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Boat Safety - Navigation Lights

Operating a boat at night is dangerous, and it requires the utmost in attention and knowledge to do so safely. But when boats have improper lighting . . . well, you don't really have a chance of avoiding an accident. Here are some of the common issues found with improper lighting:

The most common reason is that something has been installed in front of the light which blocks it. Radar scanners, dinghy's, searchlights, you name it. If the builder did install proper lights on the boat, people will do something that interferes with the light. Mainly because they just aren't aware of what they're doing.

The second most common problem is that the lights weren't installed right in the first place, or the builder installed something that obscured the light.

The third most common problem is that the lights are often cheap, pieces of junk that don't do the job properly. Some are so poorly designed that they won't keep water out in a 30 second rain shower, so it typically corrodes or shorts out very quickly and won't work when you need it!

The fourth most common problem is that people never check their lights to see that they are in working order.

The fifth most common problem is that the installation of the lights did not take into account the running angle of the boat. Since all boats do not run at the same angle, it often happens that the attitude of the boat dramatically changes the angle at which the light can be seen. The bow may be pointing so high that the lights can only be seen by aircraft. A boat far away may be able to see it, but one close-on can't.

There are several important things boaters need to realize:

  • It's hard enough to operate by night with good lights, but to run around with marginal lights is to flirt with catastrophe. Maybe you can see where you're going, but the other boat can't see you!

  • Night vision can be highly illusory. Anyone who's spent some time out on the water at night knows how hard it is to judge distances, and how easy it is to be fooled by optical illusions. It is especially difficult in an environment with a lot of lights, such as near a city.

  • Picking out the lights of a moving vessel from a background of dozens or even hundreds of lights is very difficult, if not even impossible. Vessels with poor or defective lights likely go unseen.

  • Many people have very poor night vision, or lack the kind of visual perception that is needed to operate safely at night. This kind of visual perception is a skill, not merely a matter of good vision. It's the ability to quickly pick out lights and identify their nature. Whether unskilled or poor vision, it doesn't help matters if your lights aren't good quality.

  • Many people who operate boats at night quite simply don't know what they're doing. Ask them a question about taking a bearing of an oncoming boat based on the display of lights, and a lot of boat owners would give you a dumb look. That's because they have no training whatsoever. Keep that in mind, because that's what you're up against when running at night.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before going out on the water at night:

  • Do you know how to take bearings? Do you know what you're looking at when facing a ship, a tug, or other types of vessels?

  • What do you do when facing a shoreline dotted with hundreds of different color lights?

  • Do you allow yourself to be distracted by onboard guests when operating under these difficult conditions?

  • Do you post a second lookout? Have you ever? Do you operate defensively, instead of assuming that the other boat is also looking out for you? Chances are they are not!

  • Do you occasionally look behind or beside you, instead of assuming that all hazards are ahead? Nearly half of all collisions involve running down, meaning hit from behind.

  • Do you maintain high speeds even when there are a lot of unidentified lights around you? Does your speed exceed the amount of time you have to identify what's around you? If so, you're going too fast.

  • Do you know how to judge closure rates at various angles?

If you answered no to any of the above questions, you need to brush up on your nighttime operating skills and be sure to check and make sure your lights are operating properly and can be seen as they are supposed to, For some tips on boating at night, check out this website:

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