier to identify your boat as you sail in the dark.

Finally, having a handheld flashlight or headlamp on board can be invaluable in case of an emergency.

By making sure your boat is properly lit and equipped with the necessary accessories, you can ensure that your night sailing experience is safe and enjoyable.

With the right precautions and preparation, you can make sure that you and your crew are well-prepared for any potential hazards that may arise while sailing in the dark.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, sailboats should be properly lit at night to ensure the safety of the vessel and those on board.

The United States Coast Guard has specific regulations for sailboat lighting that should be followed.

Additionally, any vessels longer than 39.4 feet should be equipped with a masthead light, red/green sidelights, and a sternlight.

It is important to regularly test these lights to make sure they are functioning properly.

Searchlights are also recommended for sailboats that are out after dark, as they can help other vessels identify the boat’s position and direction of movement.

By following these tips, you can make sure your sailboat is properly lit at night and ensure a safe journey.

James Frami

At the age of 15, he and four other friends from his neighborhood constructed their first boat. He has been sailing for almost 30 years and has a wealth of knowledge that he wants to share with others.

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Care

Boat Lights At Night (The Rules For Safety)

Boat navigation lights at night are used for safety. They are designed so they can be seen easily. Boat lights vary according to boat type and size, boat use, navigation area, and geographic location. Boaters should learn boat light meanings and keep up-to-date on boat light requirements.

Boat navigation lights indicate a boat’s heading (Aspect) and what it’s doing. The boat’s red and green lights show the boat’s port and starboard sides. Let’s explain boat light type, actions, and requirements in detail.

Boat light at night

Types of Boat Lights

Boating safety starts with proper boat navigation lights. If you are a boater, it’s important to understand the 4 types of common navigational lights on your vessel so that you can be seen by other boats in the water and avoid accidents or running aground.

Boat navigation lights

Boat navigation lights are split into four groups. There are Sidelights, Stern light, Masthead light, and All-Round light.

Sidelights show Red or Green to other vessels approaching from the side or head-on, while stern light only points out white light when you’re coming up behind someone else’s boat.

Masthead light should be mounted high on a vessel’s aft-most part of the structure that extends above deck level. The masthead light is a requirement on all power-driven vessels. It shines forward and to both sides and the color of this light is white.

The boat’s all-around white light is on the mast, stern, or somewhere else on the boat. This light can act as an anchor light when a boat is anchored.

Boat Navigation Light Color

  • Masthead light color – White
  • Port sidelight color – Red
  • Starboard sidelight color – Green
  • Stern light color – White
  • All-Round light color – white

Boat Light Visibility Range (Minimum)

  • Side lights; Boat < 12m (39.4 feet) – At least 1 NM
  • Masthead light; Boat < 12m (39.4 feet) – At least 2 NM
  • Stern light; Boat < 12m (39.4 feet) – At least 2 NM
  • All-Round light; Boat < 12m (39.4 feet) – At least 2 NM
  • Boat < 20m (65.7 feet) – Masthead light at least 3 NM; Other light at least 2 Nm
  • Boat > 20m (65.7 feet) – Masthead light at least 5 NM; Other light at least 2 Nm

Boat Navigation Lights Indicate W hich Side ?

Your boat’s navigation lights will basically tell you what side of the vessel is a port and which side is starboard. The red light indicates a vessel’s port (left) side; the green indicates a vessel’s starboard (right) side. Stern light is seen only from behind or nearly behind the vessel. Masthead Light shines forward and to both sides.

What Are Boat Lights Used For ?

Boat lights are typically used to guide boaters at night, but they can also be used for a number of other purposes. They can help you and other boaters determine which is the give-way vessel when encountering each other on the water during periods of restricted visibility such as fog or rain. So never forget boat lights at night — boat lights make you and others visible at night on the water. They are used only for boat safety purposes.

Boat Lights and The Law

To navigate safely in the water, vessels are required to show proper navigation lights. There’s no need to worry about boat lights being an inconvenience because they must be displayed from sunset to sunrise and during periods of limited visibility.

You must turn on boat lights when underway between sunset and sunrise, as well as during any period of restricted visibility such as fog, rain, or heavy snowfall. And when it is deemed necessary by any boat skipper, boat lights must be turned on during the day.

Why Do Boats Have Blue Lights?

The reason boats have blue lights is to signify that they are law enforcement vessels. They may display a flashing blue light when engaged in direct law enforcement or safety activities, so as not to interfere with the visibility of their navigation lights.

What Does a Single White Light on a Boat Tell You?

When you see a single white light on the horizon, it may mean that you are overtaking another vessel. In order to avoid collisions and other mishaps, give way to either side of the boat. Also, one single white light could mean that the other boat is at anchor.

What Does a Red Flashing Light Mean on a Boat?

A red flashing light means that it’s a WIG boat.

What Size Boat Requires a Stern Light?

If your boat is 39.4 feet or longer, make sure to get a separate masthead light and stern light. However, If you’re on a power-driven boat less than 39.4 feet in length, then the masthead and stern light may be combined into a single all-round (360 degrees) white light. 

Where to Put Navigation Lights on a Boat?

  • Masthead – over the centerline of a boat (seen ahead from 225 degrees)
  • Stern – near the stern, lowest height on a boat (seen 135 degrees from behind)
  • Side – port/left side and starboard/right side (112.5 degrees sides arc)
  • All-round – over the centerline of a boat (360 degrees arc)

Safety Tips When Using Boat Lights

– Must be turned on when underway between sunset and sunrise

– Should be turned on when in poor visibility

– Must be turned on when deemed necessary

– Must be mounted in such a way that boat lights are not obscured by any other obstructions

– Used for boat safety only

– Can never be used as floodlights

– Must be mounted in such a way that the other boat operator can see them clearly

– Should be properly illuminated at all times

– Must be mounted securely

– Must never be covered by boat covers or other obstructions

– Should be turned off when a boat is at anchor (Turn on anchor light)

Boat lights are more than just a way to see where you’re going at night. They can be used to communicate with other boats, and they can help you avoid collisions.

Boat lights are essential for safe night boating. They help other boats and vessels see your boat, and they also help you see where you’re going. There are different types of boat lights available, and it’s important to choose the right ones for your vessel.

What Are the Most Popular Boat Lights?

Here’s a look at some of the most popular boat lights and what they offer.

LED Boat Lights: LED boat lights are becoming increasingly popular due to their energy efficiency and long lifespan. They’re also much brighter than traditional incandescent bulbs, making them ideal for night boating. Many LED boat lights come in waterproof versions, so you don’t have to worry about them getting wet if you encounter rough waters.

Solar Boat Lights: Solar boat lights are a great eco-friendly option since they’re powered by the sun. They typically have built-in batteries that store solar energy during the day so that the light can shine at night.

Battery-Powered Boat Lights: Battery-powered boat lights are another popular option, especially for smaller boats. These lights typically use either disposable or rechargeable batteries, depending on your preference. Some battery-powered models even come with solar charging capabilities, so you can keep them charged even when there’s no sun available.

What Lights Should Be on When Boating at Night?

There are many different types of lights (including navigational lights) that are required or recommended to be used when boating at night. The type of vessel, the size of the vessel, and the area in which the vessel is operating will all play a great role in what specific lights need to be used. In general, however, there are a few basic rules that apply to all kind of vessels.

All these requirements exist so that other boats can easily identify your vessel and know its intentions (whether it is stopped, coming towards them, or moving away). By following these simple guidelines you can help keep everyone safe on the waterway.

Which Side of a Boat Has a Red Light at Night?

The side of a boat with a red navigation light at night is the port side. The port side is the left side of the boat when you are facing forward.

When Boating at Night What Does a Single Green Light Mean?

When you see a single green light, be sure that you are approaching a sailing vessel. In this case, you have to take action and you must give way. Remember, A sailing boat is always the stand-on mode except when it is going to overtake you.

What Lights are Required on a Boat at Night in Florida?

In Florida, boaters are required to display a white light visible in all directions from sunset to sunrise. Boats must have a white light visible from 360 degrees whenever they are safely moored or anchored away from jetty.

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image of a properly lit sailboat at night

How to sail at night

  • How to sail at night

Captains are often asked if it's possible to sail at night. In the vast majority of cases, the answer is yes, unless you are just starting out. You just need to know the specifics of night sailing — the rules of boat lighting, beacon signals, have navigation and nautical charts handy, and most importantly, follow basic safety rules on board. So, do you know what night sailing entails?

You can't do it without the correct lights

While on land, lights are primarily there to help us see, at sea it's the other way around. All boats must be properly lit for other vessels to see. And, a boat doesn't work like a car either, where we shine our headlights on the road ahead to see what's in front of us. At sea we rely on navigation, nautical charts, lighthouses and the captain's knowledge.

Basic boat lights include running lights, steaming lights and anchor lights. There are clearly defined and standardized rules for lighting a ship  under sail at night . So the question of how to light a yacht at night has a very simple answer. Running lights, or side lights, show other vessels where your port and starboard sides are, with red indicating port and green starboard, and you must also have a white stern light on.

Lighting the yacht at night is very important because, unlike during the day, the helmsman cannot judge the distance and direction  of other boats by sight. Running lights make the position and direction of the surrounding vessels visible, as well as their approximate distance, and helps to avoid possible collisions. Radar is also highly practical in this respect, as it shows the size and distance of the vessel.

However, when sailing there can be situations where the sails need to be lowered, and with that, the lighting also needs to be changed. If travelling under motor power , a steaming light  (masthead light)  must be turned on , which shines at the same angle as the side lights. When a sailboat is not under sail, it has to abide by the rules set out for power boats by COLREG (The International Rules for Preventing Collisions at Sea).

Lighting regulations when at anchor are again different. When at anchor at sea , only the anchor light should be on . According to the regulations this could be either a 360-degree white light atop the mast, or a light suspended from the boom, above the foredeck or on a furled genoa. If the boat is moored in port, the light is not normally used.

Night sky at sea with a yacht.

Navigation, GPS and maps

Nowadays, GPS and navigation aids integrated into the boat or that work as mobile apps are commonly used to determine the position of the boat. Modern technology is very accurate and reliable, but it is still worth understanding, reading and checking your position on  paper nautical charts . After all, almost any skipper will tell you that their GPS or navigation system has at some point told them they were on land, even when tens or hundreds of metres from shore.

Man on board a sailboat by a plotter.

Thanks to nautical charts, you will not only know of possible danger spots, but also lighthouses , enabling you to easily and accurately determine your position with the help of a compass. Each lighthouse is different, being lit and flashing in a unique way. A nautical chart will tell you how to identify a lighthouse by the number of flashes, their frequency and the colour of the light. To determine your exact position, you’ll then need two lighthouses in sight that serve as reference points for each other.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Lighthouses are not only practical, but they are often buildings with impressive architecture that are well worth stopping off at. Take a look at  15 lighthouses you must visit .

Lighthouse at Cyclades Islands, Greece.

Safety is paramount when sailing at night

Even during the day, there are clear rules regarding the movement of the crew on board. Basically, the crew should not stand unless they are engaged in manoeuvres. In all other cases, they should be sitting on benches, at the side of the boat when heeling, or in the cabin. Apart from the fact that a standing crew member could obstruct the helmsman's view, it also poses a greater risk of falling overboard . If you're interested in getting to know this subject in more detail, check out our article Sailing Etiquette A to Z .

At night, the rules are even stricter to ensure the crew remain as safe as possible and avoid damaging the yacht. If a crew member is on deck at night while sailing, they should wear a lifejacket  and ideally be attached to the boat with a lifebelt or harness.

Except for really experienced seafarers, the rule of thumb is that there should be at least  two people on board when sailing at night. And the captain should schedule shifts so that there are always two  rested crew members on board. After all, you need to be doubly vigilant when sailing at night, and staying awake all night is certainly not conducive to alertness — especially when manoeuvring  or entering port. For the same reasons alcohol is prohibited when night sailing. While during the day, crew members other than the helmsman can toast Neptune or have one glass of wine or beer, drinking alcohol is not permitted during a voyage at night. By all means celebrate a successful journey upon arrival in port at a local tavern, but it definitely pays to keep a clear head at sea.

Specifics of night sailing and boat handling

Steering and controlling the boat  is not particularly different during the day and at night. There are just a few nuances to make sailing that bit smoother. If you're on a vessel you know well, that’s one thing, but if you're on a charter boat , it's worth marking the sheets and other lines so that you know your way around in the dark.

Sailing at night, it is also important to assess  the weather conditions well. What you would normally do during the day can be significantly more challenging at night and requires a more careful assessment of weather conditions and weather patterns. It is always better to choose smaller sails and if you have even the slightest doubt about anything, postpone the trip. 

When  entering a harbour  or sailing close to shore, be doubly cautious. There are several risk factors. During the day, the surrounding boats, the rocks and the potential hazards on the surface and below are visible. At night you have to rely on navigation, charts and lighting. When entering the harbour, charts and GPS can provide you many clues but lights can cause issues. For example, you might get dazzled by the light from the shore, the anchor lights of other boats are easily confused with the lights on land, and, last but not least, you may encounter poorly lit fishing boats. However, if you keep in mind all of these potential risks, you will arrive safely in the harbour.

Man steering a ship.

The magic of night sailing

When compared to sailing during the day, night sailing places more demands on the captain's experience and knowledge of sailing regulations. But it is also a truly romantic experience. Millions of stars glistening in the night sky and the waves sparkling in the moonlight. If you're lucky, sailing out of the mist from land on a clear night with a near full moon, it will seem almost like daylight.

