Nighttime Boat Navigation: Know Your Lighting|
Boating at night for many is just another enjoyable aspect of the entire pleasure boating experience. Fishing and just plain tooling around for enjoyment take on whole new personalities when the sun goes down. Although nighttime boating can be a great deal more enjoyable than during the day, it also brings with it a great deal more danger. Navigating at night is almost an art and it requires a lot more forethought and a more critical awareness of the conditions you are operating under.
First and foremost, having the proper lighting on your boat and being able to determine the positions and configurations of other vessels by their lights is mandatory if you are to avoid problems while cruising at night. Without these two basics you are essentially an accident waiting to happen, not to mention flirting with racking up a few citations. Navigating open water at night is not an undertaking to be taken lightly and requires an extra degree of skill and focus not normally necessary during daylight hours. Darkness plays havoc with your senses and your vision becomes less effective as depth perception and the ability to determine distances and sizes is greatly reduced. In darkness, open water can become almost featureless, objects are harder to identify and thus it becomes much more difficult to properly judge their size and distance from your position.
When navigating the water at night, your natural night vision becomes your best ally. You night vision is also easily interfered with by the lights from docks and other vessels as well as your own boats lighting equipment. In order to properly and safely operate your boat at night, you must understand and take into consideration all of these details and adjust your tactics accordingly. You must make yourself well versed in the colors and positions of navigation lighting and how to use them to judge positions and headings as well as they type of craft displaying them. You must ensure that your own navigation lighting is properly configured and that it meets the minimum standards according to Coast Guard regulations. You must also inspect your navigation lighting before leaving dock for each trip out at night.
Navigating at night is made easier by having a partner on board to help with keeping watches, identifying other vessels and operating any auxiliary navigational aids you may need to use. It also pays to have either a dedicated spotlight mounted in the proper location or an effective portable unit that your partner can use to illuminate markers and buoys, use as a navigational aid when moving through inlets or heading into dock, or to illuminate possible obstructions or debris in the water ahead of your course if necessary.
If you use a spotlight, be aware of the rules regarding their use and refrain from the impulse of trying to use them like you would a car’s headlights. On the water, a spotlight if used improperly can actually put you and other boaters in more danger than navigating without it would. As mentioned earlier, letting your eyes adjust to the darkness and relying on your natural night vision is the best way to go and it can also be easily hampered, particularly by an improperly installed or used spotlight.
If you decide to use a spotlight, use one that is going to do the best job possible. Don’t’ skimp and jeopardize your safety by simply buying the cheapest handheld unit you can find. Chances are you’ll end up with a poorly made spotlight that the salt water and marine environment will turn into a worthless hunk of corroded wiring and plastic in short order. GoLights like the HID Golight Stryker Spotlight from Larson Electronics are some of the most popular and effective units used by boaters and offer a wide degree of versatility as well as high power, remote control and dependable reliability. If you decide to permanently mount a spotlight, keep in mind the position you will most commonly be in when you use it. If you are going to be at the helm, you want to have the light mounted where it will have the least chance of affecting your night vision. The most common places for mounting are at the very front of the bow and as high above the canopy as possible. The idea here is to keep the light from directly illuminating yourself or any of the surfaces of your boat. If your light is not mounted far enough forward on the bow, it can easily produce enough glare when the beam hits the deck to destroy your night vision and even temporarily blind you. Likewise, if your light is not mounted high enough above the canopy so that the beam does not contact any railings or parts of the boat, it can again, blind you and leave you practically helpless until your night vision recovers. In a critical situation, this is an unacceptable problem to run into, so make certain to carefully consider your spotlights placement before permanently mounting it.
Another thing to remember when using your spotlights is that as easily as a light can ruin your night vision, it can also ruin other boaters night vision as well. Never shine your spotlight directly at another craft unless they require that kind of assistance and never use your spotlight while underway at speed except to occasionally illuminate markers or buoys. The Coast Guard has fairly straightforward rules regarding the use of spotlights on boats and most of them are geared towards keeping them from becoming more of a problem than a help. No spotlight can take the place of good night vision, a good partner and arming yourself with knowledge and planning. If used correctly, however, spotlights can be very useful and make all the difference between serious problems and an enjoyable night out on the water.
If there is anything to take away from all of this, it is that before you even think of launching your vessel for a night cruise, take the time to do your homework first. There is no excuse for poor planning and a little knowledge and foresight can spell the difference between a great night out on the water, or a tragedy that could have easily been avoided.