In order to operate a boat safely at night or in poor visibility, the navigational lights must work properly, which means being up to code. I’m a marine surveyor and sadly many of the boats I examine do not meet the mandatory requirements for navigational lighting. This could be a lack of maintenance, issues that the owner is responsible for, like burnt-out bulbs, damaged wires, or equipment blocking the lights. However, a surprising number of these violations are the result of improper installation by the manufacturer.
Apparently some equipment manufacturers do not fully understand the rules governing the installation of boat navigation lights or they’re purposely trying to do the bare minimum and jeopardizing everyone’s safety. Regardless of who caused the problem in the first place, the owner of the boat is responsible for making sure the boat meets all safety requirements.
All vessels are required to have their navigation lights on at night or whenever there is less visibility, like in heavy rain or fog. Vessels measuring 16 feet or more in length are required to have correctly installed boat navigation lights plus an anchor light, which is required to operate separately from the normal running lights.
The configurations for navigational lights vary depending on the length of the vessel, its propulsion method and/or the particular activity it may be involved in (towing, trawling, etc.). The color, type and arc of boat navigation lights enable other boats cruising around to determine the size of the vessel, if it’s moving (and in what direction) or anchored, and its propulsion. For example, if you gaze out over the bow and notice a red light with a white light following it, you can safely deduce that your boat is being crossed from starboard to port by anther boat, which likely has the right of way. Just one white light that can be seen 360° would signal an anchored boat.
Are Your Boat Navigation Lights Up To Code?
The first thing you need to do to determine if your boat’s navigational lights are up to code is to check the USCG COMDTINST M16672.2D, which spells out the rules. You can copy or look at it free online at navcen.uscg.gov/pdf/navrules/navrules.pdf.
Once you’ve figured out that your boat’s navigation lights do comply with the minimum requirements, you should conduct a physical inspection to ensure they’re working and have been properly installed. First, turn the running lights on, and then turn the anchor light on to see that they power up and comply with the required visibility.
Review where all the equipment is placed on your boat to ensure that nothing blocks the lights or impairs visibility. Look for any burnt out bulbs or poorly installed lights. For example, does your masthead light blind you when it’s on and you’re operating the boat from the fly bridge?
It’s easier to check how anchor and mast-mounted lights work at night on sailboats from the dock where you can more easily see them. Examine the bulbs themselves to see if they’ve clouded up from UV damage. Are they bright? Dimness can be the result of the wrong bulb, poor quality fixtures or corrosion in the switches or electrical contacts.
The distance your boat navigational lights are visible to other boats is critical. Even though your lights might meet the “letter of the law” they may not meet the “spirit of the law.” I’ve inspected boats whose lights may meet the minimum requirements under absolutely perfect conditions like very light wave action, clear weather, a perfectly level boat, but these boats fail badly when conditions are not perfect. These are the times when you have to be sure that your boat can be seen. Problems can arise from poorly located navigational lights, which might be flush-mounted on the hull under the rub rail, very small or just poor quality lights.
Do not hesitate to move factory-installed boat navigation lights around to comply with the requirements. You can even buy more robust, much brighter lights to replace the factory-installed ones. Some boat owners are installing light emitting diode (LED) light fixtures because they last longer (up to 100,000 hours), use less power, come sealed, which avoids corrosion, plus LED lights are less susceptible to vibration or shock damage.
Do not simply remove your incandescent boat navigation light bulbs and replace them with LED lights, however. Navigational light fixtures are a unit and approved as such, which means that the bulbs are part of the entire fixture. If you just take out the old bulbs and replace those with LED lights the unit will not necessarily be in compliance.
Once you’ve checked all the navigational lights on your boat and verified that everything is working properly, make note of the types of light bulbs required for all navigational lights and then make sure you have an abundance of spares on the boat for when they’re needed. Last but not least, add, “make sure all navigation lights work” to your pre-departure checklist. It just takes a couple of minutes and you’ll ensure yours as well as the safety of others out on the water.
Know What You’re Buying
Everyone loves pretty lights and boat owners are no different. However, do not mistake decorative lights for boat navigation lights. You should also make sure that any decorative lights you install do not hinder the visibility of your correctly placed navigational lights. They should also not impair your ability to clearly look out in all directions. Any added lighting should not be installed haphazardly, otherwise you could be in violation. For example, under water blue LED lights can look like they’re flashing if waves are present and flashing blue lights are only allowed on law enforcement vessels.
Some manufacturers of boat navigation lights sell less expensive versions that do not comply with certification requirements. The price is tempting but as a buyer, you need to beware. Using lights that do not have the correct characteristics in line with all the regulations in terms of luminous intensity, cut-off angles or chromaticity could cause you to be fined and more importantly, result in an accident.
It is important that you make sure that each and every boat navigation light you buy includes the following specifications on the package or on the light itself:
- Name of the light manufacturer
- Model number
- Visibility of the light in nautical miles
- USCG Approval 33 CFR 183.810
- TESTED BY (name of approved laboratory)
- MEETS ABYC A-16 or the equivalent
- Exact date the light was type-tested
- Identification and exact specs of the light bulb used in the compliance test