Sunset at sea, a sailboat and a shining lighthouse.

If you're serious about sailing and steering your boat, there are other benefits to night sailing. Navigating at night sharpens the senses and enhances the sailing experience as well as your experience of the sea itself. It truly gives a whole new meaning to sailing. But if all you want is to just enjoy yourself, night sailing is one of the most romantic experiences you can have. Check out our article on how to enjoy romance on board a yacht charter .   

   

Are you new to the sea? We will recommend experienced captains who will take care of you on the ship. Give us a call.

Denisa Nguyenová

Denisa Nguyenová

Faq how to manage a night sailing.

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Seven Tips For Night Sailing

7 Tips for Night Sailing

By: Pat Reynolds Cruising Tips , Learn To Sail , Safety

Now that we’re into the summer months, lots of you might want to stretch your skill set and do a bit of night sailing. It’s a bit of a different animal so we’ve cobbled together seven things to keep in mind as you head off into the wild black yonder.

  • Dress accordingly It may be obvious for some, but don’t forget the big ball of yellow heat will be replaced by a cold little white ball that will not help the warmth cause at all. Your ability to enjoy the pleasure that a gorgeous night on the water can provide is directly proportionate to you being dressed for the environment. Don layers, with a spray jacket on top and life should be good.
  • Carry a decent searchlight Night boating involves becoming accustomed to the available light and acclimating to it. It’s actually one of the cool things to experience during a sail in the dark, so constantly shining a spotlight like you were hand-holding your car’s headlights is not where it’s at. That said, there are instances where having a high-powered light on board can make things considerably safer. Coming into a harbor, verifying a navigational aid or identifying something foreign in the water are all common situations that benefit from a good light.
  • Stand a watch Of course someone should always be keeping an astute lookout whenever the boat is underway, but this is hyper-important during the restricted visibility that night sailing involves. If you’re lucky enough to have a bright full moon than things are a bit easier but short of that, it’s dark out there folks! Someone needs to keep a mandated watch. By the way, if that person is you, be prepared to have one of the most quality “alone-times” you’ve ever had. People are known to find the meanings of their lives on night watches. You might well return from your nice sail and promptly quit your job, dump that angry spouse and finally get in shape!
  • Don’t push Many old salts attach a different attitude and mentality for night sails. During the day the fun might be to vigilantly trim and adjust, catch lifts, shift weight and monitor that knot-meter for that rewarding uptick – 3/10s of a knot – Yes! “ Herman are you secretly racing that little boy in the sabot? ” “ No, of course not. ” But Herman is racing that little boy in the sabot! Anyway, at night it’s good to downshift and run the boat at a lower percentage. Enjoy the serenity this time of day has to offer and understand that downsizing the operation a little will make for a safer and more fulfilling experience.
  • Make sure Waypoints are Clear & Safe Most sailors rely on electronic aids to see them around the waterways and at night they become even more important. They can also, in certain situations, make things less safe. A few years ago, the famous Newport to Ensenada race reported their first deadly accident when a group of sailors ran into a small island off the coast of San Diego. After an investigation, it was determined that the sailors, in all likelihood, didn’t account for the land-mass (island) when they entered in their waypoints. They might have been sleeping or just not paying attention when their cruising boat tragically ran up on the rocks. This would never have happened during the day, but sailing at night brings with it these kinds of considerations.
  • Know the Light Patterns Fortunately charts and boats are all set up for sailing at night so it’s absolutely essential that the skipper and at least some of the crew know what the language of lights is saying out there. Boats are equipped with lights situated in such a way that other boats can tell what’s going on and charts are filled with light-related information that will clue mariners in on where they are. It can be confusing to look into a harbor located outside of a city and try to understand what is going on. “ Why is that harbor entrance light switching from green to red like that? Oh, that’s Washington blvd… ” Know what to look for and how the lights behave and the confusion will be greatly reduced.
  • Wear a PFD We understand that not everyone wears their pfd for whatever reason – it’s not comfortable, it’s filthy from lying on the floor for the past month, it sucks away at your already limited sex appeal – we get it. We don’t agree with the decision, but okay. For night boating, swallow your reasoning and put that thing on. Things can get slick on the boat at night and God forbid you end up in the drink, that little pea head of yours is very hard to see in the night. If you’re floating around for a while screaming “over here!” things are vastly better. Attach a battery powered personal beacon/light to it while you’re at it. Follow our advice and should you end up overboard you’ll be back in the boat in no time!

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Sail Universe

Night Sailing: Seven Main Tips to be Safe and Happy

Night Sailing love sailing

If you plan to do a bit of night sailing , there are several things that you need to consider. Here are several tips to keep in mind if you’re going to be sailing at night .

Personal Flotation Device

We understand that life jackets might not be comfortable, but when you’re sailing at night it’s a very good idea to have your personal flotation device on. Some personal flotation devices can have a beacon or light attached to them which makes it easier to find you in the water if you happen to fall overboard. by using a personal flotation device, you simply improve your safety when on the water at night time.

Clear and Safe Waypoints

You should make good use of your electronic sailing aids to ensure boating safety at night. You should also make sure that the waypoints you have entered your navigational aid are correct so you don’t have any mistakes while sailing at night. Make note of your surroundings such as islands and other obstacles to ensure that each one of your waypoints from point A to B is going to be safe for you to sail through.

Know Light Patterns

When you sail at night you may encounter other boats, so it’s critical that you understand the lights on other boats. This will let you understand what is going on out on the water. When you understand what the various lights mean and what they are doing, this will help keep you safe and reduce confusion.

Night Sailing fastnet

Dress for Weather

At night you’re naturally not going to have the warmth of the sun so you should dress according to the weather. On the water at night time, it can become quite chilly even if the daytime temperatures have been hot. If you want to enjoy your time on the water, make sure you have proper attire for nighttime sailing.

sailing

Have a Watch

While you want to enjoy sailing at night you should also have someone as a lookout and a watch. There’s going to be restricted visibility so even though moonlight might give you some light, you should still have somebody watching things as you sail. It might be boring being on a watch, but it’s essential to ensure safety. If you boating alone, you’re going to be the person on the watch so you must not only steer your boat but be cautious of where you’re going.

No Need to Rush

At night time it’s a good idea to run your boat a little slower. At night time you want things to be safer and you can have a better experience if you’re not sailing as fast as you might say out during the day. You won’t have as much reaction time at night so it’s a good idea to keep things slow and easy during a nighttime sail.

Good Searchlight

Your eyes will become accustomed to sailing in the darkness, but you still want to have a good Searchlight in case of emergencies. You may need the flashlight when you want to verify a navigational aid, come into the harbor to park your boat, or try to identify something in the water that might be foreign such as a log or other small obstacle that might be dangerous to your boat. You should have a good searchlight for all situations because you never know what you might encounter in the water at night time.

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What are the proper sailboat lights at night?

As a sailor, it is essential to be aware of and adhere to proper sailboat lighting when navigating at night. These lights are necessary to ensure safety and avoid collisions with other vessels.

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) specifies lighting requirements for different types of boats. There are different lighting rules for vessels under power and those under sail. In this article, we’ll discuss the proper sailboat lights at night.

Sailboats are required to have three lights at a minimum: a masthead light, a red port light, and a green starboard light. The masthead light is white and is located at the top of the mast. This light should shine forward and aft and be visible from 2 nautical miles away. It is important to ensure that the masthead light is not obstructed by the sail or any other structure onboard.

The red port light is located on the left or port side of the boat and is visible from 1 nautical mile away. The green starboard light is on the right or starboard side and is also visible from 1 nautical mile away. These lights should shine out from the vessel and be visible from dead ahead to 112.5 degrees abaft the beam on either side.

In addition to these lights, sailboats that are underway may show an optional stern light. This light is placed at the stern of the vessel and is white. It should be visible from 2 nautical miles away and can be used to indicate that the sailboat is underway and not at anchor.

If a sailboat is not underway but still poses a potential hazard, it should display an anchor light. This is a white light that is visible from 2 nautical miles away and should be located near the top of the mast. This light indicates that the sailboat is anchored and should be avoided by other vessels.

It is important to note that the visibility of the lights depends on the weather and other conditions. In foggy or hazy conditions, the lights may not be visible from the specified distance. It is always a good idea to maintain a lookout and be aware of other vessels in the vicinity.

Proper sailboat lighting at night is critical to ensuring safety and avoiding collisions with other boats. It is essential to understand the required lighting regulations and to ensure that all lights are functioning correctly before heading out on the water. Remember to always maintain a lookout and be aware of other vessels around you. Happy sailing!

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The Nighttime Navigation Gear Checklist

Embarking on a nighttime sailing adventure can be exhilarating, but it also comes with unique challenges. Read on to discover the essential nighttime navigation gear checklist to ensure a safe and enjoyable journey under the stars.

Embarking on a nighttime sailing adventure can be an exhilarating experience, but it also comes with its own unique set of challenges. To ensure a safe and enjoyable journey, it’s essential to be well-prepared with the right gear and knowledge. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk you through the essential nighttime navigation gear checklist, providing you with the tools and information you need to confidently set sail under the stars.

Table of Contents

Introduction, navigation lights, gps and chartplotter, flashlights and headlamps, personal locator beacon (plb), lifejackets and harnesses, additional nighttime sailing tips.

Sailing at night can be a magical experience, with the stars above and the phosphorescent glow of the water below. However, it also presents unique challenges, such as reduced visibility, disorientation, and the need for heightened situational awareness. To ensure a safe and enjoyable nighttime sailing experience, it’s crucial to be well-prepared with the right gear and knowledge.

In this guide, we’ll cover the essential nighttime navigation gear you’ll need to have on board, as well as some additional tips for a successful night sail. Let’s dive in!

Essential Nighttime Navigation Gear

Proper navigation lights are crucial for nighttime sailing, as they help you to see and be seen by other vessels. At a minimum, your boat should be equipped with the following lights:

  • Bow lights : Red (port) and green (starboard) lights mounted on the bow of your boat, visible from at least one mile away.
  • Stern light : A white light mounted on the stern of your boat, visible from at least two miles away.
  • Masthead light : A white light mounted on the mast, visible from at least three miles away.

It’s essential to regularly check and maintain your navigation lights, ensuring they are functioning correctly and are visible from the required distances.

Radar is an invaluable tool for nighttime navigation, as it allows you to detect and track other vessels, landmasses, and potential hazards. A radar system can help you maintain situational awareness and avoid collisions in low-visibility conditions.

When selecting a radar system, consider factors such as range, power consumption, and ease of use. Additionally, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with your radar system’s operation and capabilities before setting sail at night.

A reliable GPS and chartplotter system are essential for nighttime navigation, providing you with accurate position information and helping you plot your course. Ensure your chartplotter is up-to-date with the latest charts and software updates, and familiarize yourself with its operation before setting sail.

Consider investing in a chartplotter with a night mode or dimmable display, as this can help preserve your night vision while still providing you with essential navigation information.

An Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a valuable addition to your nighttime navigation gear, as it allows you to receive real-time information about other vessels in your vicinity. This information can help you avoid collisions and maintain situational awareness, particularly in busy or congested waterways.

When selecting an AIS system, consider factors such as range, compatibility with your existing navigation equipment, and ease of use. As with any navigation gear, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with your AIS system’s operation and capabilities before setting sail at night.

A VHF radio is a crucial piece of safety equipment for any sailing adventure, allowing you to communicate with other vessels, marinas, and emergency services. Ensure your VHF radio is in good working order, and familiarize yourself with the proper procedures for making distress calls and communicating with other vessels.

Additionally, consider investing in a handheld VHF radio as a backup, in case your primary radio fails or loses power.

While electronic navigation tools are incredibly useful, it’s essential to have a reliable, non-electronic backup in case of equipment failure or power loss. A traditional magnetic compass is a must-have for any nighttime navigation gear checklist, providing you with essential directional information in any situation.

Ensure your compass is properly mounted and calibrated, and familiarize yourself with its operation and any potential sources of interference on your boat.

A good pair of binoculars can be invaluable for nighttime navigation, allowing you to spot navigation aids, other vessels, and potential hazards more easily. When selecting binoculars for nighttime use, consider factors such as magnification, field of view, and light-gathering capabilities.

Additionally, consider investing in a pair of image-stabilized binoculars, which can help reduce the effects of boat movement and provide a clearer, more stable image.

Having a variety of flashlights and headlamps on board is essential for nighttime sailing, providing you with illumination for tasks such as checking charts, adjusting sails, and performing repairs. Ensure you have a selection of both white and red lights, as red light helps preserve your night vision.

Consider investing in waterproof, durable flashlights and headlamps, and ensure you have spare batteries on hand.

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a small, portable device that can be activated in an emergency to send a distress signal and your location to search and rescue services. While a PLB is a valuable piece of safety equipment for any sailing adventure, it’s particularly important for nighttime sailing, when the risk of man-overboard incidents and other emergencies may be higher.

Ensure your PLB is registered and up-to-date, and familiarize yourself with its operation before setting sail.

Properly fitting lifejackets and harnesses are essential safety gear for any sailing adventure, but they’re particularly important for nighttime sailing when the risk of man-overboard incidents may be higher. Ensure all crew members have a properly fitting lifejacket with a built-in harness, and consider investing in lifejackets with additional features such as reflective tape, strobe lights, and whistle.

Additionally, ensure your boat is equipped with jacklines and tether points, allowing crew members to safely move around the boat while clipped in.

