By Peter Byron
For the Express
We talked last week about how the lake in many ways is like a highway. We have a set of rules, The Rules of the Road, which are internationally accepted standards for vessel operation which help make boating more predictable and safe. We talked about avoiding collisions and making sure that we follow a set of pre-defined procedures when we approach a boat from either a head-on, crossing or overtaking situation. We also reviewed the number of blasts on a horn which tell the other boater which direction we intend to take. Now, let’s raise it up a notch, let’s talk about nighttime operation on the lake.
The Lake at Night
Sunset is only a memory, house lights are visible through the trees. You decide it would be great to take the kids down to the lake. But wait, everything is different. There are a few blinking lights on the water in front of your camp. Wasn’t that where the row of hazard buoys were during the day? On the other shore, you can see house lights but they don’t seem to be quite right. Maybe the distance is different? Maybe it is our perception of the distance that is different? What we are starting to see is an entirely new world with changes in distances and objects. Now, there is something moving from left to right on the water. I know it is there because I can see a green light and to the left a white light. There is another set of lights just like these, following behind (astern). What’s with the lights? Now there is another set coming from the opposite direction but the front (bow) light is red and the other light is white.
The Rules are very detailed on the subject of lights. All boats underway must display the appropriate navigation lights at all times between sunset and sunrise and during daylight periods of reduced visibility. There are lights specific to all types and size of vessels and additional lights that tell us the function i.e. towing or position i.e. at anchor. Because we will most likely not see too many minesweepers or pilot boats, we can luckily focus on two main categories: 1) power boats and 2) sailboats. At this point, we recommend the many fine references which can be used to further your education on this topic and also would suggest that if you move your boating activities elsewhere, that you learn the lights of that specific area, for example, tow boats on the Hudson River.
Our NY Safe Boating course is quite explicit in declaring that: “... power boats regardless of length, must have a masthead light, side lights, and a stern light. If a boat is less than 12 meters (40 feet) in length, the masthead and stern light may be combined into one light.” What we should know also is that these lights are particular colors. The masthead light and the stern light are always white and the side lights (found at the bow section of the boat) are red (left/port side) and green (right/starboard side). This helps us identify the direction of boat movement at night. The only way we would see both red and green would be if the boat was coming toward us but if we only see white, the boat is moving away from us.
Again, our NY Safe Boating course explains: “... sail boats must have side lights and stern lights, but are not required to have a masthead light. However, although it’s not required, sail boats may have two all around lights, red over green, at the top of the mast to alert other vessels ...” Most of the sail boats on our lake usually carry the first configuration of lights (side lights (red/green) and stern light (white)).
Other Important Lighting
Just as you would expect, there are some exceptions in navigation lights. For example, a sailboat under 23 feet, “... must display side lights or carry a white light, such as a flashlight, to show in time to prevent a collision.” The Captain might want to consider shining the flashlight on his or her sail so the incoming boat knows his/her position.
The same exception applies to ‘manually propelled’ boats (can you say ... rowboat?) These boats may exhibit side and stern lights or carry a white light to ‘show in time to prevent collision’.
Some people love to ‘anchor out’ at night because it is part of the boating scene. Just make sure that if you are at anchor you “... exhibit an all-around white light by night.” (NY Safe Boating) Wouldn’t want to have another boater drive through your berth at night.
and Other Considerations
Most people don’t have to be told that if you shine a search light in someone’s eyes, that person loses his/her night vision. As a matter of fact, if the person who is shining the light hits a close object and gets flashback, they too lose their night vision. Even without a lot of boating instruction, it is easy to see that it is ‘not too bright’ to shine a light in the Captain’s eyes when s/he is docking a boat or navigating in close quarters with other boats.
Now, here are some questions. How many boaters have ever seen a pontoon boat with headlights? How many boaters thought for a minute that the pontoon boat was a car driving toward them on the water? Did anyone else feel blinded by the light?
Those lights are not headlights but they are docking lights which are there for a very good purpose. They can be used effectively when docking the pontoon boat. The pontoon boat is a power boat. We talked about side lights and a stern light on power boats. We didn’t mention headlights because bright lights are the enemy of night vision. We love all types of boats whether under motor, sail or manual power. All captains should be mindful of the impact of their lights on other sailors. Let’s keep the fun in nighttime voyages.
Everybody has secrets. We revealed the short version of the secret for navigation lights on power, sail and manually propelled boats. We now know that we can tell the direction in which a boat is traveling by the color of the lights we see. We know that all boats of the same type and size underway are dressed with the same colors. We also were reminded that headlights and high beams are best left on the shore so that the navigating public can see where we are navigating.
Of course, the lesson not taught was that personal watercraft cannot be operated between sunset and sunrise or in poor visibility. They don’t carry navigation lights because they are not meant to be used in the dark.
Catch you on the water.
Peter Byron is a founding partner of NAV-ED Services Group and holds a USCG Master License. He provides NYS Boater Safety classes on the Great Sacandaga for the Great Sacandaga Lake Association. NAV-ED Services Group is approved by the USCG to offer Captain courses. Captain Byron can be contacted at email@example.com for information on NYS Boater Safety and Captain course schedules and eligibility.