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05/27/11 Nighttime Cruising: Tips For an Enjoyable Trip

Taking your boat out for night cruises can be one of the more enjoyable aspects of the boating experience when done properly. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the more controversial subjects to address as well. Because of the increased risks and special considerations that come with navigating waterways in the dark, there exists several adamant opinions on the subject held by boaters ranging from, “as long as it isn’t illegal it’s ok” to “boating at night is for fools”.  As interesting as controversies may be, we are interested here only in addressing the realities of night boating so it can be as safe and enjoyable as possible.

Above all else, navigating waterways and the open sea at night requires knowledge and disciplined focus. Once the sun has gone and night settles in, the lack of light reduces your depth perception and with many nearby objects difficult to see, judging sizes and distances also becomes more difficult. Assessing water conditions also becomes more difficult as reflections off the waves interfere with determining their size and frequency and far off shorelines and markers are difficult to observe. Because navigating by vision becomes so much more difficult during evening hours, greater focus and attention on surroundings as well as an intimate knowledge of the area becomes critical. Even with sophisticated radar and well managed charts, avoiding unexpected debris and obstacles is still a difficult task.

Those taking to the water at night for the first time would be well advised to go with someone already experienced and knowledgeable in managing a boat in the dark. All equipment including radios, radar, running lights, generators and batteries should be checked to ensure they are in good operating condition. If the area you plan to navigate is unfamiliar, it is wise to make several daylight cruises and note the locations of markers, obstructions and landmarks first before attempting to navigate it at night. You should also make sure you have a good spotlight onboard as you’ll need to be able to illuminate markers and possible obstacles occasionally.

One of the first things to realize when boating at night is that bright light hampers navigational efforts more than it helps. Despite having a good spotlight, such equipment is not intended to be used on a constant basis while underway or even at anchor for that matter. The uses for a spotlight while away from dock are widely varied, but at no time should one be used negligently or purely as a navigational aid while underway. Bright light on a boat will interfere with your night vision and make monitoring your course much more difficult. In dark conditions, it is better to rely on eyesight alone for general navigation than a spotlight as once your eyes become accustomed to the dark, you’ll be able to see fairly well with little more than moonlight or ambient light from your surroundings.

A bright spotlight used incorrectly can effectively render you blind once your eyes become acclimated to dark conditions. It takes anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes for a persons’ eyes to become acclimated to the dark. Once your night vision has fully taken effect, a bright light can cause your eyes to readjust to the increased light levels and in the worst cases, render you blind for several minutes. Because of this, a spotlight should be used sparingly, with extra attention given to avoiding excessive glare or viewing the light directly. You should always be conscientious when using your spotlight and avoid directing the beam towards other vessels. The only thing worse than blinding yourself, is blinding other boat operators, and it certainly won’t endear you to anyone.  

When it comes to choosing a spotlight there are a wide variety available that can make a final decision difficult. Stick to spotlights that are certified waterproof and constructed of materials that will resist that corrosive effects of salt water. Stainless steel, coated aluminum and an IP65 or better rating are a few things to look for when choosing. Since managing power use onboard is always of prime importance, try comparing some of the newer LED offerings out there that provide high power with a much lower amperage draw. Although you may not use your spotlight that often, should an emergency occur and you find yourself needed to run the light for extended periods, you’ll appreciate the LEDs' extremely low power requirements and greatly increased runtime.

Larson Electronics has some ideal remote controlled spotlights available, like the GL-9000-M Wireless Remote, LED Spotlight that allows users to mount the light just about anywhere, uses less power than incandescent lamps, and produces a powerful light beam that tends to create less glare and a better quality of light than typical halogen spotlights. LEDs add an extra degree of security as well since they are much more durable and long lived than other types of spotlights. With most LEDs rated at 50,000 hours of life, there is little chance of finding yourself in the awkward position of really needing a spotlight in poor conditions and having to find a replacement for a burnt out bulb. The primary reason for using a spotlight is to positively identify markers and potential obstacles. Although your speed should be kept considerably lower when navigating at night, you’ll still need to be able to discern the colors and markings on navigational aids. Since many markers provide information through the use of colored indicators, being able to easily note the design and orientation of these indicators is of utmost importance.

Keep the use of your spotlight brief and shine it only long enough to do the job at hand. Avoid illuminating nearby boats and if possible, orient your spotlight so that it has a clear and unobstructed path between the beam and the objects of interest. For most boaters, this means mounting your spotlight either as high up on the bridge or canopy as possible, or as far forward on the bow as possible. The idea here is to be able to operate the light without having the beam reflected off any of your boats surfaces such as the deck or reflective railings. Such reflection can instantly destroy your night vision and render your spotlight useless.

With a little extra care and planning, cruising at night can be quite safe and enjoyable. Remember to plan your trip in advance, use common sense and maintain vigilance while underway. With a little forethought and knowledge, you’ll find yourself enjoying the benefits of nighttime cruising  without any worry or controversy.  

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