  • Maintain a proper lookout : Ensure at least one crew member is always on watch, actively scanning the horizon for other vessels, navigation aids, and potential hazards.
  • Preserve your night vision : Minimize the use of white light on board, and allow your eyes time to adjust to the darkness before setting sail.
  • Monitor the weather : Keep a close eye on the weather forecast and be prepared to adjust your plans if conditions deteriorate.
  • Communicate with your crew : Ensure all crew members are aware of the nighttime sailing plan, and establish clear communication protocols for emergencies and routine tasks.

Nighttime sailing can be a thrilling and rewarding experience, but it’s essential to be well-prepared with the right gear and knowledge. By following this nighttime navigation gear checklist and implementing the additional tips provided, you’ll be well-equipped to confidently set sail under the stars and enjoy the unique beauty and challenges of sailing at night.

  • Yachting World
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Night sailing – the essential guide for offshore cruisers

Yachting World

  • April 19, 2017

Chris Tibbs on how to prepare for and enjoy offshore night watches

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

With a full moon and following wind, night sailing can be one of the great pleasures to be had when passagemaking; but on a dark night in a gale it can be very stressful and leave you longing for dawn.

Whether you are crossing the Channel or crossing an ocean, sailing in the dark is something that everyone experiences at some stage in their sailing career and with some simple preparations you can make it easier and safer.

Have you ever been asked by a non-sailor: “What do you do out on the ocean at night?” It often comes as a surprise to find that sailing has always been a 24-hour pastime.

Traditionally, passages were made at night and planned so that landfall was at dawn to assist with identifying the lights and confirming the yacht’s position. Then the skipper could enter port safely during daylight.

With GPS we now rather underestimate the usefulness of lights for position fixing and, as more yachts are fitted with AIS, crossing shipping lanes has become less difficult now that you are not solely reliant on identifying each ship’s navigation lights.

Of course, not all vessels have AIS!

How to prepare for long passages

Generally night sailing falls into one of two categories: the first is a one-off night sail, such as the start of a summer cruise to get the boat to your cruising ground, or perhaps a RORC or JOG cross-Channel race. The second is a long passage where there will be a number of days between the start and finish with consecutive night sails.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

For me there should be little difference when setting up the boat although there will be a difference in watchkeeping.

Whether cruising or racing, the crew spending consecutive nights at sea requires a more rigid watch system – covering the full 24 hours – than the one-night crew. But the principles of watch-keeping do also apply to single nights at sea.

One of my pet hates used to be the Friday night cross-Channel races. Crews would arrive all enthusiastic after a hard week at work, but by 0200 tiredness had set in and we would see ourselves slowly working our way to the back of the fleet with only one or two awake enough to be competitive.

Most boats are logical in their layout and it is always a pleasure when a new but experienced crew comes on board as they will rarely need telling twice which rope is which.

Yes it is good to label clutches but soon after joining everyone should know by feel and position which rope is which.

Close your eyes and feel – size becomes very apparent and the covers will feel different. Hold the spinnaker halyard in one hand and the topping lift in the other; feel the different sizes and textures.

It is always good to keep the same ropes in the same position so at night in the dark, when the label is obscured anyway, it is easy to pick up the right one.

Humans are not particularly good at seeing at night and it takes a long time to get full night vision.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

The eyes are incredible complex and there are three phases in adapting to the dark.

Initially our pupils dilate to allow as much light in as possible; this may take from a few seconds to a minute to happen.

The next phase takes place in the cone cells of the eye. In the absence of light we get chemical changes in the cell and it can take ten minutes for the cone cells to adapt to the dark.

Lastly we have rod cells which are responsible for black and white vision and these contain rhodopsin which is reactivated in the absence of light. This will take several hours to fully adapt to the dark.

Although we are all different, as a rough guide it takes about ten minutes to get most of our night vision, which gets slowly better over the following few hours. This can be put back to zero very quickly by the use of bright lights.

How to use lights on board at night

All crew members should have a flashlight and it’s worth keeping a powerful spotlight on deck for rig checks and emergencies.

When sail trimming try and use as weak a flashlight as possible and also warn the helmsman and lookouts before using it.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

We have had great success in painting the lenses of flashlights with red nail varnish: the red light is much kinder on the eyes and nail varnish is more readily available than red flashlights.

Red lights are also crucial below. Some yachts will have split lights with red to be used at night. In the past, I have used stick-on red film from a photographic shop.

Generally we cover half of the lights red when cruising, but for long offshore passages we will cover all the lights with red film to avoid the wrong switch being used.

It would be nice to have two complete circuits to turn off the white lights completely, however ten minutes with a pair of scissors and all lights are covered.

Head torches leave both hands free, but I actually hate them on deck when sailing. If spoken to it is the natural reaction to turn and look at the person speaking, instantly ruining their night vision. Some head torches will have red bulbs but any bulb shining straight into your eye is damaging for your night vision.

Use light sparingly as the less you use, the less you tend to need. With the latest instruments and multifunction displays you can control the brightness of the image: keeping it to a minimum helps night vision and also consumes less power.

I am told that in training, some Mini Transat and Figaro sailors will practice sailing blindfold.

Night sailing tips for cruisers

I have been involved with the ARC for many years and it seems that most crews will routinely drop spinnakers and reduce sail for the night. All very prudent but nights are long in the tropics – approaching 12 hours of darkness.

I am not one for fixed rules, so I would rather see a boat set up for simple sail handling and allow conditions to dictate the sail plan. This also depends on the number of crew on board and the watch-keeping regime.

It makes sense to mark halyards and control ropes. I like to sew in a whipping of a contrasting colour onto the line marking the correct position just out of the clutch. This can be felt as well as seen and is particularly useful when reefing.

I also like to mark halyards at the maximum hoist to avoid anyone getting too enthusiastic and winding the splice or knot into the sheave. This is something racing boats have done for years and for cruisers would be useful for both day and night sailing.

Luminous draft stripes can be added to sails to help with sail shape and small amounts of reflective tape can also be stuck around the boat to help see and identify equipment.

On my boat the wheel is marked with a turk’s head knot to feel the centre point, to which we have also added some reflective tape to make it visible in low light.

If you make sail changing and trimming simple you can usually do it with just the ambient light and a small flashlight. The decklight knocks out any visibility forward. A tricolour light should light up the windex and if conditions are marginal, a steaming light can be used to check spinnaker trim, although any lights forward spoil night vision and, of course, a steaming light indicates to others that you are motoring not sailing.

When planning a voyage, make life easier and safer by maximising your moonlight hours: sailing under a full moon and clear sky is as easy as sailing during the day.

Crew preparation

Sailing is no fun when tired and hungry. There seems to be a tendency on cruising yachts to run short-handed with single-person watches. Of course, single-handed sailors circle the globe in ever faster yachts, but the average cruising yacht is not really very well set up for single-handed sailing.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

Hot drinks and snacks at night are essential.

The typical cruising yacht has a number of roles to perform, so the ideal deck layout in terms of sailing efficiency will be compromised by the requirements of the cabin space below.

This tends to encourage slow sailing: if it is hard to single-handedly reduce sail, it makes sense to automatically reef at night so you do not have to call anyone to help.

Two or three hours is long enough to be up on your own and with shorter watch times, there is the opportunity to change sail during a change of watch when there are two people on deck.

When my wife and I are double-handed passagemaking, we stick to three-hour watches, as this is as long as I can keep concentration. But it is tiring. For ocean crossings we tend to have an extra person to help.

Night raids and the importance of the midnight snack

When racing you have to push 24 hours a day to be competitive, although you can be a bit more conservative at night to help preserve the boat and crew.

When I skippered Concert in the BT Global Challenge, we would occasionally do a ‘night raid’. This involved handing out a few extra treats for dinner then, putting the best drivers on the helm, we would really push through the hours of darkness. This usually paid off with a few miles gained.

I would be happy to cross an ocean on freeze-dried food but I think I am in a minority! Food and drink is important for fuel and also for enjoyment.

Food at night is particularly important for energy and well-being. Sealed personal drink flasks stay hot for a couple of hours, the biggest danger being burning your mouth in the first hour. Snacks are also good on night watches: our bodies are used to sleeping at night and a snack helps to keep us going.

One trick that I like is a Cup-a-Soup in a wide-mouthed flask with a few teaspoons of couscous added. Put the lid on and leave it five minutes and you have a tasty and filling savoury snack!

How to be a watchkeeper

Watchkeepers should not take the responsibility lightly. You need an experienced watchkeeper crossing the Channel due to the level of shipping and navigation required on the passage. Further offshore a less experienced watchkeeper has more time to call the skipper.

Why longer passages are easier

Everyone on board has to get enough sleep. It may be possible, physically, to go 24 hours without sleep, but decision-making suffers and it is easy to make mistakes.

I prefer, if possible, to have at least two people on a watch, this avoids having to call extra crew for small sail changes or manoeuvres. It does also mean that when you are off watch, your sleep is not disturbed. With two on watch, three or four-hour watches pass quickly, split between steering, lookout, and navigation.

Racing is a bit different as there is generally a bigger crew. I am not a fan of everyone on the rail all night, and rotating the crew so everyone gets some sleep is important.

For longer races like the Fastnet I would have a rigid watch system so everyone gets some good sleep. If anything goes wrong then it always seems to happen at about 0400 when people are at their lowest ebb.

I would also get into the watch system early, probably before Portland, to get into a rhythm. Our bodies are very complex and need time to adjust; a short passage of two or three nights can be more tiring than a transatlantic.

Personally I find it takes about three days to get settled. I then get one really good deep sleep and I am fine for the rest of the voyage. I tend to find short passages – anything less than three days – more tiring, which is why I prefer a bigger crew for sailing a few hundred miles than I do for sailing longer passages.

7 Top tips for Safety at  night

• Prepare your boat: mark all halyards and brief crew on cockpit layout • Be patient with night vision: it takes three hours to fully adapt and moments to ruin • Red lights: either use red see-through film, red light bulbs or even nail polish • Get into watches early on the voyage: the body needs time to adjust to a new rhythm • Good food is especially important at night when the body is conditioned to be sleeping • Think safety and preparation: don’t run a one-person watch if the boat’s not easy to sail solo • Avoid getting overtired: concentration and decision making is essential at sea

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

Chris Tibbs is a meteorologist and weather router, professional sailor and navigator, as well as an ARC safety inspector. He is currently doing a circumnavigation with his wife, Helen, on their own boat, Taistealai.

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image of a properly lit sailboat at night

When it comes to renting a boat and going on a sailing holiday, night sailing attracts many sailors. Indeed, there is nothing more mysterious than hearing one’s ship sailing in total darkness. Offshore racing skippers are usually spend nights at sea to win their regattas. However, in the case of pleasure sailing you will also have to sleep on a boat. If you have to reach a specific destination by a certain date, this can be a good solution to enjoy your daytime stopovers.

But be careful, sailing at night requires a certain amount of preparation. Indeed, it can be more complex because of the lack of visibility, which hinders the perception of obstacles and the evaluation of distances.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

Preparing for night sailing

As with any departure, it is essential to prepare for the trip by looking at the weather and the itinerary ahead. Take the time to take a look at your boat, check the weather forecast and note the tide times. It is essential to think about your sailing itinerary before the start. Even if you are using a GPS, it is useful to identify the various danger zones on your route and the lights assigned to them.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

Night navigation requires more preparation of the boat in order to simplify manoeuvring in the dark. You must prepare the boat for night sailing. You have to clear the deck of all unnecessary ropes and prepare the sail for any possible manoeuvres. If you wish to sleep on a sailboat, remember to adapt the sail area, it is not recommended to sail under a spinnaker at night when cruising.

Before using your boat at night, you should check that your traffic lights are in perfect working condition, it will allow other boats to spot you at night. In addition to your boat’s lighting, you must provide a flashlight and headlamps for your crew members.

The sailor in the dark

Sailing at night is a very intense experience for any sailor, as he has to be especially careful. All the senses are awake and decision making is less obvious than during the day.

On the one hand, visibility is significantly lower when sailing at night. Even if the sailor’s eye gets used to the dark, the adaptation time is about 20 minutes. Any change in light if you return to the cabin regularly, for example, will hinder the adaptation process. It is therefore advisable to reduce the number of trips back and forth in the boat as much as possible.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

As far as the equipment is concerned, always bring warm clothing, as the nights can be very cold. For your comfort and consistency, it is essential to maintain good body heat. Sleeping at sea for the first time is an intense experience that must be carried out in the best comfort.

It is also important to respect sleeping times, as staying awake at all times can be more dangerous. Usually the most difficult period of sailing is between 2 and 5 am. One of the best tips for staying awake is to take small portions of food with you and to keep yourself hydrated constantly.

The organization of the night crew

When sailing at night, crew members take turns at the helm to alternate between rest and navigation. You must define roles between the different crew members, for the sailing shifts and the tasks of each one.

Shift refers to a period of time during which a crew member is on duty or at rest. It is a particular rhythm that all crew members must adapt. You must define the duration of the shift in advance for each crew member. The shift may be carried out alone or with other crew members by using bearing systems. When working a shift alone, the maximum length is 3 hours at night.

At night, on a boat all the manoeuvres become more complex and the sailor will be more quickly destabilized. If the skipper has to go out on the deck of the boat, it is essential that he secures himself to prevent any risk of man overboard. In addition to his compulsory lifejacket, the skipper must always be equipped with a harness.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

A major risk when spending the night at sea is that a member of the crew may fall into the water. Therefore it’s essential to respect the basic rule that every crew member who is not in the cabin must wear a lifejacket. Also, to have a watertight torch attached to the jacket so if he falls into the water can be spotted . If you don’t respect this procedure, it’s very difficult to find a man in the water, the chances are less than 1%.

