Night Boating Navigation Tips

Simple boating tricks make for safer operation after dark.

September 21, 2011
Boat at night

I have a gag plaque hanging on my boat. Engraved on a hinged brass plate is the statement: “For captain’s use only.” Lift it and underneath is another plaque that reads: “Port = left, starboard = right.”

OK, I have that one figured out, but memory aids can be a great help, especially when it comes to lights at sea. Years ago, tired and exercising poor judgment, I almost turned into the path of a container ship because I misread the sequence of his masthead lights. Large ships (50 meters or longer) are required to carry two 225-degree white masthead (or range) lights. The forward one is lower than the aft, thus allowing you to determine the ship’s direction. Before I get into the particular aid that helps me remember that fact, keep in mind that when you see the red and green running lights of a ship, it is already too close for comfort —

Possibly less than two miles away. Therefore, considering relative speeds and directions of approach, well, you don’t want to do the math if it’s coming your way.

The masthead lights cut you some slack, as they can usually be seen farther off. When you see a fixed white light on the horizon, there’s a chance it could be a fishing vessel or a tug too far off for specialized lights to be determined. Or it could be a ship, also too far off for its range lights to be differentiated. Tugs and fishing vessels don’t concern me as much as ships do. A ship could be running at 20 knots or more, and at first sight, I don’t know the direction or speed. I’ll begin taking bearings right away. If the bearings don’t change much, it is getting closer. When that one white light becomes two, I know it’s coming my way.

The night I almost became part of the cargo of that container ship, I goofed when I forgot the lower range light is forward. Afterward, I thought of my old pointer, Snoopy. She always ambled along with her nose to the ground — forward part lower. Now, when I see a ship at night, I think of Snoopy: forward light lower.

When you spot a ship at sea, if the lower light is to the left of the after light, it’ll pass to your port; if the lower is to the right of the after, it’ll pass to starboard. When those range lights are lined up — one above the other — the ship is coming your way. With apologies to the armchair captains who believe in strict adherence to the Rules of the Road, whether I am the burdened or stand-on vessel, I’m getting out of Dodge. Yes, I’m being a bit facetious here, but there have been a number of occasions when I’ve called large vessels to negotiate a passing arrangement, or just to let them know I’m out there, and I’ve encountered seriously English-challenged individuals. Therefore, I basically want to stay out of their way.

Among the other habits I’ve acquired is to compare the sequence and timing of observed navigational aids with those indicated on my chart. Changes in characteristics of lit buoys — especially those in a long channel leading inshore from a sea buoy — can be significant. For instance, a quick flashing light in a line of one or two second flashers may indicate a turn in a channel or a nearby obstruction.

Lit navigational aids are rarely fixed or steady. A fixed or steady red, green or white light is probably another vessel. If it blinks or exhibits any type of sequence, it is most likely a navigational aid. Among the exceptions are the blinking yellow lights located on the bow of the first in a line of pushed barges, the flashing yellows of commercial towers and, of course, the flashing blue lights of a prowling sea cop.

There are numerous light configurations for various vessels out there, but I try to be intimately and instantly familiar with the basic range and running lights of ships and the towing lights of tugs and barges.

The tug that exhibits three white towing lights is towing its barge(s) astern. The tug that exhibits two white towing lights is either pushing or towing alongside. Barges have their own light configurations (red and green running, no range lights) but in real life, barge lights are often dim and hard to see. If you spot a tug with three in-line white towing lights, don’t even think of passing astern of it; a tow line can be unexpectedly long.

Harbor and channel lit navigational aids can be obscured by background lights on land that can be considerably brighter than the aids. However, the background lights will not have the same sequence. When I’m running in an area surrounded by shore-side lights — New York Harbor is an excellent example — I always slow down and scan the area. The aids will stand out from the surrounding light pollution. With practice, they will be spotted for the beacons they are.

As a matter of fact, practice is the secret. Lighted navigational aids are designed for use — and night runs add to the fun and challenge of boating.

Preparing a Boat for a Night Run

I have fond memories of my service drill instructor howling in my ear while I stripped and cleaned a weapon while blindfolded. Hopefully nobody is planning to take potshots at us when we’re cruising aboard the family yacht, but being able to find gear and operate equipment by touch is not a bad concept when preparing for a cruise. I run a darkened ship at night — running lights and red-tinged instrumentation only — because I fervently believe in maintaining night vision. I don’t want to ruin it by switching on a light to find something. Before the trip, I place whatever I’ll need so I’ll know where to grab it. I put life jackets, heaving and dock lines and my tool kit where I can lay hands on them sight-unseen.

A boat I run has a powerful spotlight mounted on the cabin roof; while the on/off switch is at the helm, its power switch is on the electrical panel — as is the power for the anchor release. Before I wised up, there were times I needed to switch the spotlight on or get the hook down, and I had to grope around the panel and finally use a night-vision-destroying flashlight to find the switch. Now I count switches and can find them blind; the same goes with more mundane stuff. I always turn the pressure pump switch off when running — day or night — because if a hose breaks or a fitting fails I won’t hear the pump over the noise of the engines as it cycles itself to death. But when passengers want running water, they want it now, so I show them how to find the panel switch by feel when they need to hit the tap. That’s a good test. Can you find the important switches on your panel without looking? It could come in handy someday — or night.

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