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Nautical Lighting - A Glimmer On How To Use Them

By Wayne Spivak, Branch Chief – National Press Corps
National Marketing and Public Affairs Department United States Coast Guard Auxiliary


Nothing ingratiates a driver more, to other drivers, than driving on a dark road at night, without your headlights on. Oops, I’m in error. One other action a driver can take surpasses the level of danger of driving without headlights. That’s driving with your high beams on!

Which driver who’s reading this article can honestly say that they have never encountered one or both of these situations? Can you also say you have never made this error? Now I did say “honestly”. I’ll stand up and say “Yes, I’ve forgotten to turn on my lights from time to time!” I’ll also admit to “being lazy about changing my high beams to low beams.”

So what does driving with your headlights on, have to do with nautical lighting? Well, just like our landlubber cousins, boats also have headlights and backlights and high beams. Unlike our road-bound cousins, boating does not have the luxury of a spatial backplane in which to judge, for the most part, direction of another vessel.

Let’s explain this last statement. On the road, even on a very dark, winding, country road, you have signposts, trees, houses and, even fields of corn stalks. Out on the water, you have water, then you have water, occasionally you have an aid to navigation, another vessel’s sound (which can be confusing, as to their direction). In other words, it’s very difficult to tell the direction of a vessel, without looking at their lights.

Navigation Lights

Every time I go boating at night, I am amazed at the number of people who either have no navigational lights on, due to either forgetfulness or a partial or total equipment malfunction, or who have the wrong navigational lights on.

For simplicity sake, let’s take the standard 21ft cuddy roundabout. The Rules of the Road state that vessels this size need a red and a green bow light (a combination light is acceptable) capable of being seen ? mile. In addition, a 360° all-around white light at the stern is also required, that can be seen ? mile.

What can go wrong with this simple light configuration? Everything! From the combo light being not operational, to the white light not being positioned so that it can be seen 360° by other vessels. Navigation lights are extremely important.

They tell other boaters that you are making way or at anchor. They give other boaters a conceptual idea of your direction via their own direction. A lookout (remember every vessel is required to have a lookout) that sees a red light followed by a white light while looking over the bow can make the following assumptions: The boat is going from starboard to port, and depending on distance, has the right of  way.

If you saw a white light in front of you, the vessel is either moving in the same direction or is at anchor. Speaking of anchor lights. A vessel that is at anchor, that is not in a “special anchorage area’ must show an anchor light. An anchor light is a 360° white light.

So, if you’re fishing and drifting, you should have on your navigation lights. If you’re fishing on an anchor, then it’s the anchor light. In any event, before you leave the dock, make sure your lights are operational!

High Beams

So you’re saying to yourself, how am I, going to tie high beams into navigational lights. Yes, you’re right; the nav light switch has three positions, off, navigation light and anchor light. Ever hear of your spot light?

Those ingenious lights that are either hand held or attached to your bow. Those zillion candle white lights that can make night into day. That extremely useful tool that can blind the pilot of the other vessel, and cause night blindness that can take 45 minutes to self-correct. Yes, that’s the light!

Why do people find it necessary to point the light at the pilot of the other vessel? The correct way to use your spotlight is to: a.) use it sparingly and b.) move the spot along the water toward the unknown object and/or vessel.

Once the object is seen at the water’s edge, move the light along the water waterline to see if it’s a vessel or some other object. If it’s a vessel, don’t lift the beam above the gunwale, because the higher you lift the light, the better the chance you’ll blind the other vessel’s occupants.

If you identified the object as not being a vessel, then slowly lift the light up the object, making sure that as much as the beam of light strikes the object. This way you can get a good identification on the object. Remember, there are other boater’s out there, and by swinging your spotlight hither and yarn; you can still cause night blindness for other boaters.

Want to learn more about boating safely? The United States Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary want you to be not only a safe boater, but also an educated boater. Why not take one of the many different boating courses offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

To contact your local Auxiliary Flotilla, you can either contact your local Coast Guardunit on the web  ( or find your local flotilla on the web.(