Another risk of night navigation is not to see an obstacle blocking the boat’s path. To do this, you must know the meaning of the danger lights but also the meaning of the lights of other boats to avoid any crash. Knowing the lights and markings is essential because at night at sea they are the only markings.

Making a night stopover on a boat is a unique experience that is achievable as long as you take all precautions before and during sailing. The crew will organize themselves to perform night shifts. Firstly, you will plan your itinerary according to the danger zones. Then, during your navigation you will have to trust your GPS map as well as the lights that will appear in front of you.

With all of these information, organizing a perfect sailing trip won’t be difficult for you!

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Night sailing tips for first timers

Toby Heppell

  • Toby Heppell
  • September 4, 2020

Cruising after dark doesn't need to be stressful. Toby Heppell shares his tops tips for night sailing

Sailing at night

Sailing at night can be a magical experience. Credit: Paul Wyeth

Do you find night sailing stressful? It needn’t be if you follow a few basic rules and plan ahead.

Stay on deck while night sailing

As always with pilotage, the right place to be is on deck, not least to avoid uncharted objects such as other craft, mooring buoys and fishing pot markers.

Most pilotage errors occur at night rather than in the day so a thorough pilotage plan is essential.

Even with a navigation station filled with electronic aids it is still possible to become disorientated while trying to reconcile the view on deck with that on the chart.

A man helming a yacht at night

Where possible, the right place to be is on deck. Credit: Paul Wyeth

You need a pilotage plan.

The most important principle is this: if you know the position of the yacht and you are armed with a chart (electronic or paper) and a compass, you know the range and bearing to the next mark.

This means that when you reach a known position, such as a navigation buoy, you know where to head to find the next one.

Simple, except that a surprising number of navigators waste time scanning the lights ahead with no plan to find the one they want.

Fishing pots

Unpredictable and unlit, these are the biggest danger at night.

Avoiding them is largely a matter of common sense.

Sometimes they are laid in deep water, but mostly they lurk in less than 50m.

a container marking a lobster pot

Fishing pots, hard enough to spot in the daylight, become all but invisible at night

Avoid shallows if you can, especially near fishing harbours, and inside passages around headlands, even if you are confident of your position thanks to radar and plotter.

Even if you know where you are, there’s still the same risk of the engine stopping with a crunch, or finding yourself moored by the rudder or prop in a strong tide.

Light pollution

Light pollution is a well-known source of navigation stress, particularly when looking to enter an unfamiliar harbour after dark.

If it has been a while since you have done this, it is well worth returning to your own harbour after dark and noting the different complexion the various landmarks take on when not visible to the naked eye.

A large, unlit buoy may be sited just in front of a particularly well-lit hotel rendering it difficult to spot.

Another feature of light pollution (but of sailing at night more generally too) is the reduction in our ability to judge distances.

This is particularly acute when coming into harbour.

A navigation buoy’s light may well get lost in the background of a sea of lights when, during the day it would be clear and obvious the nav buoy was some way offshore.

Night vision

The sensitivity of our eyes increases the longer they are in the dark and it can take many minutes for maximum sensitivity to be acquired, and the improvement is dramatic.

Unfortunately it can be lost in a few seconds of exposure to bright lights.

Eyes have cones that are used for colour vision in daylight, and more sensitive rods that come into their own at night.

The rods are not sensitive to red light and this means that if you switch to red illumination your eyes can continue to adapt while you move around the boat.

The bad news for those of pensionable age is that your eyes will only be about a third as sensitive to low light as in your youth.

A red light illuminating a compass

Is red light at night always best?

Binoculars will boost illumination by about 50 times and go a long way to redressing the balance.

However, it still pays to have your youngest crew on lookout.

It is worth noting too, that in this high-tech age, our cockpits are often filled with screens all giving off light.

Most of these screens can be dimmed or put into night mode, but sailing in the dark can be such a calm experience that the harsh light of screens can detract.

Keep your electronics on and functioning and use as appropriate.

If they are on and lit up in the cockpit they tend to draw the eye and can have the effect of making you less aware of that which is going on around you.

Poorly lit craft

Inshore, yachts can be hard to spot.

Coming into places like Southampton, Portsmouth or any other significant port with strong background lighting and a tight channel for leisure craft you are likely to be up against a significant confusion of lights.

Yachts are especially awkward if they opt for a tricolour at the masthead instead of proper running lights in close quarters.

You are looking ahead for trouble, not up in the sky!

Tricolours are great on passage though, increasing the likelihood of being spotted and minimising power drain – remember, do not use your tricolour when under power.

Fishing boats’ navigation lights are often made hard to see thanks to a bright deck light to enable the crew to work on deck.

A ship lit up on the Solent

Many larger ships are well lit up at night making them easier to spot. Credit: Colin Work

Watch them closely and expect erratic course changes.

Try to give them plenty of space to stay safe.

Around the UK other than the decklights making it hard to discern their heading from a distance, fishing craft should not cause too much worry.

But, you will want to avoid ending up astern of them in case they are trawling, so do take plenty of time to discern their direction of travel.

In some parts of the world fishing craft of various sizes do sometimes operate without proper lighting, so if you are entering a busy seaport always take it slowly.

Cruise ships and ferries are invariably lit up like Christmas trees.

It can be hard to pick out the red and green amongst the plethora of other lights onboard, so take time to work out what they’re up to and consult AIS if you have it.

Given their size, if you are close to shore even without seeing their nav lights it is usually fairly easy to make a decent guess at their bearing relative to you by glancing at your chart to get a sense of the main nav channels.

Safety on deck while night sailing

For the most part you will have your own rules about when lifejackets go on, whether that be worn the whole time, when the windstrength is above ‘x’ knots etc.

The strong recommendation is to always wear a lifejacket when on deck after nightfall, and this is sensible.

Some choose not to in calm weather and if they are in the cockpit.

As ever, what you decide will be between you and your crew.

Theo Stocker, YM editor, wearing a lifejacket while night sailing

Wearing a lifejacket when sailing after dark is advisable

For my part I would strongly recommend a lifejacket at all times after dark.

Clipping on via your harness is also strongly recommended.

If you are sailing a long passage at night then do be aware of your harness clip scraping along the deck if you are moving around – it’s a very irritating noise for those trying to get some kip below.

It’s not always easy to force discipline on yourself, but it really does make sense to call on your crew if you need to go up on deck for any sort of sail adjustment.

Safety is not about buying things.

It is about an attitude of mind.

We must constantly be on the lookout for trouble at night so that we can forestall it, just as we do in the daytime.

If you are setting out on a passage that may well extend into the night, it is worth considering what food you intend to take.

There is a lot to be said for preparing an evening meal before set off.

Something like a pre-made stew can be easily heated and give you a boost to cover the last miles.

It can also help you warm up on deck or make for a hearty meal once you are tied up.

Food and hot drinks are essential when night sailing

Have snacks and hot drinks easily to hand

Whatever you choose, make plenty of it, that way you have enough to get you through the night, or you can have a bit to keep you going but still have a meal left when you arrive at your destination.

Hot drinks are axiomatic.

Boiling a kettle and having somewhere safe to place a mug while you make an instant coffee has to be easy.

If it isn’t and you are reduced to pre-heating thermos flasks, there is something wrong with your boat or your arrangements.

Keep the drinks coming.

They maintain morale and give people something to do.

Effect on weather

All air usually cools at night, even over the sea.

This will be more obvious when it has been a sunny day not far from land.

The result is that there are fewer gusts and a decrease in the average wind strength as the thermally enhanced breeze disappears.

On a night with low-lying cloud or hill fog, some lighthouses will not be visible.

Note the height of the lantern from the chart and be ready for the occasional disappointment.

Continues below…

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Dag Pike considers the age-old adage that using red light preserves your night vision

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Halos around the moon can be really obvious at night.

A big one is often a sign of an approaching front.

If the wind is light, think about starting the engine and keeping up boat speed.

In conditions when the air is moist, a degree or so of cooling after dark might be just enough to shut down poor-to- moderate visibility into mist or even fog.

Distant lightning is more easily seen at night, so don’t be too alarmed if you see it flashing around the horizon.

Sailing and sail handling while night sailing

Once darkness falls, moving around on deck should be reduced and so it makes sense to have out sails that are well within the conditions at the time.

Many skippers like to shorten sail before dark, regardless of conditions, so as to minimise the chance of having to handle sails at night.

However, you should still be willing and able to change sails, or take in or let out reefs, if necessary, particularly if you are on a long passage.

It is a very good idea to mark your halyards so that you can roughly get them in the right place for reefs etc.

A yacht sailing as the sun sets

Some skippers like to shorten sails as night falls to minimise the chance of sail handling. Credit: Graham Snook/YM

You should also have a working set of deck lights, so you can illuminate everything when doing big jobs.

If you are not far from your final destination and daylight is disappearing, it might be worth switching the engine on and getting sails down and tidy before the dark really takes hold.

But if you’re confident in your passage plan then this is far, far from crucial.

Reducing sail, however, helps with your own ability to see and be seen.

In busy areas many sailors like to have quite a bit of the headsail rolled away as this improves visibility looking forward – a good idea for busy ports in daylight too.

At the beginning of the night, the skipper should make sure everyone understands what adjustments can be made unsupervised by those on deck and when more crew should be called up to assist.

This may vary, depending on the crew’s experience.

Intuitive sailing

There are additional strips you can get added to sails that glow at night to allow you to properly set them at night, but this is really only necessary for racers and those looking to make very long night passages.

In truth, there is usually enough light to get some decent sense of how your sails are set, and if you have reduced sail before night falls, then the consequences of getting things wrong is just a slowing of pace.

Having a torch handy to check trim and telltales is a real help.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

Toby Heppell got his first boat aged four and grew up sailing on the East Coast. He has been a sailing journalist for over 15 years. Credit: Richard Langdon

Though some are tempted to switch on the motor once dark falls, sailing in the dark is a really fun and tranquil experience and can improve your sailing skills during the day.

Without the ability to see gusts approaching on the water, your sail trim is going to be far more reactive than it might otherwise be.

Feel becomes key when sailing at night.

Sailing by feel is something of a specialism for blind sailors.

Lucy Hodges, Blind Sailing World Champion, once offered me this advice: ‘A key area for me when sailing are the hairs on the back of my neck. I always make sure that my neck is exposed. With a bit of practice you may be surprised how quickly you can lean to feel changes in wind pressure and direction.’

The key to sailing by feel, is using all of your senses.

Feeling the roll of a boat is essential, if you feel the boat is starting to heel, and if the hairs on your neck have not changed, the wind might not have altered and you probably want to adjust course slightly.

If the boat begins to heel and the hairs on your neck feel different, the wind may have increased so you might adjust trim.

Of course with visual inputs too, we do not need to sail entirely on feel when night falls, but it does stand as a great example of how different and rewarding sailing at night can be.

It can really help you feel more in tune with your boat.

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  • Safety Tips

Navigating at Night

  • By Jim Hendricks
  • September 22, 2015

A boat marina at night

Darkness creeps across the water as the glow of the sun fades below the western horizon. It is night. For some, it’s a time of high anxiety when running a boat. Humans are visual. When the lights go out, we get nervous. Rightfully so, for who knows what might go bump in the night?

Yet, nighttime navigators need not bite their nails. With the right equipment and decent weather, a night cruise can be safe, enjoyable, adventurous and even romantic.

Fortunately, there are more tools than ever to enhance or supplant our vision when navigating at night. GPS/chart plotters, detailed electronic cartography, advanced radar, thermal imaging, night-vision scopes and spotlights not only increase the safety factor but also inspire enough confidence to enjoy boating after dark.

Slow and Easy

The first rule of night boating is to slow down, no matter what high-tech navigation equipment you have on board. Even on a moonlit evening, you just can’t see as well as during the day. Objects won’t come into view until they are fairly close. If you’re going too fast, you might not be able to maneuver quickly enough to avoid a collision with an unlit object such as a crab-pot buoy or floating timber.

The best speed on any given night depends on visibility. During a full moon, you might feel comfortable running the boat a bit faster than you would on a night when everything fades to black. Are you in open isolated water, or are you bound by the confines of a narrow channel? The locale plays into how fast is safe as well. The important thing is not to rush. Just like on a romantic date, take it easy, cowboy.

Mood Lighting

Onboard lighting is a tricky thing when navigating at night. You need backlighting to see your instruments and electronics, and an overhead light to read a chart.

Yet once your eyes have acclimated to the dark, too much onboard light can destroy your night vision. Once this occurs, your eyes will need to readjust: Your pupils need to rewiden, and the rods, special cells that provide most of what we call “night vision,” must resensitize. This can take as long as 35 to 40 minutes.

With this in mind, most marine electronics allow you to adjust the brightness of the backlighting, and many units also have a “night mode” with a darker background to keep illumination levels to a minimum.

When it comes to instrument illumination, red is the best color since it doesn’t desensitize the rods. Most newer instruments are equipped with dimmers to adjust the intensity of backlighting and preserve night vision. If yours isn’t, a dimmer switch can be wired in for control. One of the latest is the DeckHand Dimmer from Blue Sea Systems ($99.98, bluesea.com ). Most dimmers handle only one type of lighting, such as incandescent, halogen or LED. However, the DeckHand Dimmer can handle any or all of these lights at the same time.

Overhead and chart lights from companies such as Hella ( hellamarine.com ) are also available in red — including low-draw LED versions — should you need to read something at the helm.

