Over the years the configuration of navigation lighting has changed as traffic on the waterways has increased and more and more types of craft have come into use. Regardless of how they have been configured however, all navigation lighting has served the same purposes; namely the prevention of collisions between watercraft. The only way to be certain of the particular configuration your craft must use is to check with local regulating bodies and the coast guard as requirements can differ from one region to the next and according to the size and type of watercraft.
Before leaving the dock for an extended trip, especially when led high mast light you know you will be out after sunset, is to make a thorough and complete check of your boats lighting systems. If you doubt how serious a problem ensuring the proper operation and display of navigation lighting can be, the next time you are out on the water at night, take a moment to observe the boat traffic around you. Chances are, you will observe more than one boat displaying improperly positioned navigation lights, lights that are difficult to see, or worse, no lights at all!
Considering how difficult and important it is to see other boats at night, it simply boggles the mind how many boaters appear to put little attention to their navigation lighting. Without properly operating navigation lights other boaters cannot determine your boats size, its heading, or its proximity to their own craft. Even on boats there navigation lights are operating correctly, there will often be problems such as stowage or gear blocking the lights. So, in order to ensure your navigation lighting is not only operational and properly configured, but easily visible as well, it is necessary to also take into account how your craft appears to other boaters. The easiest way to do this is to observe your boat from a another vessel, and if that is not possible, from a land based position that mimics how another boat would be positioned relative to your own.
The main types of boating navigation lights that must be displayed after sunset and during rain or heavy fog include side lights, masthead, stern and anchor lights. Side lights can be individual units as on larger craft, or a combination of colors in one unit that is often found on smaller vessels. Navigation lights for the port side of the vessel are red. Lights for the starboard side are green. These lights should display over a defined area from straight on to 112 degrees to the side. These lights normally need to be visible for a minimum of 1 nautical mile, but as we mentioned earlier, it is necessary to check regulations as this can sometimes be as far as two miles. Side lights allow other boats to determine your position and heading. If for example you can see a boat’s red navigation light, then their port side is facing you, which then allows you to get a bearing on that vessels heading and make any adjustments to your own course that may be necessary.
Masthead, stern and anchor lights are intended to provide an easy way for other boaters to see your vessel and steer clear. These lights are generally intended to radiate light over a full 360 degrees of range and be easily visible at extended distances. These lights are often the most neglected and improperly used of all navigation lights, for several reasons. One of the worst reasons these 360 degree lights are poorly utilized is operator vanity. Many boaters want a sleek attractive look for their craft, and so seek to install the light where it “looks” best, rather than where it will be the most effective. The result is a light that is obscured by radar assemblies, too low to be visible for any distance, or worse, mounted where it will illuminate the cockpit and deck and ruin a boater’s night vision. The best positioning for these lights is at the highest point on the boat, away from other devices and parts that may obstruct their effect. Which brings up another reason why these lights are often neglected; mounted 35 feet in the air on a mast, not many people are keen about climbing in order to inspect, repair or replace an anchor light and so put it off as long as possible. This should no longer be a serious issue though as there are plenty of LED boat lights that can serve as an anchor light and operate probably as the long a boater owns the craft.
One other form of lighting that can play a significant role in nighttime boating safety is an effective spotlight. While most boating regulations prohibit the use of a spotlight while underway, they do allow their periodic use for short duration. Spotlights can serve a wide variety of functions including as a navigational aid when avoiding crab pots and partially submerged obstacles, locating unlit buoys, or even in emergency situations such as man overboard or helping another vessel in distress. There’s a wide variety of boat spotlights available, but for smaller boats a handheld unit is usually sufficient, while boats twenty feet or more in length can often benefit from one of the remote controlled Golights that are so popular these days.
If you are going to install a permanently mounted spotlight, it pays to put in some forethought. Under most nighttime cruising conditions, once your eyes become acclimated to the dark your natural night vision is sufficient. However, an improperly mounted spotlight can create glare by reflecting off of decks and shiny railings. The best position for a permanently mounted spotlight is as a result as far forward on the bow as possible where the beam will not spill over onto the deck or cross over railings. If there is no suitable location in the bow area, a location above the canopy high enough to allow the beam to pass over the deck and any obstructions is a good second choice.