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You are required to display the appropriate lights at night or during times of reduced visibility.
Navigation lights are used to prevent collisions at night or in times of reduced visibility, and are an essential tool in keeping you and your vessel safe. Nav lights allow you to see other nearby vessels, and allow other vessels to see you.
Nav lights also provide information about the size, activity, and direction of travel. By understanding the characteristics of Nav lights, you can determine an appropriate course of action as you approach another vessel.
On any vessel, navigation lights have a specific color, (white, red, green, yellow, blue), arc of illumination, range of visibility, and location, as required by law and regulations. For the purposes of this course, we will concentrate on pleasure boats under 65 feet in length. Knowledge of navigation lights is important to a small-boat skipper for separate, but important, reasons.
- You are legally responsible for displaying lights of the proper color, intensity, location and visibility on your boat.
- You are required to display the appropriate lights at night or during times of reduced visibility.
- Knowing the type and heading of another boat.
Vessels are required to show the proper navigation lights from sunset to sunrise in all weather conditions, good and bad. During these times, no other lights that could be mistaken for lights specified in the Rules of the Road can be displayed, nor any lights that impair the visibility or distinctive character of navigation lights, or interfere with the keeping of a proper lookout. The Rules also state that navigation lights must be shown in conditions of reduced visibility, and may be shown at other times considered necessary.
It’s Your Responsibility
It is the responsibility of the owner/operator of a vessel that she show the proper navigation lights for her size and the waters in which she is operating. It is not the responsibility of the manufacturer, importer, or selling dealer. Many boats are delivered with lights that do not meet legal requirements with respect to technical characteristics or placement on the vessel. Remember also, that the angles of visibility must be met when the boat is underway-if your boat rides at a significant bow-up angle, take that into consideration when installing and/or checking your lights.
Navigation Lights for Powerboats
Power driven vessels underway shall exhibit a masthead light forward, sidelights and a stern light. Vessels less than 12 meters in length may exhibit an all around white light and side lights. Power driven boats on the Great Lakes may carry an all around white light in stead of a second masthead light and stern light combination.
Sidelights – Colored lights – red on port and green on starboard – showing an unbroken arc of the horizon of 112.5 degrees, from dead ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the beam on each side.
Combination lights – Sidelights may be combined in a single fixture carried at the centerline of the vessel.
Stern light – A white light showing over an unbroken arc of the horizon of 135 degrees, centered on dead astern.
Navigation Lights for Sailing
A sailing vessel of less than 7 meters in length shall, if practicable, exhibit regular navigation lights, but if not practical, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.
Another light display that you may see in resort areas, or waters that have wrecks or reefs, is the night diving configuration. This has three vertical masthead lights, that have a red-white-red sequence. You must maintain a good distance from these vessels, and you should also be aware that there may be divers near you.
Interpreting what you see
It’s great that you’re learning the basics of lights – what is required and when they’re required. But, this in only the beginning. You must also learn how to interpret the navigation lights that you see when you are underway at night- and for your safety-learn it well.
For instance, if you see a vessel approaching that shows a light pattern such as the ones to the right, you immediately know that you are in a crossing situation, and that you must yield to the other vessel – that’s why it is red.
Seeing a green light over a white light indicates a fishing vessel actively trawling. You not only need to avoid the vessel, but you also need to remember that it could potentially have a very large net deployed that you will also need to avoid.
And there are numerous other lights and combinations of lights that you must be able to instantly recognize – the lights for a sailboat that is privileged over a motorboat, the special lights of various fishing vessels, a dredge or a vessel not under command. Study the requirements for navigation from the viewpoint of a “looker” as well as a boat owner.
Boat Navigation Light Types & Requirements
Boat Navigation Lights
One of the most important safety systems on your boat is your set of navigation lights.
Whenever you are operating between sunset and sunrise, or in other times of restricted visibility, such as in fog or rain, you need to display the appropriate navigation lights so that other boats can see you and take the appropriate action to avoid a collision.