When navigating at night, avoid turning on flashlights, spreaders or other bright lights that can destroy night vision. As on a romantic date, you want to keep the lighting dim.

Wherefore Art Thou?

Should your date paraphrase the classic Shakespearean question “Wherefore art thou, captain?” you should be able to point to your GPS/chart plotter and answer “right here.”

Thanks to detailed electronic cartography from C-Map ( c-map.com ), Navionics ( navionics.com ) and others, today’s chart plotters show a lot more than just your present position. Virtually any fixed object above water, such as buoys, jetties, exposed rocks and docks, show up on the plotter, just as it would on a paper chart, while at the same time showing the boat’s relative position to these objects. Chart plotters also indicate water depth, reefs and other submerged obstructions, so you can avoid running aground at night. A few chart plotters can also do some of the thinking for you.

For example, with the Guardian alarm on C-Map-enabled plotters from Si-Tex ( si-tex.com ), Standard Horizon ( standardhorizon.com ) and earlier models from Furuno ( furunousa.com ), you can set a guard zone, much as you would with radar, that scans the chart area ahead and alerts you if your course is projected to put the boat upon shoals, rocks, sand spits or other threats.

“You set a minimum draft such as six feet and set a look-ahead distance such as a quarter-mile,” says C-Map’s Ken Cirillo. “Then the plotter looks at all possible obstructions, as well as shoals, in a searchlight pattern and alerts you to danger.”

Of course, a depth sounder is also important for confirming the water depth. Whether cruising at night or during the day, you should not rely solely on the electronic chart, particularly if the chart has not been updated recently. As to that, C-Map and Navionics both offer updating services, for a fee, and you can get updates from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Local Notices to Mariners at navcen.uscg.gov .

Seeing everything that’s around you at night makes you feel more confident while cruising, and that’s just what radar (radio detection and ranging) is: your sight when your eyes are blind.It shows you what’s out there and tells you how far away it is. Ask a group of experienced boaters what they rely on most at night — besides their own eyes — and most will say radar.

While a chart plotter shows fixed objects, radar can show you just about everything above the water’s surface, including other boats. Marine radar has been around for decades, but today’s radar systems are more refined, easier to use and less power hungry than ever before.

Traditionally, radar loses effectiveness at very close range due to a phenomenon called “main bang,” which results in a blob in the middle of the screen that obscures targets close to the boat.

However, newer radars such as the Lowrance and Simrad Broadband units ( navico.com ) don’t have the main bang, so they can read an object very close to the boat. While such units are not very effective at ranges beyond a few miles (the new Simrad Broadband 3G radar has greater range), the close-in target detection feature can be useful when cruising crowded waters in the dark.

Most multifunction displays, such as the Furuno NavNet system, can also be configured to “overlay” the radar readings on an electronic chart display. This provides an enhanced view of the surroundings at night and also allows you to more readily interpret the radar images, relating them immediately to objects on the chart.

Plus, you know any radar target that is not on the chart is most likely another boat or barge, though it could also be an off-station buoy.

You can also set the radar guard zone, but in crowded waters with lots of fixed objects, the guard zone alarm tends to sound too frequently. This feature is most helpful when cruising open water far from the clutter of the harbor.

Light Up the Night

Boats don’t have brakes. Know what? They don’t have headlights either. And with good reason. In open water, the light reflecting off waves and mist is often more blinding than beneficial at night. Try shining a light ahead of the boat at night while under way when there is nothing but water and sky to see, and you’ll agree.

However, there are occasions when a searchlight or spotlight is handy, particularly if you are trying to locate or identify a nearby object such as an unlit boat, buoy, shoreline or jetty.

There are three basic types of spotlights — fixed-mount, remote-control searchlights such as the Jabsco 135SL ( jabscoshop.com , $187.99); handhelds with 12-volt plugs such as the Optronics NightBlaster BlueEye 400,000 Candlepower ( optronicsinc.com , $36.99); and rechargeable battery-operated handhelds such as the Brinkmann Q-Beam LED ( brinkmann.net , $69.99).

Fixed-mounts are nice on bigger boats, while handhelds lend themselves to smaller boats. Whichever you choose, try to use the light sparingly and briefly, particularly if there are other boaters in the immediate vicinity. The harsh glare of a spotlight is not only annoying to others, but it also can ruin the night vision of nearby skippers. And nothing sours an intimate cruise quicker than another boater who is hopping mad at you.

Docking lights are another option, usually flush-mounted just below the rub rail on both sides of the bow. Yet, they are designed for use only in close-quarters situations such as when pulling into a slip at night. They don’t cast their beam far enough to be of as much use as the auto headlights they resemble.

Scope Things Out

You can also buy night vision — a technology that amplifies light through a scope. This lets you see as if it were daytime, though everything’s cast in green. For tricky harbor entrances or foreboding shorelines, night vision is tough to beat.

An affordable night-vision device is the NVD mini scope from Minox ( minox.com , $299). Measuring just 5½ inches long and 2 inches in diameter, this rechargeable scope not only amplifies available light, but also beams infrared light. Though invisible to the human eye, the reflected infrared light is picked up by the scope and illuminates objects up to 200 feet away.

Learn the Lights

The U.S. Coast Guard has long-established light display standards for nighttime navigation, and these apply to both vessels and navaids such as channel markers. If you know the navigation light patterns, you can identify any type of vessel and its activity, as well as determine where to safely enter and exit a harbor at night.

If you do much night boating, knowing the meaning of lights is essential and might save your boat and your life. For example, you see two vessels in the distance and they’re a few hundred yards apart. So to save time, you think about cutting between the two. However, if one of the vessels is displaying three-stacked white lights on the masthead, going between them could be fatal, because the vessel is a tug towing a barge (the second vessel) with a massive hawser. Cut between them, and at best the hawser will rip out your running gear; at worst it will saw across your deck and everything on it.

Eyes and Ears

In the end, the most valuable navigation tool is a sharp eye. And the more, the better when darkness falls. There should be two pairs of eyes (and ears, since sound travels well on the water) on the bridge at night. Modern navigation gear’s great, but nothing beats a good lookout.

There are a number of things that can interfere with maintaining a lookout, not the least of which is nav gear itself. For example, if you have your head down fiddling with a chart plotter or radar, you have taken your eyes off the road, so to speak — not a good practice while under way. That’s why having a second lookout is important.

Also, with two lookouts, it is less likely that either will fall asleep on the bridge. This is a real issue, particularly on long night passages while using autopilot and sitting in a comfortable helm chair. It is just too easy to drift off, and that’s why a commercial vessel must have a “watch alarm” that the skipper must press to turn off at set intervals.

Having that someone special on the bridge at night might keep you from falling asleep, but it can distract from maintaining a lookout. So if you decide to embrace the evening aboard your boat, make sure your date knows that, while you’re under way, you need to keep your hands on the wheel and throttle, and you only have eyes for the water ahead.

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org .

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Navigation Lights for Sailboats (And How To Read Them)

Navigation Lights for Sailboats (And How To Read Them) | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

Navigation lights on a sailboat can be confusing. If you understand the reason behind why they are the way they are however, they can make a lot more sense.

At their heart, sailboats are really just a power boat and as such must adhere to all power boat rules such as navigation lights. Other times however, a sailboat is classified in a special category. They have a set of additional lights they CAN show as an option, but are not always required to do so.

That’s about as clear as mud if you ask me and I contend that that is where the confusion about lighting a sailboat begins.

Just because you can show a light to identify yourself in times of low visibility, does not mean you have to and then we add in a little sibling rivalry between power and sail and things get downright adversarial when it comes to navigation and the night.

Table of contents

The USCG says You’re a Power Boat Whether You Like It or Not

Much to the consternation of many a sailor who has earned a commercial license to drive their sailboat, when you received your credential from the USCG it says you are a master of steam and power across the top with no mention of wind as a source of propulsion.

It is not until you read the back pages of your little red book that feels like a passport and looks like a US Sailing credential, that you will see the term “sail auxiliary”. That is because most of the time the U.S. Coast Guard knows that you are primarily reliant on your mechanical power to propel your vessel.

It's a sad thing, but the days of commercially viable sail boats are done and all but the most select few even have sails let alone use them as their primary power source. All sail boats by law are powerboats, but not all powerboats are sailboats.

Navigation Lights for a Power Boat

As a power boat, you are required to show certain lights and have been required to do so before power was even invented. 

In the days of man powered vessels like the viking ships who relied on oars while in close quarters to power their vessels, they needed to show other boats, friend or foe, where they were by showing lanterns in the dark to identify themselves. As you know, it is a time honored rule among all the nations of the world both past and present, that you must avoid a collision at all costs while at sea and even the viking knew that you should not run into things.

By lighting the front and back of your boat, you could warn other boats of your presence as well as identify which way you were heading. As such there is a very specific rule in the Code of Federal Regulations Number 46 (CFR46 by common name) that spells out with detail how many, the color, the luminosity or brightness, the angle of visibility and the location of all of the lights required for navigation on every single boat, seaplane, submarine and other nondescript vessel conceived by man to date that they must show while underway in reduced visibility.

And there is no flexibility in the rules.

As such a power boat, and by extension all sailboats, MUST, without question show one green light on the starboard bow and one red light on the port bow and one all around white light or lights while operating in reduced visibility. These lights should shine at all 360 degrees of visibility with the bow lights shining at an angle of dead ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the beam and the stern lights shining 225 degrees dead aft. A forward facing masthead light that is white in color shall shine forward to comply with the directive that all vessels must carry an all around white light. For more read here .

As you can see, there isn’t much wiggle room when it comes to lights that must be shown.

Sailboats get a little flexibility with lights

Sailboats however, are a little different when they are in fact sailboats, which is only when you are entirely reliant on the wind for power and in no way reliant on any mechanical or manual means of propulsion. And for good reason.

Back in the day when men were men and sailboats were wooden, fire was a major concern. Sails were coated with wax and other flammable substances and the wood on boats was saturated with oils and grease. Even the ropes were plant materials saturated with oils to keep them pliable and strong.

Add those highly flammable substances to a parching environment like the sea and you had what was essentially a giant floating tinderbox.

Then tell that giant floating tinderbox that they need to identify themselves to the world at large at night using oil lamps with flames because batteries and lights were not invented yet. It didn't take very long or very many ships burning to the water line for the Governments to say to the sailboats, you get to do things a little different.

As such, sailboats are given special dispensation when it comes to lights aloft. They don't have to show an all around white light in their rigging because no one wanted to set their rig on fire with oil lamps 60 feet up in their rig.

However, when a sailboat takes their sails down such as when they are powered or at anchor, they must resume the display of an all around white light or lights aloft. That became a real challenge with aluminum masts and the disappearance of rat lines on the shrouds because there was no easy way to climb the rig and check the bulbs up the mast on a regular basis. 

Red over Green Sailing Machine

I have no idea where the history of this particular light comes from, but if you ever take a deck exam with the USCG, you better remember this mnemonic. An all around red light over an all around green may be displayed on a vessel during times of reduced visibility to indicate that a vessel is operating under sail power alone. 

I won’t even speculate on how or why they came up with this particular light configuration, but if you want to use these lights as a sailing vessel, you can do so, but that means that you will need three all round lights at the top of your mast, an all around white, an all around red and an all around green, just in that order.

The red over green is to be displayed in addition to the running lights or the red and green bow lights with the 225 degree stern light. As always, when the motor comes on, so does the steaming light or the forward facing white light that is also usually about ¾ of the way up on your mast to complete the requirement of an all around white light that indicates a power vessel.

What is a “steaming light” and why are you mentioning it now?

Most sailboat electrical panels will have a switch that is labelled “steaming light” and it will only come on when your anchor light is off. This is probably the most confusing part of sailboat navigation lights so if you are confused about this, you're in good company as most people are. 

A “steaming” light is named thusly, going back to the days of steam powered sailboats where when they fired up their boilers and doused the sails, they became a power boat once again. There aren’t too many steam powered boats, let alone steam powered sailboats, but the name stuck and it is a vestige of a bygone era.

Either way, when you fire up your motor, you turn on your “steaming light” and that locks out the all around white light which is used for anchoring to minimize the number of switches on your panel and reduce the number of wires in your mast. The fewer wires, the less chance of something not working or becoming disconnected.

The steaming light and the anchor light both go up the mast, but you can’t use an all around white light while using the 225 degree stern light at the deck level because to other boaters you would look like you have two white lights from the stern and that would be confusing.

The anchor light is used exclusively for anchoring while the steaming light is used to indicate you are a power vessel while underway.

As to why I am mentioning it now in the article, is because this would have blown your mind if I started with this subject cause it can be really confusing stuff.

Aspect Recognition with Lights

Remember when I said earlier that lights can help you tell others which way you are heading as well as tell you which way other boats are heading? That is called the aspect of the vessel and the USCG tests you on this for your deck exam as well. 

Knowing that the bow lights go 22.5 degrees abaft the beam on both sides or 112.5 degrees on each side, and the stern light faces 225 degrees aft for a total of 360 degrees of visibility, you can tell a lot about where a boat is heading and who has the right of way.

One thing that's easy to remember is red means stop and if you see a vessel's red light, it means stop as you are the give way vessel and approaching the other vessel from his port side. Conversely it works with green as well as that means you are approaching from the other vessel's starboard side and you are the standon vessel.

If you see a red and green light equally low on the horizon, that means your heading dead on into another vessel's path and conversely if all you see is a white light low on the horizon, it means you are overtaking another vessel power or sail, we don’t care because it is an overtaking situation. However, any time you do see a white light aloft in addition to the red and green bow lights, you know you are encountering a power boat.

