Shining the Sailboat Lights At Night: What You Need To Know

The first time you boat, it may seem like the Wild West. However, it’s not as chaotic as it seems whether you’re sailing inland or in international waters. There are navigational rules to make sure that everyone is on the right page to reduce accidents and other mishaps. Sailboat lights at night are another requirement to ensure your safety and that of others. The logic is evident once you know what you need.

The laws regarding lights cover the type of vessel based on several criteria. They also govern when you must have them, along with their placement. Fortunately, they are standards, making it easier to navigate wherever you boat.

Overview of Navigational Lights

The regulations for power boats and sailboats vary slightly. However, the purpose is still the same—to make sure all the water traffic knows where you are and where you’re headed. The fundamentals are the same throughout the 50 states with variations for international waters.

The line between the two is becoming more and more blurred. If you know what’s necessary to satisfy the federal laws, the chances are you’re good across the board. Make sure to read the pamphlet of the regs for your state. Don’t forget to check for site-specific requirements.

The lights use a color-coding system for all boats, whether motorized or non-motorized. Even watercraft like jon boats or canoes have obligations to convey their approach on the water. The variations rest with several things, including

  • Whether you’re underway          
  • Length of the vessel       
  • Jurisdiction of the waters            
  • Use of an engine

Underway or at Anchor

If you’re moving, you need to let other watercraft know how you’re approaching them, hence, the color coding. However, if your boat is stationary, the primary info you need to convey to others is that you’re there. Therefore, you’ll see different requirements for this situation. It’s the same whether you’re in a sailboat or a power boat.

You’ll need the full set if you’re underway or just a white light if your vessel is anchored.

Length of the Vessel

You’ll see some variation in the lighting regulations in different states based on how long it is. They typically are three groups with smaller ones, often under 16 feet, a middle category that includes the majority of recreational boats, and a separate class for yacht-sized watercraft over 65 feet.

The first two often have broader definitions with some other options for lighting, such as a lantern or tri-colored light. The final one addresses the issue of visibility in greater detail. Remember that a larger vessel commands more real estate on the water. A collision anywhere along its length is dangerous.

Jurisdiction of the Waters

Inland and international waters often share the same requirements. You’re most likely to cover differences when it comes to other things you must have on board, such as flares. Territorial jurisdiction starts at three nautical miles from shore. That’s an essential fact to remember if you sail on what are essentially the inland seas of the Great Lakes.

Use of an Engine

Here is where it gets murky when dealing with sailboats. Most larger vessels have an auxiliary motor to use when the wind doesn’t cooperate or docking. As soon as you switch it on, your boat is now a powerboat, according to the law. That means some additional lights to communicate the fact that it’s currently under power with a steaming light. The reason has to do with the navigational rules.

Usually, sailboats have the right-of-way over powerboats because they are wind-powered and have less control. Running an engine changes that. You have to let other boaters know that your situation is different, now that you have an outboard motor on the job.

Next, it’s essential to understand the anatomy of a boat.

Boating Terms and Light Placement

There are several words used in boating that have precise definitions for a clearer understanding of how everything works, starting with your ride. They are the same whether you’re riding a personal watercraft or a sailboat.

The body of the boat is the hull. The front of it is the bow and the back, the stern. The left side is port with the right side, starboard. The color of the lights depends on what part of the vessel you mean. For example, red denotes port. You can remember it by thinking of port wine as being red, well, most of the time. Green is starboard. White acts like a neutral designation for the center, bow, or stern.

If you see just a white light in the stern and a red one, you know that it’s crossing in front of you. If you see a green and white one, it’s going past your boat. Just a white light means that you’re following it. Seeing both red and green is a vessel headed straight at you.

You’ll also see these same colors on buoys which mean the same things. The terms also come into play when navigating by therules of the water. The basic setup, therefore, is a white light in the front, red on the left, and green on the right.

Sailboat-Specific Navigation Light Rules

Sailboats must have the same red and green lights as powerboats. The difference is that you’ll need other ones on the stern and mast. If your boat is less than 65 feet, you can use either a combination of a bicolor light with red and green along with another at the stern or a tricolor one on top of the mast. If you’re sailing a vessel under 23 feet, you also can opt for a lantern or flashlight.

If you’re anchored, then, you need an all-round white light that is visible for two nautical miles. That’s usually a non-issue if you’ve bought a sailboat with factory-installed lighting, it is compliant with the US Coast Guard regulations.

Different Twilight Types

The final piece to the puzzle concerns when the regulations regarding navigational lights for all watercraft begin. There are three kinds with specific meanings, pertinent to various groups. Civil twilight or dusk is usually when you have to switch on your lighting. Shadows and clouds can make it more challenging to get around, so you’ll often see it coincide with reductions in the speed limit.

Nautical twilight describes the time when you can still see the stars and horizon to set your course. Astronomical twilight is prime time for stargazers. The sky is dark, making navigational lights imperative. Your state’s boat rules will typically indicate when they are necessary to stay legal on the water.

Sailboat lights at night are a crucial part of safe navigating when it’s too dark to see. Most accidents on the water occur because of a collision whether it’s with a fixed object or another watercraft. The majority happen when visibility can become an issue, whether it’s dawn or dusk. Making your boat discernible to others is the single best thing you can do to prevent an avoidable mishap.The savvy sailor will keep extra bulbs on board to make sure that they will always have sufficient light in case one blows out, which usually happens at the worst possible time. It’s an inexpensive solution to a potentially dangerous situation. It’s also a smart idea to check your lights before you need them, especially mast lights. Changing them during the day is a lot easier than trying to do it at night.

You should also clean the coverings periodically and replace any that have cracked, especially if they are over colored lights. It’ll ensure that you’re compliant with the distance requirements and don’t send the wrong message about where you’re going. After all, sailors and boaters are part of a community. They look out for each other and strive to keep the boating safe for everyone.