Checking your navigation lights often takes a back seat to other boat maintenance. Besides, if the lights pass muster by coming on, that’s good enough, right? Wrong. Just squeaking by isn’t good enough to keep you, your passengers, and your boat safe.
Know the basics
Are your vessel lights visible for a mile, as regulations require? Is the white light visible for 2 miles—assuming your boat is less than 40 feet—as required by Rule 22? (If you’re not sure, get a vessel safety check to see whether your navigation lights are in working order.)
Has time taken its toll on your lights, turning the lenses milky? If your red port sidelight is pink and dim, the answer is yes. Do obstructions on deck interfere with your boat’s required light pattern? Sometimes a puny light meets the letter of the law but doesn’t do its job of making you visible to others on the water.
Anyone who has boated at night knows that things look different in the dark. Trying to pick out a vessel’s lights against a background of dozens (or even hundreds) of shore lights can be difficult, and a poorly lit boat could easily go unnoticed. If you encounter another vessel in the same situation, the results could be disastrous.
Make sure your navigation lights work, meet regulations and aren’t obstructed. If you have to replace them, don’t buy the cheapest lights. Do some research and consider whether an upgrade might be appropriate. Make sure your white light won’t blind you or anyone else at the helm.
Many manufacturers position lights so they are directly visible from the helm. If your brand-new boat has lights that shine onto the helm or are obscured by deck fittings, make your dealer and the manufacturer aware that the lighting is inadequate and unsafe during reduced visibility and nighttime operations.
Learn light patterns
One more thing: Learn light patterns and what they mean. You should be able to distinguish the light patterns of a sailboat, powerboat, tug with a tow, or hovercraft. (Learn more about these patterns.) In addition to identifying a vessel’s type, light patterns allow other boaters to determine the vessel’s direction of travel and whether it is at anchor. Sometimes, the light pattern tells you what maneuver the vessel is performing.