Then there are angular approaches as well, where you see white and red or white and green light low on the horizon. You know in that case you are seeing a portion of the bow lights and stern lights from the side approaches of a vessel. Based on which direction those lights are heading, you can deduce which way that boat is going in relation to your boat.

So put it all together and you see a green light and a white light low on the horizon with a red over green light aloft, you know that you are approaching a sailboat that is traveling to your port and that might make you the standon vessel. That is of course, if we didn’t concern ourselves with windward and leeward and port tacks and starboard tacks, but that is a discussion for another article. So stay tuned when we talk about sailing rules and the right of way. But for now, do good, have fun and sail far.

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Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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How To Boat At Night Safely

Paul Stockdale Author Avatar

Boating at night can be enjoyable and relaxing to do. However, it is very important that boaters are safe and take care when boating after dark.

Boaters should know the navigation rules and boat safety requirements when boating at night.

To boat at night safely:

  • Abide by night boating rules set out by the U.S. Coast Guard
  • Ensure the boat equipment is working
  • Understand & abide by the right of way rules when boating at night
  • Adhere to boat safety rules
  • Bring an extra passenger for lookout duties

Following these steps will ensure that boaters are in the best and most prepared position when going on a boat trip at night.

1. Abide By The Night Boating Rules Set Out By The U.S. Coast Guard

The first step to boating at night safely is to abide by the night boating rules set out by the U.S. Coast Guard or an equivalent official body in your country.

From the U.S. Coast Guard federal requirements for recreational boaters, the U.S. coast guard night boating rules are:

  • All vessels under 164ft. in length must have a 360° shine all-around white anchor light that can be seen from all directions. This white anchor light should be placed at the top of a mast on a sailboat or on the roof of a power boat and it must be clearly visible with no obstruction to its visibility
  • All vessels under 164ft. in length must have a portside red light and a starboard green light with a shine from dead ahead to 112.5° aft on either side. They must have a white stern light that shines aft and 67.5° forward. The red, white and green lights must be clearly visible with no obstruction to their visibility
  • Visual distress signals must be carried onboard all vessels regardless of size at night including 3 U.S. coastguard approved pyrotechnic devices e.g. red flares, orange smoke signals or parachute flares and 1 U.S. coast guard approved non-pyrotechnic device e.g. high-intensity electric distress flashlight
  • All recreational vessels must carry one wearable U.S. coast guard approved life jacket for each person on board. Any boat 16 feet or longer must also carry one throwable U.S. coast guard approved flotation device
  • Hand-portable, U.S. Coast Guard-approved B-I or B-II classified fire extinguishers are required with a mounting bracket onboard boats. For boats less than 26 feet, one B-I fire extinguisher is required onboard, two B-I fire extinguishers or one B-II fire extinguisher are required onboard boats between 26 ft. and less than 40ft. and three B-I fire extinguishers are required on boats between 40 feet and 60ft.

Ensuring a boat complies with these rules means a boater is safely abiding by the U.S. coast guard rules for night boating and can safely and legally boat at night.

To meet the U.S. coast guard rules for night boating, ensure your boat has the correct lights, the right visual distress signal devices, fire extinguishers, and the required amount of personal flotation devices.

2. Ensure The Boating Equipment Is Working Properly

The second step to boating at night safely is to ensure all the boating equipment is working correctly.

To ensure the boating equipment is working when boating at night:

  • Check the life jackets and personal flotation devices are working, fit perfectly on every person's body, and that there is no damage to them
  • Ensure the red, white and green navigation lights on the boat are in full working order, are shining bright and there are no obstructions blocking the lights from view. If the lights are not working, replace the bulbs and fix all the lights before setting out on the water
  • Ensure the deck and dock lights on the boat are working properly and they provide the correct amount of visibility in the dark
  • Check the boat's fire extinguishers are all working and are mounted in an easily accessible area on the boat
  • Assess the boat's navigational instruments like GPS, radars & chart plotters to ensure they are in full working order. Ensure the display brightness of these navigational instruments are perfect for boaters to clearly see and view in the dark and make sure they are providing the correct location readings so you can trust them when out boating at night
  • Ensure the boat's engine starts and runs without any issues. Start the engine in the dock and let it sit idle for 2-3 minutes to see if there are any warning lights or engine misfire issues
  • Check that all the boat's interior lights are working and replace the bulbs of any interior lights that are not working

Ensuring the boating equipment is in full working order should be done before going on a boating trip. It should not be done while out on the water after the boat has left the marina or harbor.

3. Understand & Abide By The Right Of Way Rules When Boating At Night

The third step to boating at night safely is to understand and abide by the right-of-way rules when boating at night.

These right-of-way rules explain how to safely pass a boat at night.

Below are different scenarios a boater will encounter when boating at night and what to do in these scenarios.

A Boater Sees A Boat Ahead With Green And White Lights

Boating At Night Right Of Way With Green And White Lights

When boating at night, if you see another boat in front of you with a green and white light, it means the boat is crossing your path from the port side i.e. the boat is crossing your path from left to right.

In the scenario of seeing a boat with green and white lights ahead, you can maintain your course as this other vessel has to stop and give you the right of way.

However, still remain cautious in case the other vessel may not have seen you.

Put simply, if a boat is approaching your path from the left (port side), you have the right of way and the other vessel has to give way to you.

A Boater Sees A Boat Ahead With Red And White Lights

Boating At Night Right Of Way With Red And White Lights

When boating at night, if you see another boat in front of you with a red and white light, it means the boat is crossing your path from the starboard side i.e. the boat is crossing your path from right to left.

In the scenario of seeing a boat with red and white lights ahead, you must slow down and stop to give the right of way to the other vessel. Remain slowed down or stopped until the other vessel passes your path and the path is now clear.

Put simply, if a boat is approaching your path from the right (the starboard side), this boat has the right of way and you must give way to them.

A Boater Sees A Boat Ahead With A Single White Light

When boating at night, if you see another boat in front of you with a single white light, it means the boat is at anchor or moving away from you in the same direction.

In the scenario of seeing a boat with a single white light ahead, you must slow down to avoid a collision or prepare to overtake the vessel on either side of the boat.

4. Adhere To Boat Safety Rules

The fourth step to boating at night safely is to adhere to common boat safety rules.

Boat safety rules to follow when boating at night includes:

  • Wear a life jacket : As per U.S. coast guard rules, every person onboard a boat must wear a U.S. coast guard approved life jacket. Ensure every person is wearing a life jacket when boating at night
  • Have fully functional fire extinguishers onboard : Make sure the fire extinguishers are operational and easily accessible in the event of a fire onboard at night
  • Reduce boat speed at night : When boating at night, reduce your speed as the visibility is reduced at night. It can be hard to see debris or other boats at night so reducing the speed can help with this. It's recommended to travel slower than any boat speed limits
  • Reduce the noise onboard : When boating at night, keep noise to a minimum. Keeping noise to a minimum ensures you can hear other boats approaching that you may not have seen. Playing music through speakers is not advised at night and keeping the rpm of the engine down to approximately 2,000 rpm or lower will help reduce the noise
  • Don't use dock lights when out on the water : Dock lights should only be used when docking a boat in the harbor or marina and they should not be used when out boating at night. Using dock lights when out on the water at night can cause temporary blindness for other boaters and it is not recommended
  • Bring waterproof jackets onboard at night : Sometimes the temperature can get very cold at night. To help with this, a boater should bring a waterproof jacket to keep them warm and dry when boating at night
  • Follow the boat's navigational instruments at night : Follow the navigational instruments when boating at night. A navigational instrument will help inform you of other boater's locations and potential dangers on the water

Following and adhering to these marine safety rules will help boaters to safely navigate the waters when boating at night.

5. Bring An Extra Passenger For Lookout Duties

The fifth step to boating at night safely is to bring an extra passenger on the night boat trip for lookout duties.

An extra passenger onboard at night will help keep a lookout for other boats that a captain/skipper may not be able to see.

An extra passenger can keep a 360° lookout while a boat captain is focusing on navigational instruments.

Ideally, bring an adult over 18 years with good eyesight onboard for the lookout duties.

Boating A Night Safety Checklist

Before boating at night, a boater should follow a night boating safety checklist to ensure a safe boat trip at night.

Below is a boating at night safety checklist.

Frequently Asked Questions About Boating At Night

Below are commonly asked questions about boating at night.

What Color Are The Lights Of A Boat At Night?

The colors of the lights on a boat at night are red, green and white.

What Boat Lights Do You Need On A Boat At Night?

There are four lights needed on a boat when boating at night which are a red light on the port side of the vessel, a green light on the starboard side of the vessel, a white light at the stern of the boat, and a 360° visible white light on the highest point of a mast or roof of a boat.

How Do You Improve Your Safety When Boating At Night?

To improve your safety when boating at night, ensure all fire extinguishers and flares are operational, all the boat lights are in full working order, the life jackets are worn and tied correctly on your body, the navigation instruments are working and visible in the dark and the VHF radio is working properly.

What Are The Benefits Of Boating At Night?

The benefits of boating at night are fewer boats are on the water which means less crowded boating trips and the temperature at night tends to be much cooler which makes it more comfortable for boating in areas where the climate is hot.

What Are The Risks Of Boating At Night?

The risks of boating at night are poor visibility causing a boat collision and increased fatigue of the captain causing a lack of concentration when boating at night.

Is It Legal To Boat At Night?

Yes, it is legal to boat at night from sunset to sunrise provided the boater follows the rules and regulations set out by the U.S. Coast Guard or their own equivalent government body.

Is It Hard To Boat At Night?

No, boating at night is relatively straightforward once a boater gets some night boating experience. With more night boat trips, the boater gets more confident and it starts to become routine.

Is It Safe To Boat At Night?

Yes, it is safe to boat at night provided the boater follows the correct night boating safety procedures and ensures the weather conditions are good for nighttime boating.

If these safety procedures are followed and the weather is good, then it is safe.

When Is It Best Time To Boat At Night?

The best time to boat at night is when the weather conditions are good with clear skies and calm seas.

When Is It To Worst Time To Boat At Night?

The worst time to boat at night is when the weather is extremely foggy, there is a large amount of rain or it is very windy.

During poor weather conditions, boating at night should be avoided.

Do You Need Night Vision When Boating At Night?

No, night vision systems are not a legal requirement when boating at night. However, a night vision system can help improve a boater's visibility when night boating and many boaters find them useful to improve visibility.

What Is The Speed Limit When Boating At Night?

The speed limit when boating at night will depend on the specific states and their own marine speed limit laws.

Typically, nighttime boat speed limits range from 5 knots to 10 knots but this can vary depending on the state and the location.

Where Are The Boat Navigation Lights Located On A Boat When Boating At Night?

When boating at night, the boat navigation lights are located:

  • Red light : The red light is located on the port side of the boat
  • Green light : The green light is located on the starboard side of the boat
  • White light : The white light is located on the top of a mast on a sailboat or on the rooftop of a power boat

What Are Boat Dock Lights?

Boat dock lights, also referred to as boat headlights, are lights on a boat that are turned on when a boat is docking in a marina or harbor. They are not used when a boat is moving on the water at night as they can temporarily blind other boaters and instead they are only turned on when a boat is mooring. The boat dock lights are located on the bow of a recreational boat.

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

22 Tips For Boating At Night: Helpful Guide (For Beginners)

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Boating is an enjoyable activity. Most people think about boating during the day while the sun is shining, but others choose to boat during the evening.

Evening boating can be an entirely new experience whether you choose to watch the sunset over the water, watch a fireworks show, go out for a late meal, or any other night time activity.

When you are out on the water during the evening, you will want to make sure you know and follow nighttime boating navigation rules.

These rules are generally similar to the navigation rules during the daytime, but they are even more important, and there are special considerations to make.

There are also some tips to follow while out on the water in the dark.

These rules and tips can be found below!

Table of Contents

1. What Speed Can I Go When Boating at Night?

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

When boating during all hours of the day, there may or may not be a posted “speed limit.”  Also, check local regulations to see if there is a nighttime speed limit.

This does not mean that you can or should always go as fast as you can.

The navigation rule in place for speed states that a vessel’s operator should always be traveling at a safe speed.

A safe speed is defined as a speed that allows the operator to take proper and effective action to avoid collisions. That will allow the operator to stop within a safe distance that is appropriate under each circumstance or condition.

This means that the operator will need to take certain factors into account when determining the proper speed.

These factors include:

  • Traffic Density
  • Maneuverability
  • Background light available at night
  • The proximity of potential hazards
  • Vessel’s draft
  • Radar limitations
  • Weather conditions including wind, sea, and current
  • Effect of wake on other boats or shoreline

This means that during periods with low visibility, such as heavy fog conditions, storms, or at night, you should be going slower than you would go on average during the day with perfect visibility.

Remember that while you are boating at night on a body of water that doesn’t have any lights to illuminate your way, you are relying on the small lights featured on the other vessels to determine where traffic is.

For this reason, if you are going too fast and you come around a bend, you might not see another vessel in time to stop.

Even with fancy equipment and your eyes on the lookout, you will likely not see anything or anyone else until they are too close.

Always make sure you are going at a speed that will allow you to stop whenever necessary, even at a moment’s notice.

You will also want to be sure that you follow any “no-wake” zone rules during the evening and in the daytime.

It is also a good idea to go slow in rivers or other shallow water during the evening. There can be large stumps, rocks, or other obstructions in shallow water or rivers that can damage your propeller.

