I was once on a friend’s boat on a foggy moonless night trying to find a cut leading to his channel. He says, “It’s easy, we just stay between the two red flashing lights ahead.” We were seconds away from smacking into a bulkhead! It turns out what he was using as a navigation guide were two flashing red lights at an intersection on land!
I recall an incident where a new boater, cruising at night, saw a vessel coming at him displaying three vertical red lights and a yellow light on her masthead. He passed what he thought was one boat and swung in behind her stern. He struck the barge in tow port to port, resulting in injuries to him and his friend as well as a wrecked boat.
Had the unfortunate boater known the lights displayed indicated a tow, the accident would likely have been avoided. Had my friend understood the disorientation that can occur on the water at night we wouldn’t have come so close to disaster. Most boaters don’t remember learning light configurations in a basics class, and I’d be willing to bet they’ve forgotten (or never learned) the meaning of things like “1” G fl2 on a nautical chart — number one green buoy, flashing light every two seconds.
All boaters must familiarize themselves with the lighted aids to navigation and the lights that must be displayed by our boat and other vessels at night. This applies whether you plan on enjoying evening adventures or go out of your way to avoid it. The day may be so much fun you don’t want it to end, or you might encounter a delay. Next thing you know, the sun may drop low or set before you make it back to port.
I recommend all boaters buy a quick reference guide to lights and keep it handy near the helm. Beyond that, every pilot should understand that night boating presents a unique challenge; while one article cannot replace classroom teaching and on-the-water experience, I offer some safety tips for boating at night:
- Familiarize yourself with your local buoys and markers. I keep notes at the helm showing the course and distance for all markers leading to my marina. When you can’t find that buoy you expect to see coming up, throttle down and use your spotlight to locate it, verifying your position via GPS or a chart.
- Don’t leave your spotlight on while running; turn it on briefly to locate a buoy or marker, note the heading, and shut it off as you continue. A spot robs both you and other boaters of night vision.
- Turn off all lights that the helmsman can see such as dome lights and cockpit lights. It takes only a brief glance at these lights to affect night vision.
- Be sure your compass and electronics are all back lit. Use your GPS and chart plotter to assist navigation and have a paper chart as well.
- Keep your depth finder on. I set mine to five feet to alert me to sudden shoaling.
- Press a crewmember into service to spot for you. An extra set of eyes may see something you missed.
- Even on a well-lit channel or under a full moon, reduce your cruising speed by at least 20 percent compared to daylight conditions. Stay vigilant — the ripple ahead of you may be a semi-submerged log. When in doubt, slow down!
The boating rules of the road require you to display navigation lights and a stern/ masthead light while underway and a single white light when at anchor. At night, take time to look at the lights on other vessels to gain an understanding of what you are seeing. For example, if you see a red/green light moving at you which changes to a red followed by a white light you’ll know the boat ahead just turned to your left. (Note the light requirements for different size and type vessels vary.)
It’s rude at least and unwise at best to use your spot to “flash” another boat headed towards you. If you think the other skipper may not see you, try a tap on the horn and a slight turn to starboard to see if the course is corrected. Should the boat continue to head your way, give a brief flash and a blast of the horn. If the other boat still doesn’t alter its course, remember that it is up to you to avoid an accident at all costs, so throttle down, steer away, and let the other vessel pass.
By Paul Knieste