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Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Navigate the Night Safely: Crucial Tips for Boating at Night

Unlock the secrets of safe night boating with tips on speed, lighting and navigation for an enchanting and secure experience on dark waters.

As the sun drops and you begin to have fun with other boats on the water in the evening, you should take extra precautions to avoid distractions. Night boating presents a whole boat-load (no pun intended) of problems that can get out of hand quickly and cause you to not navigate safely through dark waters to your intended destination.

However, with a bit of preparation for safety gear, navigation lights, and other tips, your nighttime boating experience can be gratifying. Read through the various tips we’ve gathered together to ensure other boats know where you are, and your night vision stays working great as you explore the waters.

#1 – Take it Slow

There is no reason to rush through the night when you’re boating. Besides being a prime target for the Coast Guard, your night fishing or date experience can work just as well at a slower speed.

With reduced visibility comes extra caution. While the full moon can offer some needed ambient light, it is probably not enough for your night vision to work well by itself. Slow down, use the light around you, and be safe.

#2 – Ask Everyone to Look Out

Two sets of eyes are good, but more are better. Everyone on your boat should keep their eyes peeled and act as an extra lookout. This is especially important when you have other boats in a busy marina or fishing spot. A second pair of watchful eyes can check for nearby cabin lights, life jackets in an emergency, and then navigation lights of other boats moving around you in the dark.

#3 – Stay Prepared for the Worst

It may not be the best saying but hope for the best and prepare for the worst absolutely applies to night boating. You must have life jackets readily available for any and all passengers. While you’re at it, check for safety gear like fire extinguishers, navigation instruments, glow sticks, and flashlights.

Preparing for the dark involves ensuring everyone onboard and off is safe. As an extra “insider” tip, have some plain white t-shirts or towels ready. This will show up well on darker nights, so you know where the rest of your crew is onboard. 

#4 – Dim Your Lights

To maintain your night vision, keep cabin lights at a low brightness. This prevents the light from reflecting off the water's surface and ensures your eyes can adjust to the low light conditions.

Some seasoned skippers will use giant beach towels and drape them over bright instruments that aren’t necessary while you’re navigating at night. Your boating trip should only involve the chart lights or essential equipment you need to get around and not the TV playing last night’s game.

#5 – Avoid Headlights

Unlike daytime boating, using bright headlights can hinder night vision. It's vital to use navigation lights properly to signal your presence to other boaters without blinding them.

This is a two-way street. Nighttime boating requires navigation lights, but you don’t want to mess with anyone else on the water. If you have spotlights, don’t use them unless necessary. Otherwise, you’re likely to confuse other boaters on the water.

#6 – Watch for Other Boat Lights

Understanding what red and green lights signify is a critical part of navigation rules. Recognize the patterns: green navigation lights indicate the starboard side of a boat, while red lights mark the port side. At least, that is the general rule. More specifically: Red and green on the bow and white on the stern, so if you see both red and green coming closer, the boat is heading toward you.

If you see white moving away, the boat is gaining distance. No matter what, if you see red, pause, and make sure you are not in the pathway of another boater who may not see your vessel.

#7 – Stay Quiet on Board

Reducing noise helps you pick up on sound signals from other vessels and fixed objects. It's part of nighttime boating safety to listen as much as you look.

This means you’ll need to turn down the radio and listen for bells, fog horns, shouting, or other vital signals that you are close to other boats or the shoreline. This is crucial if you use a marina service that announces the end of evening service. Otherwise, you’ll risk being stuck in the water for the night.

#8 – Use Navigation Tools

A chart plotter and GPS device become your best friends when boating at night. They guide you through dark waters and keep you aware of your surroundings.

Remember, these tools are not 100% accurate, but they should give you a much better idea of what is around you than your naked eyesight. You never know when a well-known outcropping can turn into a faceless dog in the night’s darkness.

#9 – Take Caution When Docking

Docking lights should be used sparingly and only when approaching a dock. They're not for open water use, as they can be mistaken for navigation lights by other boats.

Just like taking it slow, you want to practice caution. A lot of boats that are tied up on a dock don’t have running lights on when no one is on board. If you don’t have a lot of light in the area, you could rub up against another vessel and cause or get damaged. Take your time!

#10 – Check the Weather

Always know what the skies hold before and during your boating trip. Nighttime navigation can become treacherous with sudden weather changes, so stay informed.

A downpour will result in lower visibility. If there is cloud coverage, you also lose the benefit of night sky navigation, which is a time-honored tradition on the water. Night boating doesn’t have to be risky as long as you check for any upcoming storms that will transform your night into a harrowing experience.

Final Thoughts

There is nothing quite like the tranquility you get during nighttime boating. It is a unique experience perfect for a boating trip, engagement party, or fishing excursion. With extra caution and a little preparation (life jackets, boat lights, etc.), you can enjoy your time when the sun goes down. Take your time, relax, and be safe.  


What does a boat need at night? 

Essential safety equipment like navigation lights in white, green, or red, life jackets, and a VHF radio also help. You should have adequate safety equipment aligned with current Coat Guard standards and maybe even a flare gun.

What lights should be on when boating at night? 

Red and green lights for port and starboard sides serve as your bow warning. You also want all-around white light, but the stern should have them at the brightest so other boats can tell where you are in the water.

What should a rowboat display at night? 

A white light or glow stick to make oneself known to other boaters. The goal is sidelights and probably a stern light so everyone can see where you are. If you can, elevate them high up with an extra paddle.

Which of the following must you do when anchoring at night? 

Display an all-around white light where it can best be seen by other boats. Have someone on watch and check in regularly with local authorities so they know you’re out there and bedding down for the night.

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