Navigation LIGHT Rules at Night:

Boats are legally required to be equipped with the proper nighttime navigation lights . Even if you do not intend to take your boat out at night, you will still require these lights for your boat to be legal.

These lights are also needed during other periods of low visibility, such as thick fog or intense storms.

2. Navigation Light Requirements:

There are specific lights that are required for boats during times of low visibility.

Depending on the size of boat you are operating, here are the different lights you will need:

Boats less than 39.4 feet long or 12 meters:

These boats need 1 red light and 1 green light at both the front, port, and starboard sides of the boat.

You will also need one white light that can be seen from all angles up to 2 miles away.

Boats larger than 39.4 feet long or 12 meters:

These boats will still need the same red and green lights as the smaller size.

You will also need 2 white lights, 1 at the stern and 1 at the aft, that can be seen up to 2 miles away.

You will also need a red light on your port side and a green light on the starboard side that can be seen up to 1 mile away.

Sailboats or Unpowered Boats:

Unpowered boats that are under 23 feet only need 1 white light on them. These boats can include sailboats, rowboats, or kayaks. If you choose to, you can still add the red and green lights in their appropriate place. An effective way to safely sail at night is to shine a light on your sail if you hear a powerboat. You will be readily visible to other boaters.

Larger sailboats should have lights similar to the powered boat lights on the side and the aft, but there could also have a tri-color light on the masthead that can be visible up to 2 miles away. Sailboats must display a forward-facing, white light when motoring. This is commonly called a steaming light. When motoring, sailboats must abide by powerboat rules.

Never use red and blue lights on your vessel. These lights are reserved for official vessels.

3. What Does a Single White Light Mean on a Boat at Night?

When you see only a white light on a boat, you are headed straight for the other vessel; you are overtaking that vessel.

  • Single White Light: If you only see the white light, the other boat is the stand-on vessel, whether underway or anchored. You should be able to go around it on either side.
  • White and Green Light: If you see both green and white light, you are the stand-on vessel. This means you need to stand-on and let the other boat pass on either side. Be prepared to give way in case the other vessel does not know the proper navigation rules.
  • White and Red Light: When you see both the red and white light, you are supposed to give way to the other vessel. You should either slow down and allow the vessel to pass, or you can turn to your right and pass behind the other vessel.
  • Only Red or Green Lights: If you only see a red or green light, you may be approaching a sailboat or unpowered boat. You must always give way for a sailboat. A sailboat should always be the stand-on vessel.
For additional information about the navigation light rules during the evening, you should read this article where we go into great detail about rules for lights on the boat .

4. Navigation SOUND Rules For Boating At Night:

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

When your visibility is cut off, you will need to rely more heavily on sound. Because of this, you should know the proper navigation sound rules.

These rules include:

Sound Signals the Indicate Direction:

  • 1 Short Blast : this indicates that you will pass on your port side.
  • 2 Short Blasts : this indicates the plan to pass on your starboard side.
  • 3 Short Blasts : this indicates you intend to back up.

Sound Signals that indicate Location:

  • 1 Long Blast : this can be used to indicate you are coming around a bend in the river or you are leaving your dock or slip.
  • 1 Long Blast then 3 Short Blasts : this indicates you are backing up.
  • 1 Long Blast in intervals less than 2 minutes apart  indicates that you are a power vessel when you are in blind areas or heavy fog.

Sound signals that indicate Danger:

  • 5 Short Blasts: this indicates danger and can be used to indicate a potential collision.

For additional information about the navigation sound rules, follow the link below:

https://www.godownsize.com/boats-horns-signals-explained/

5. Follow Nighttime Navigation Rules:

Navigation rules are similar at night as they are during the daytime.

The only differences are:

  • To reduce your speed.
  • To place more emphasis on following sound signals.
  • To know the proper light signals.

The evening can be darker with lower visibility, so it is even more important for you to know the navigation rules’ ins and outs and follow them.

A miscommunication about who has the right of way could be dangerous at any time, but especially at night.

If you cannot see other boats, you could have an issue seeing what the other boat is doing, and you could be less likely to react to them on time versus in the daytime.

Other Important Tips for Boating at Night:

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

There are tips for boating at night that are not necessary rules but can still help you during nighttime navigation.

These tips include:

6. Use Your Skipper:

The skipper is an important asset to have on a boat if something happens, and the operator needs someone else to take over.

In addition to this, the skipper can be very helpful while navigating at night. At night, the skipper can serve as an extra pair of eyes while boating in times of low visibility.

Even with excellent vision, your eyes can become tired while trying to see in the dark. If you get too tired, you can rotate the control of the helm with your skipper.

Your skipper can also help you look out for the lights that will be present on other boats. These can be harder to see than simply seeing the other vessel during the daytime.

An extra pair of eyes can mean that you see other vessels faster, which allows you to react faster.

Ensure you follow the navigation rules listed above when it comes to interpreting the lights on a boat.

7. Keep Your Ears Open:

With lower visibility, you should also keep your ears open while operating your vessel in the evening.

It can be beneficial to turn your radio off and make sure you are not utilizing headphones while boating at night.

You will need your ears to hear bells, markers, engines, or horns on any approaching boats.

Make sure you follow the navigation rules listed above when it comes to horn sounds.

8. Use Spotlights and Searchlights Appropriately:

Make sure that you do not immediately shine a spotlight or searchlight on a vessel.

Boats are not equipped with headlights similar to automobiles for a reason. If you try to flash your lights directly at other boaters, you could blind or disorient them.

Make sure you only use this tool when needed.

You might also be tempted to add headlights or continuously use a spotlight while out on the water. These don’t work because, unlike on the road, boats can be coming from any direction.

Also, you will be the only boat that is using a spotlight while out on the water. You will want to follow the navigation light rules that are already in place.

Spotlights can also cause an unnatural shining on the waves that can look like floats or debris, creating a sense of danger.

9. Ensure You Do Not Use Docking Lights as Headlights:

Your boat might have docking lights that look like headlights.

You will want to make sure that you do not mistake these or use these as headlights.

They do not cast as long of a beam as specific headlamps.

These lights are only supposed to be for maneuvering over close-quarter marinas or turning into docks or slips.

10. Drink Responsibly:

Whenever you are boating, but especially at night, you will want to make sure you are alert and boating safely.

This means that if you do choose to drink alcohol, you will want to do so responsibly.

Alcohol can lower your reaction time, your decision-making power and make your vessel’s operation more dangerous.

Most boating accidents are due to operator error, and many of them had alcohol involved somehow.

11. Turn Down Any Ambient Light:

image of a properly lit sailboat at night

It is a good idea to turn down any ambient light. Any light on your boat can reduce your ability to see off the boat.

Your eyes will adjust better to the darkness if you do not have any other light onboard your vessel.

Ambient lights can include:

  • The chart plotter
  • Courtesy lights
  • Electronic devices

If you cannot turn a light off, you could drape a towel over it to drown out the light.

12. Don’t Spend a Lot of Time Looking at the Stars:

It can be disorienting to look at the stars in the dark while moving.

It can also cause vertigo to look at the stars while moving. Vertigo can even lead to seasickness if you are not careful.

If you want to look at the stars or even map them, you should do this while you are not moving to ensure that you do not get sick or disoriented.

If you anchor your vessel, looking at the stars while out on the water can be a really relaxing and beautiful experience.

While out on the water, you can see the stars better than while on land. This is because of a lack of light pollution while out on the dark water.

13. Novice Boating:

If you are a novice boater, you will want to be completely sure that you can handle anything that nighttime boating can throw at you.

Being fully confident on the water can be crucial at anytime but particularly at night.

User error is one of the main causes of boating accidents. This can be because of a bad call made by the operator or by an operator who was not fully knowledgeable about the navigation rules while boating.

If you are unsure about your operator skills, you might want to consider a boaters safety class.

Operator error is drastically reduced with operators who have completed a boaters safety course.

Knowing the proper rules and regulations can help you when it comes to interacting with other vessels, and it will also help you understand how others will operate their vessels.

It can also help to have an experienced boater on board with you in case of an emergency.

What to Pack for Nighttime Boating:

It is also important to make sure you pack the proper supplies for nighttime boating.

You will also want to pack for evening boating, even if you plan to be out at night. There is always a possibility for unforeseen circumstances.

14. Pack Emergency Light Gear:

At night there will be some specialized emergency gear that you will want to have on your vessel.

This can include:

  • Flashlights

This is in addition to the safety equipment that you should always have on your boat .

Which includes life jackets, fire extinguishers, floatation devices, carbon monoxide detectors, and other equipment required by law.

15. Pack Warm Clothing:

It is important to pack warm clothing if you intend to boat at night.

The weather can feel chillier when the sun goes down, even on a summer’s night.

Long clothing can also help to deter bugs and the potential for insect bites.

Even if you do not end up needed the long clothing, it is better to have something and not need it than to need it and not have it.

You should also have clothing in case of foul weather, such as storms.

You will also want to bring towels if you get wet, even if you do not intend to.

16. Bring Sleeping Supplies When Necessary:

If you plan to stay out overnight, you will want to ensure that you have the proper sleeping equipment.

Even on a warm summer night, you will want to have a blanket if it gets cold.

You will also want to pack pillows and other comfort items.

17. Pack Bug Spray:

Like warm clothing that can deter bugs, you should also make sure you have bug spray to keep them at bay.

Bugs are often worse at night and can make any trip uncomfortable.

Bug bites are also uncomfortable in the long term, and you might regret not properly deterring them.

18. Bring Sufficient Food and Water:

Make sure when you are out on the water you have enough food and water for your trip. Even at night, you can suffer from dehydration in warm weather.

Like mentioned, accidents and unforeseen things can happen. If you end up being stranded, you will want to make sure you have the proper nutrients to sustain yourself until help arrives.

If you plan on staying out overnight, make sure you bring the proper food and water for all passengers.

19. Bring Chart Plotters, GPS Devices, and Radars:

A GPS device can help you see the direction you are heading, give you directions, and sometimes give you a scan of the coves that might be in the area.

You can get a chart plotter or buy a GPS device that comes with a chart plotter.

Chart plotters indicate where fixed objects are. These can be buoys and markers. This does not include other boaters.

The radar is a very reliable tool that can indicate the distance of something in the water.

You can also bring and utilize a compass. This can help you find your home port or destination when you cannot use landmarks to find your destination.

These objects are beneficial when it comes to navigation, but you will not want to rely on these devices solely. You will want to keep your eye out for yourself.

20. Pack the Proper Communication Devices:

You will want to make sure you have a communication device on board your boat at any time, day or night.

Anything can happen while you are out on the water, so you will want to make sure you can get help when you need it.

It is also a good idea to have a VHF radio on board if your cell phone is unable to get service or dies.

You will also want to make sure you know the proper emergency channels to get the proper assistance when needed.

21. Don’t Forget to Enjoy Yourself!

While you are trying to remember all the proper nighttime boating rules, do not forget to enjoy yourself.

Boating at night can be an entirely new experience versus boating during the daytime.

It is often quieter and offers a different experience to daytime boating.

Some unique experiences you can have during a nighttime boating outing includes:

  • Watching the sunset.
  • Looking at or charting the stars.
  • Watching evening fireworks.
  • Having a late dockside meal.
  • Camping on your boat overnight.

Nighttime boating often offers an experience with less boating traffic and less overall noise.

You will also be able to enjoy the open water with a blazing or hot sun, cooler and breezy air, and calmer water without a wake.

22. Keep at It!

The final tip for boating at night is to keep at it. Experience is important when it comes to boating during the day as well as at night.

In the beginning, you should have another experienced boat operator on board in case of an emergency, as well as for the second set of eyes.

You will want to continue to practice boating at night to make sure you get the hang of it.

The saying “it’s as different as night and day” is highly applicable when operating a boat.

Once you get the hang of it and really know what you are doing, you can enjoy many relaxing and no stress evenings out on the water with you and your fellow passengers.

It is also beneficial to practice on nights that have a full moon or a bright moon. This can add additional light to see by while you get used to the difference that comes with nighttime boating and navigation.

Final Thoughts:

If you own a boat, you might be wondering how to get more use and enjoyment out of it. The solution for you could be to get into evening boating.

Boating at night can be a delightful and relaxing experience without the harsh sun and high boating traffic.

Evening boating can be quiet and relaxing as well as you can do many different types of experiences that you cannot do during daytime boating.

If you properly prepare, you can have an enjoyable experience for you and your passengers at night.

Preparations can include:

  • Knowing the proper navigation rules regarding the right of way, light signals, and sound signals.
  • Knowing the proper speeds for nighttime boating.
  • Making sure you are confident in your operating skills.
  • Bringing the proper safety equipment.
  • Bringing the proper navigation equipment.
  • Bringing the proper clothes, bug spray, towels, sleeping items, and other equipment.
  • Preparing your boat to lower light and sound, so it isn’t distracting.
  • Behaving safely when it comes to operation and the use of alcohol.
  • Having an experienced skipper as a backup.

Make sure when you go boating at night, you remember the safety and navigation rules. Being safe out on the water should always be the top priority.

Reducing user error is a matter of being safe and taking the proper boater training classes to ensure you know the proper navigation rules, right of way rules, sound signals, and lighting signals and the proper time to use them.

Remember to have fun when you are out on the water, no matter what time of day. Having a boat is a fun activity and investment for you and your passenger. You will want to make sure you are enjoying it and using it to its full potential.

