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Navigation Light Equipment

The U.S. Coast Guard requires all recreational boats to turn on their navigation lights between sunset and sunrise and during periods of reduced visibility such as fog and rain. Operating your boat at night or when weather conditions are less than sunny can be very challenging. If your navigation lights are not adequate, it may be impossible for anyone to see you coming.

Some people have better night vision than others, but everyone will agree that seeing in the dark is harder than seeing during the day. It's harder to judge distances and it's easy to be fooled by optical illusions. Whether or not you have good night vision, the kind of visual perception you need to operate your boat at night is a skill you will have to work at developing.

For example, if you are boating in an area with a lot of lights along the shoreline, telling the difference between those lights and the lights on a moving boat or a channel marker can be difficult. You will need to practice quickly picking out a light and identifying its source. The more you practice, the better you will be at navigating your boat.

Red lights or very little localized lighting are recommended in the cockpit. Because local lighting will cause your pupils to contract, making your night vision even worse, you should turn down the illumination of your gauges and displays to the lowest level that still allows you to see the display (red-lighted displays are preferred). Always carry a spotlight, flashlight, and spare batteries if you are planning any nighttime boating activities.

You must understand the pattern of a boat's navigation lights so you can tell which direction the boat is traveling. The following pictures show how the lights are displayed on boats of various lengths and types.

For boats less than 65.6 feet (20 meters) in length but greater than 39.4 feet (12 meters), the masthead light will have a 225° arc, the stern light will have a 135° arc, and the port and starboard lights will have a 112.5° arc. You will be able to see the masthead light for three miles and the stern light and sidelights for two miles.


For boats less than 39.4 feet (12 meters) in length but greater than 23 feet (7 meters), the masthead light will have a 225° arc, the stern light will have a 135° arc, and the port and starboard lights will have a 112.5° arc. You will be able to see the masthead light for two miles, the stern light for two miles and the sidelights for one mile.



The masthead or all-round white light will be at least 1 meter above the sidelights. The side lights can either be separate lights, one on each side, or a combination green/red light on the front of the bow of the boat.

If the boat is less than 23 feet (7 meters) in length and its maximum speed cannot exceed 7 knots, then the all-round white light can be at the stern and the red and green sidelights at the bow.


For sailboats under motor power, the masthead light will have a 225° arc, the stern light will have a 135° arc, and the port and starboard lights will have a 112.5° arc.

For sailboats less than 39.4 feet (12 meters), the masthead light and the stern light should be visible for two miles, and the sidelights should be visible for one mile.

For sailboats between 39.4 feet (12 meters) and 65.6 feet (20 meters), the masthead light should be visible for three miles, while the stern light and sidelights should be visibile for two miles.


For sailboats under sail, the stern light will have a 135 arc, and the port and starboard lights will have a 112.5 arc. You will be able to see the stern light for two miles and the sidelights for one mile.


If a sailboat is less than 65.6 feet (20 meters) in length, the lights can be displayed in any of the three ways shown in these pictures:

Sailboats and rowboats less than 23 feet (7 meters) should carry a flashlight or lighted lantern that shows a white light visible from enough distance to prevent a collision.

Everyone operating a boat at night or during poor visibility is relying on all other boat operators to display their lights properly. Before you set out on the water, be sure your navigation lights are working properly and that they are not blocked by anything you load on the boat. You should also keep replacement bulbs onboard in case any of the lights stop working after you're on the water.

Light emitting diodes (LEDs) are an option you should consider. They consume far less electrical power, have extremely long life, and are very durable and able to withstand the constant pounding that a boat experiences in rough seas, or that a speed boat experiences at higher speeds in most water conditions. Light fixtures are available that are made specifically for LEDs and LED replacement bulbs for traditional light bulb sockets.

You can go to the U.S. Coast Guard website (www.uscgboating.org) for a summary of the most relevant lighting requirements for recreational boaters.

Lights to Use When Anchoring Your Boat

If you anchor your boat in the water away from the dock at night or during conditions of poor visibility, turn on your all-around white light, and turn off your red/green sidelights.

During the day, boats longer than 23 feet (7 meters) and anchored away from the dock must show a ball shape forward where it can be seen easily. Many times the ball shape is made of a metal or metal foil, so that it also serves to enhance the boats radar signal to larger vessels.

If your boat is less than 23 feet (7 meters), you don't have to display anchor lights or ball shapes unless you are anchored near a channel, fairway or anchorage, or in a place where other vessels normally navigate.

Never anchor in a channel.

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