Learn the Lights
The U.S. Coast Guard has long-established light display standards for nighttime navigation, and these apply to both vessels and navaids such as channel markers. If you know the navigation light patterns, you can identify any type of vessel and its activity, as well as determine where to safely enter and exit a harbor at night.
If you do much night boating, knowing the meaning of lights is essential and might save your boat and your life. For example, you see two vessels in the distance and they’re a few hundred yards apart. So to save time, you think about cutting between the two. However, if one of the vessels is displaying three-stacked white lights on the masthead, going between them could be fatal, because the vessel is a tug towing a barge (the second vessel) with a massive hawser. Cut between them, and at best the hawser will rip out your running gear; at worst it will saw across your deck and everything on it.
Eyes and Ears
In the end, the most valuable navigation tool is a sharp eye. And the more, the better when darkness falls. There should be two pairs of eyes (and ears, since sound travels well on the water) on the bridge at night. Modern navigation gear’s great, but nothing beats a good lookout.
There are a number of things that can interfere with maintaining a lookout, not the least of which is nav gear itself. For example, if you have your head down fiddling with a chart plotter or radar, you have taken your eyes off the road, so to speak — not a good practice while under way. That’s why having a second lookout is important.
Also, with two lookouts, it is less likely that either will fall asleep on the bridge. This is a real issue, particularly on long night passages while using autopilot and sitting in a comfortable helm chair. It is just too easy to drift off, and that’s why a commercial vessel must have a “watch alarm” that the skipper must press to turn off at set intervals.
Having that someone special on the bridge at night might keep you from falling asleep, but it can distract from maintaining a lookout. So if you decide to embrace the evening aboard your boat, make sure your date knows that, while you’re under way, you need to keep your hands on the wheel and throttle, and you only have eyes for the water ahead.