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Boat navigation lights rules and requirements at night Requirements in Canada

  • Boating Safety Equipment
  • Types of navigation lights
  • Boat Navigation Lights rules and requirements at night

Powerboats navigation lights at night

navigation lights

  • Powerboats less than 12 meters (39,4") in length
  • Powerboats of 12 meters (39,4") and over in length
  • Powerboats at anchor

Properly lit sailboat at night

properly lit sailboat at night

  • Sailboats under 7 m (23’)
  • Sailboats from 7 m (23’) to under 20 m (65’7”)
  • Sailboats 20 m (65’7”) and over
  • Sailboats operating under motor power
  • Sailboats at anchor

Commercial boats navigation lights at night

navigation lights fishing boat

  • Navigation lights for a vessel engaged in fishing  

Navigation lights for a vessel engaged in trawling

Navigation lights for a power-driven vessel when towing.

  • Navigation lights for a government vessel

Navigation lights for powerboats less than 12 meters (39,4") in length

A power driven vessel of less than 12 meters in length, and underway, may display, from sunset to sunrise:

All-round light (white) forward and,

Sidelights (red – green).

Navigation lights for boats

Navigation lights for powerboats of 12 meters (39,4") and over in length

A power driven vessel of 12 meters and over in length, and underway, may display, from sunset to sunrise:

Masthead light (white) forward,

Sternlight (white) and,

Navigation lights for powerboats of 12 meters (39,4

Navigation lights for powerboats at anchor

At anchor,  the operator of a pleasure craft shall display, from sunset to sunrise, in the fore part,  an all-round light .  A powerboat anchored at night must display  an all-round light .

Navigation lights for powerboats at anchor

What is a properly lit sailboat at night?

Navigation lights for sailboats under 7 m (23’).

and underway, may display, from sunset to sunrise:

Sidelights (red – green) and,

Sternlight (white).

  • 1 lantern, combining the sidelights and stern light above.

Navigation lights for sailboats under 7 m (23’)

Navigation lights for sailboats from 7 m (23’) to under 20 m (65’7”)

  • Sternlight , and
  • 1 lantern, combining the sidelights and stern light above

Navigation lights for sailboats from 7 m (23’) to under 20 m (65’7”)

Optional - A sailing vessel may exhibit at or near the top of the mast, two all-round lights in a vertical line: the upper one red and the lower one green. These lights are shown along with the sidelights and sternlight.

Navigation lights for sailboats 20 m (65’7”) and over

Navigation lights for sailboats 20 m (65’7”) and over

Navigation lights for sailboats operating under motor power

Sailboats are considered powerboats when they have the engines on - even if the sails are up. 

Masthead light  (white) forward,

Sternlight  (white).

Navigation lights for sailboats at anchor

Navigation lights for sailboats operating under motor power

Navigation lights for kayak or canoe (human-powered vessels) at night

Navigation lights are also required for  human-powered vessels (canoe, kayak)  or for a sailing pleasure craft of less than 7 meters in length not under power. When underway,  the operator  shall, from sunset to sunrise, display, if practical, sidelights and a stern light, but if the operator cannot, he/she must have at hand , a   flashlight   or lighted lantern emitting a white light which must be lit in enough time to prevent a collision.

Navigation lights for kayak or canoe (human-powered vessels)

Navigation lights for a vessel engaged in fishing 

Sidelights ,

Sternlight and

All-around light in a vertical line, the upper being red over white light. When making way through the water.

Navigation lights for ships engaged in fishing 

A  vessel when engaged in trawling , which means dragging a dredge net or other fishing apparatus through the water, shall display:

Two all-round lights in a vertical line, the upper being green and the lower white. When making way through the water,

Sidelights and 

Sternlight.

Navigation lights for a vessel engaged in trawling

Navigation lights for a government vessel (Police boat)

Any government vessel or any vessel that is owned or operated by a harbor, river, county or municipal police force may display a blue flashing light to identify itself as such, in the following cases

When it is providing assistance in any waters to any vessel or other craft;

When it is engaged in law enforcement duties in Canadian waters.

navigation-lights-police-iso-hr

Power-driven vessel when towing shall show sidelights, a sternlight, and a towing light in a vertical line above the sternlight, and two masthead lights in a vertical line. When the length of the tow, measuring from the stern of the towing vessel to the after end of the tow exceeds 200 meters, three such lights in a vertical line shall be displayed.

Apart from the regular navigation lights, when a boat tows another vessel in distress or in need of assistance for any reason, shall take all possible measures to show the relation between the towed vessel and the vessel doing the towing. A vessel towing must try to shine a light on the towing cable to make it as visible as possible, so that other boats do not come into contact with the cable.

A vessel being tow shall display sidelights and a sternlight. If it is not possible, it must display one all-around white light at each of the fore and aft ends.  

Navigation lights for a power-driven vessel pushing another

A power-driven vessel, when pushing another , shall display the sidelights, a sternlight, and two superimposed masthead lights. 

The vessel being pushed, and not part of a composite unit, must display its sidelights at the bow. When a vessel is pushing another, if both are connected in a rigid, composite unit, they will be regarded as one unit, thus showing the appropriate lights.

Navigation lights Examples

Sailing vessel seen from starboard side.

Sailing vessel seen from starboard side

Sailing vessel seen from the front

Sailing vessel seen from the front

Power-driven vessel anchored

Power-driven vessel anchored

Power-driven vessel seen from starboard side

Power-driven vessel seen from starboard side

Power-driven vessel seen from port side

Power-driven vessel seen from port side

Power-driven vessel seen from the stern (back)

Power-driven vessel seen from the stern (back)

Would you like to learn more about boating safety and be able to drive a boat?

Aceboater s'  boating safety course  is accredited by Transport Canada to train students on the rules of navigation, buoys and their meanings, boating navigation lights, hazards, how to respond to emergency situations, boating laws and more.

Our course, once successfully completed, will give you the official  pleasure craft operator card  from Transport Canada, valid throughout North America.

I want my official  Canadian boating license .

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IMAGES

  1. Navigation Lights at Night

    image of a properly lit sailboat at night

  2. How to light a sailboat at night ~ How to build a sailboat kit

    image of a properly lit sailboat at night

  3. Properly lit sailboat at night ~ Build your own pontoon boat

    image of a properly lit sailboat at night

  4. Properly Light Sailboat At Night

    image of a properly lit sailboat at night

  5. Sailing boat, yacht with night lighting system and full moon during

    image of a properly lit sailboat at night

  6. What is a Properly Lit Sailboat at Night? (A Guide to Safety

    image of a properly lit sailboat at night

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COMMENTS

  1. What is a Properly Lit Sailboat at Night? (A Guide to Safety

    A properly lit sailboat at night is a boat that is equipped with the correct navigation lights, which are required by law. These lights must be visible for two miles and should include a green light on the starboard side, a red light on the port side, and a white light aft. Additionally, the boat must also have a white masthead light that is ...

  2. How Should a Sailboat Be Lit At Night? (Expert Advice You Need To Know)

    Short Answer. At night, a sailboat should be lit according to the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. This includes displaying a white light at the masthead, a white light on the port side, and a red light on the starboard side. Additionally, a stern light should be visible from the rear of the boat, and a deck light ...

  3. Shining the Sailboat Lights At Night: What You Need To Know

    Sailboats must have the same red and green lights as powerboats. The difference is that you'll need other ones on the stern and mast. If your boat is less than 65 feet, you can use either a combination of a bicolor light with red and green along with another at the stern or a tricolor one on top of the mast.

  4. Boat Lights At Night (The Rules For Safety)

    Boat navigation lights at night are used for safety. They are designed so they can be seen easily. Boat lights vary according to boat type and size, boat use, navigation area, and geographic location. Boaters should learn boat light meanings and keep up-to-date on boat light requirements. Boat navigation lights indicate a boat's heading ...

  5. Night sailing: top tips and expert advice to see you safely through

    Sail area is reduced during the night - if hit by a big squall - by furling the jib. The off-watch sleeps on the saloon sofa.". "We also use head torches and use the red LED to preserve ...

  6. What you need to know about sailing at night

    All boats must be properly lit for other vessels to see. And, a boat doesn't work like a car either, where we shine our headlights on the road ahead to see what's in front of us. At sea we rely on navigation, nautical charts, lighthouses and the captain's knowledge. Basic boat lights include running lights, steaming lights and anchor lights.

  7. The Night Vision Techniques

    In addition to the navigation tips above, there are several safety precautions you should take when sailing at night: 1. Ensure Your Boat is Properly Lit. Make sure your boat's navigation lights are functioning properly and are visible from all angles. This will help other vessels see you and avoid collisions. 2. Wear Reflective Clothing and Gear

  8. Night Sailing: A full guide to sailing in the dark

    A moonless night sky descends to wrap us in a blanket of bright heavenly bodies, untarnished by light pollution. Conversely a full moon can cast its own spell - there is nothing like the magic of sailing down the reflective path of a moonbeam. A few hours of night sailing can hugely extend your cruising range.

  9. 7 Tips for Night Sailing

    Don layers, with a spray jacket on top and life should be good. Carry a decent searchlight. Night boating involves becoming accustomed to the available light and acclimating to it. It's actually one of the cool things to experience during a sail in the dark, so constantly shining a spotlight like you were hand-holding your car's headlights ...

  10. Night Sailing: Seven Main Tips to be Safe and Happy

    You should make good use of your electronic sailing aids to ensure boating safety at night. You should also make sure that the waypoints you have entered your navigational aid are correct so you don't have any mistakes while sailing at night. Make note of your surroundings such as islands and other obstacles to ensure that each one of your ...

  11. What are the proper sailboat lights at night?

    Sailboats are required to have three lights at a minimum: a masthead light, a red port light, and a green starboard light. The masthead light is white and is located at the top of the mast. This light should shine forward and aft and be visible from 2 nautical miles away. It is important to ensure that the masthead light is not obstructed by ...

  12. The Night Navigation Techniques

    Here are some key steps to take before embarking on a night sailing adventure: Check your navigation lights: Ensure that your boat's navigation lights (red and green sidelights, white stern light, and white masthead light) are functioning correctly and are visible from the appropriate distances.

  13. The Nighttime Navigation Gear Checklist

    Proper navigation lights are crucial for nighttime sailing, as they help you to see and be seen by other vessels. At a minimum, your boat should be equipped with the following lights: Bow lights: Red (port) and green (starboard) lights mounted on the bow of your boat, visible from at least one mile away. Stern light: A white light mounted on ...

  14. Night sailing

    Sailing is no fun when tired and hungry. There seems to be a tendency on cruising yachts to run short-handed with single-person watches. Of course, single-handed sailors circle the globe in ever ...

  15. Expert Boat safety Tips for Navigating Your Boat at Night

    Keeping a sharp lookout is key to boating safely in the dark. If you have passengers onboard, give them the job of keeping their eyes fixed on the horizon to look for unlit buoys, boats at anchor, running boats, floating objects, and other possible dangers. Having multiple sets of eyes on the lookout allows the driver to divert his attention ...

  16. Sailing At Night: How To Prepare For Night Sailing

    Night navigation requires more preparation of the boat in order to simplify manoeuvring in the dark. You must prepare the boat for night sailing. You have to clear the deck of all unnecessary ropes and prepare the sail for any possible manoeuvres. If you wish to sleep on a sailboat, remember to adapt the sail area, it is not recommended to sail ...

  17. Night sailing tips for first timers

    Stay on deck while night sailing. As always with pilotage, the right place to be is on deck, not least to avoid uncharted objects such as other craft, mooring buoys and fishing pot markers. Most pilotage errors occur at night rather than in the day so a thorough pilotage plan is essential. Even with a navigation station filled with electronic ...

  18. Navigating at Night

    Yet once your eyes have acclimated to the dark, too much onboard light can destroy your night vision. Once this occurs, your eyes will need to readjust: Your pupils need to rewiden, and the rods, special cells that provide most of what we call "night vision," must resensitize. This can take as long as 35 to 40 minutes.

  19. Navigation Lights for Sailboats (And How To Read Them)

    As such a power boat, and by extension all sailboats, MUST, without question show one green light on the starboard bow and one red light on the port bow and one all around white light or lights while operating in reduced visibility. These lights should shine at all 360 degrees of visibility with the bow lights shining at an angle of dead ahead ...

  20. Required Navigation Lights: Sailboats Under Sail

    Red and green sidelights, one sternlight, and two all-round lights in a vertical line (upper red, lower green) also meet the navigation lights requirement for sailboats that are not operating under engine power (Rule 25). One combination red, green, and white light exhibited near the top of the mast meets the navigation lights requirement for ...

  21. How To Boat At Night Safely

    To meet the U.S. coast guard rules for night boating, ensure your boat has the correct lights, the right visual distress signal devices, fire extinguishers, and the required amount of personal flotation devices. 2. Ensure The Boating Equipment Is Working Properly. The second step to boating at night safely is to ensure all the boating equipment ...

  22. 22 Tips For Boating At Night: Helpful Guide (For Beginners)

    Bringing the proper clothes, bug spray, towels, sleeping items, and other equipment. Preparing your boat to lower light and sound, so it isn't distracting. Behaving safely when it comes to operation and the use of alcohol. Having an experienced skipper as a backup. Make sure when you go boating at night, you remember the safety and navigation ...

  23. Boat navigation lights rules and requirements at night

    1 lantern, combining the sidelights and stern light above. Option 1. Option 2. Option 3. Optional - A sailing vessel may exhibit at or near the top of the mast, two all-round lights in a vertical line: the upper one red and the lower one green. These lights are shown along with the sidelights and sternlight.