Fort Mill Times

Know your lights for safe boating at night

Boating at night can be an enjoyable part of the recreational boating experience. But it also can be dangerous.

Proper lighting on your boat, as well as being able to identify the direction other boats are traveling, can be the difference between an enjoyable evening on the water or a tragic event.

Night navigation should not be taken lightly. It requires skill and concentration. Your depth perception decreases, and distances and sizes of shores and navigational aids can look different. Waves and wakes from other boats become harder to see or judge. Reflections in the windshield can be confusing. Night vision can be drastically reduced by bridge and city lights, as well as other boaters who are careless with spot or docking lights.

Before navigating at night, familiarize yourself with the types of lights you'll see. Red, green and white represent the port, starboard and stern. It's a good idea to take someone with you who has night navigation experience. One of my preferences is to always have two people in the boat for keeping watch. Ensure your electronics are working properly and invest in a high-quality spotlight for double-checking buoy colors and numbers while under way. Make sure your running lights are operating and are not blocked from another mariner's view.

When using the spotlight, do not shine it into the eyes of other boaters. The same holds true for docking lights, which should only be used for docking. It is illegal to use docking lights while under way. If you feel the need to leave your spotlight or docking lights on at all times, reconsider taking your boat out at night.

When using the electronics, turn down the brilliancy of backlights and boats gauges. Your eyes will not have to adjust as drastically between looking at the waters ahead and looking at your electronics if you keep them dim.

When navigating near other boats, remember the other boater may not see your running lights. If it appears a nearby boat is on a collision course, reduce your speed and change course if possible. A slight turn to the right will show your red (portside) sidelight. The other skipper should respond by doing the same so both vessels pass port to port (red to red). The old saying, "When two lights you see ahead, turn your helm and show your red" will help avoid potential collisions at night.

If you're seeing two lights of red and green, you're likely heading right for another boat. Turn your helm to the right to show your port side and pass safely red to red. If you're unsure of the other skipper's action, turn your spotlight on without shining it directly on the nearby boater to attract attention.

Keep less experienced passengers seated, and don't let anyone wander onto open decks alone or unnecessarily. Always wear your life jackets and insist that everyone onboard does, too. Imagine throwing a coconut overboard while cruising at night, then turning around and trying to find it. How well you can see that coconut is a good representation of how well you would see a person floating with their head just above water.

Unless you are involved in an emergency, do not navigate at full speed in the darkness. Give yourself more time to react at night, and to lookout for unlit buoys and debris floating in the water. These objects can appear much smaller at night, but much easier to hit.

Remember, operate with the presumption that other boaters don't see you. Failure to learn proper night navigation techniques can quickly land you in the middle of a bad situation.

See you on the water.

Chris Morris of Tega Cay is a boating and fishing enthusiast. He was introduced to sailing as a child by his father, spent time as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and now enjoys living on Lake Wylie with his wife and two children. He can be reached at

Required Navigational Lights


Red and green. The red light indicates a vessel's port (left) side; the green indicates a vessel's dtarboard (right) side.

STERN LIGHT: White light seen from behind the vessel.

MASTHEAD LIGHT: White light shines forward and to both sides. A masthead light must be displayed by all vessels when under engine power. The absence of this light indicates a sailboat under sail.

ALL-ROUND WHITE LIGHT: On power-driven vessels less than 39.4 feet in length, this light may be used to combine a masthead light and stern light into a single white light that can be seen by other vessels from any direction. This light serves as an anchor light when sidelights are extinguished. NOTE: The masthead light and stern light may be combined as an all-round white light on vessels less than 39.4 feet long. If less than 65.6 feet long, vessels must exhibit the lights as shown. Remember, power-driven vessels include sailboats operating under engine power.


• Red and green sidelights visible from a distance of at least two miles away, or if less than 39.4 feet long, at least one mile on a dark, clear night.

• An all-round white light or both a masthead light and a stern light. These lights must be visible from a distance of at least two miles away on a dark, clear night. The all-round white light (or the masthead light) must be at least 3.3 feet higher than the sidelights.