In general, all navigation light systems include red and green sidelights, which indicate the port and starboard side of your boat, as well as one or more white lights.
It’s also important that you have a flashlight on board, as you never know when a navigation light might burn out. The rules for what navigation lights to display depend on a number of factors including:
- The length of your boat: e.g. under or over 12 meters;
- Whether your boat is being powered by an engine;
- Where you’re boating, e.g. inland or international waters; and
- Whether you at anchor.
For now, remember that it’s your responsibility to have the proper navigation lighting. Even if you just purchased a new boat, you should check to ensure that you’ve got the right lights for safe, and legal, boating.
Powered Boat Navigation Lights
When operating between sunset and sunrise, or in periods of restricted visibility, powered recreational boats require the following set of navigation lights. Remember, these power boat light requirements also apply to sailboats when using a motor.
For powered boats less than 39.4 feet, or 12 meters, you need to have the following set of navigation lights.
- One all-around white light that you can see from 360 degrees and from two miles away;
- And one pair of red and green sidelights that are visible at 112.5 degrees and from one mile away.
For boats of this size, the all-around white light needs to be positioned at a height of at least 39 inches above the sidelights.
Figure A shows a boat with this setup.
- All-around white light — 360 degrees visible from two miles.
- Sidelights — 112.5 degrees visible from one mile
If your boat is greater than 39.4 feet but less than 65.6 feet, or 20 meters, you need the following set of navigation lights:
- A masthead light is a white light at the front of the boat. The masthead light needs to be visible across 225 degrees and from two miles away.
- A stern light, which is a white light at the rear of the boat. The stern light needs to be visible across 135 degrees and from two miles away. When the masthead light and the stern light are combined, that makes up 360 degrees.
- Finally, you need one pair red and green sidelights that are visible across 112.5 degrees and from a distance of one mile.
For boats of this size, the masthead light must be positioned at a height of at least 8 feet above the gunnel.
Figure B shows this configuration.
- Masthead light (forward) — 225 degrees visible from two miles.
- Sternlight (aft) — 135 degrees visible from two miles.
- Sidelights — 112.5 degrees visible from one mile.
Boat Navigation Lights at Anchor
We’ve covered what navigation lights you need to have when you are underway, but what about when you’re at anchor?
When your boat is at anchor, but you are not in a designated anchoring area, like at a marina, you need to make sure that you are visible to other boats that may be operating nearby.
When anchoring in these areas, you are required to display an all-around white light where it will be best seen by any other boats in the area.
Small rowing and sailing boats
Small rowing and sailing boats are the only vessels that don’t need navigation lights when operating at night, but operators of these vessels must instead carry a torch or lantern showing a white light and show it in sufficient time to prevent a collision.
Under 12 metres in length
Vessels under 12 metres in length use the following lights in various combinations, depending on whether the vessel is sail or power-driven, underway or at anchor.
Power-driven vessels while underway
Power-driven vessels while underway must show either:
- a masthead light, separate or combined sidelights and a sternlight or
- a white light visible all round and separate or combined sidelights, provided that the all-round white light is positioned so as not to interfere with the operator’s vision.
Sailing vessels while underway
Sailing vessels while underway must show:
- separate or combined sidelights and a sternlight or
- a single, tri-colour lantern, fixed to the masthead.
Lights required for non-power vessel underway
Vessels at anchor: sail or power-driven
Vessels at anchor, either sail or power-driven, must show a single white light visible all round.
Lights required for vessels at anchor
Vessels undertaking dredging, diving or underwater operations display either two black diamonds in daylight hours or two green lights at night to indicate the side on which it is safe for other vessels to pass.
This is the only time when red and green lights may not indicate a vessel’s direction of travel.
A dredge also displays either two black balls in daylight hours or two red lights at night on the side where dredging is taking place – to indicate where it’s unsafe to pass.