On Maneuvers: Driving After Dark

5 must-knows for boating safely at night.

Maybe you stayed out too late just to catch the sunset or maybe it was always your plan to enjoy an evening cruise. Whether by chance or by choice, the minute the stars come out, the world looks foreign, and navigating home requires careful attention. Preparation is the key to navigating at night without getting lost or banging into an underwater obstacle.

Here are a few common-sense rules to make it home safely:

Slow Down


Many state and local jurisdictions have lower nighttime speed limits — some as low as idle speed. It’s a natural precaution, because familiar landmarks change or even disappear at night, making it easy to run off-course. Floating debris big enough to damage your boat are invisible on the black water’s surface. Other boats’ navigation lights can be difficult to discern from the backscatter of shore lights. To maintain control in this challenging environment, slow the pace.

Eliminate Distractions

Easy nighttime operation is often a matter of reading subtle clues. This can be hard to do when cockpit lights compromise your night vision. Dim the interior lights and pop your head above the windshield to reduce reflections. Even a too-loud stereo can become a hazard, overpowering the horn of an unseen boat.


Careful With the High Beams

Some might think headlights are the answer. (If your boat has a built-in pair, they’re actually “docking lights” intended for close-quarters maneuvering only.) Powerful forward-looking lights or swivel-mounted or handheld spotlights can be helpful, but they can also confuse other boaters by overpowering your navigation lights or blinding approaching captains. Use spotlights judiciously, not continuously, and never shine them into the face of another boater — that’s illegal.

Use a Compass


Never make your first excursion into unfamiliar waters at night. During the day, make note of the compass direction from home port to say, your waterfront restaurant. When you return, it’s an easy thing to add or subtract 180 degrees to get your reciprocal or return course. Don’t have a compass on board? Installing one from makes a great boat-bling project.

Learn the Lights

Every boater should know the combinations of red, green and white lights that tell you whether a boat is coming or going, and in what general direction (see diagram). Oh, and your own running lights are working properly … right?

Light Show Navigation lights are designed so that the only time you’ll see both green and red together is when another boat is coming at you head-on (top). Otherwise, you’ll see either a green or a red light (middle and bottom), if the boat is crossing your course, and a white light (stern), if the boat is moving away from you. A very simple rule to remember is that when you see red, stop. The other boater has the right of way.

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