I’ll never forget the night I was anchored out for the Fourth of July fireworks. It was a beautiful night, the stars were stunning, and the fireworks show was nothing short of amazing. We were on my first motor yacht, and when the show was over, all the boats around us started up their engines at once, weighed anchor, and got underway. It was a glut of hundreds of boats all moving at once in the dark, so we made the decision to wait at anchor until most of them had cleared out before we’d do the same. 

overnight cruising
Cruising at night comes with a new set of challenges, requirements, and really some of the most peaceful times you will ever enjoy on a boat.

When the time came, I started the engines and we got the anchor up, and it wasn’t long before a pontoon boat full of revelers and I were facing each other underway. The pontoon captain was running with his “docking lights” turned on, and I was suddenly blind. I changed course to get away from his vision-stealing illumination, and when I got home, I did a deep dive into when such lights are supposed to be used. Suffice it to say, they are not “running lights.” 

Truly, there is nothing quite as amazing as spending a wonderful day out on the water. Get out there and have a little fun and sun, and then enjoy the magic that is the sunset on the water. If you stay out much longer than that, you will be cruising at night, and with that comes a new set of challenges, requirements, and really some of the most peaceful times you will ever enjoy on a boat.

Navigation Lights

If you are going to be out after dark, the most obvious checklist item should be to make sure ALL your navigation lights work and are legal for your vessel type and size before you ever leave the dock (find more details at boatus.org/study-guide/navigation/lights). This means at a minimum, a power-driven vessel under 12 meters/39 feet should have a red and green and an all-around (360-degree) white light (vessels over 12 meters/39 feet need a stern and masthead light in place of the all-around). Equally important though is to know what lights to use and when—or when not to use certain lights. 

Those fancy docking lights I mentioned above, spreader lights, or the floodlight/spotlight that your vessel may have come with are for docking, close-quarters navigation, and sporadic use to spot channel markers or other obstacles in the water. They are not to be used like headlights on a car. Turning them on and leaving them on while underway is not only bad form, but it can be truly dangerous—they can damage not only your night vision but that of skippers around you. None of us wants to be the reason someone else has a bad night on the water.

overnight cruising
Make sure ALL your navigation lights work and are legal for your vessel type and size before you ever leave the dock.

While underway at night, you need your night vision to spot issues on the water, and bright lights hurt your night vision. While those docking lights or spotlights might help you, they are blinding to other mariners—and no one on the water is more dangerous than a blind navigator. None of us wants to encounter one, so we all must do our best to prevent blinding ourselves and others on the water.

Apps and Chartplotters

I take my night vision very seriously while underway at night. On very dark voyages I will even place pieces of tape over indicator lights that are not required for navigation, and I have a switch that controls the backlights on my engine gauge panel that I will turn off when not actively referring to them. All of my screens—chartplotter, tablets (I like navigation apps), phone, all go to the lowest backlight setting that I can see and will operate using “night mode” colors. The less light I have at the helm, the better I can see. 

Speaking of navigation apps and chartplotters… they are immeasurably helpful in the dark. As twilight fades to dark night, unless you have a moon to light the way, you can quickly lose your sense of place on the water. All the usual cues of where you are and where you should go along the way just fade away. During the day, you might never refer to your chartplotter or your navigation apps, but now you need them—and if you have radar and/or AIS, now is the time to use that as well to keep an eye on the vessel traffic around you. Maintain a careful watch over the water around you and pay close attention to your chartplotter/navigation apps so you can see where the aids to navigation (AToNs) should be, where charted hazards or restricted areas are, and, as with any time you are running in restricted visibility, don’t go faster than you can safely react to changing situations around you. In the dark, your situational awareness becomes very important. Roaring engines can not only move your vessel too fast to process and react but can also prevent you from hearing a situation on the water that requires reaction. Slowing down is very important. 

Also, even if your boat has all the fancy lighting in the world, never leave the dock without a fully charged hand-held spotlight. Mounted spots and floods are great, but a hand-held light is versatile and fast to deploy. Keep one fully charged and handy. Turn it on only when you need it to put eyes on a marker you know is nearby, or to see a person in the water. Never point a light at other boats which can blind them. You should not have the light on all the time, but when you need it, you NEED it! 

Be Vigilant

So, you’re well equipped, you’re underway at night running at a responsible, safe speed with the correct navigation and marker lights turned on, extraneous lighting turned off to save your vision, and keeping an eye on your apps/chartplotter. That’s all you have to worry about, right? Well, it’s a good start, but just as during the day, you need to keep your head on a swivel. Eyes up looking for looming shadows (if it gets dark fast in front of you, that’s a clue you might be about to hit something BIG). Look for lights—stationary lights that could be on land or mounted on AToNs, and moving lights that might be boats, barges, and tugs, or even ships. Learn what the various lights on boats look like and what they mean in various combinations, and learn to identify if they are moving toward you or away from you. 

I have often passed tugs with barges coming the other way at night. It can be a bit unnerving to encounter something so large in the dark. I was not always aware of what it was when I first saw the lights but was thankful that I was able to see it and have a sense of where I should be relative to the lights coming at me. Day or night, when encountering a vessel close aboard—especially large vessels—it’s always a good idea to hail them, usually on VHF 13, to let them know you’re there, and if you are to pass or overtake them, ask them to suggest the safest way to do so. If you have no radio, you should use whistle signals as prescribed under Rule 34.

Finally—and this applies day and night—know the rules and understand your navigation markers both lighted and non-lighted. Lighted markers are key to giving you an idea of where you are at night, but you also need to be aware of non-lighted markers and use your light to spot them as you get close (instead of hitting them—ask me how I know). If you have friends on the boat with you, make sure everyone is vigilant and be ready to react to changing situations as they are reported to you. Navigating in the dark can be challenging, but it can also be loads of fun. Be prepared, run your vessel safely and responsibly in accordance with the Rules of the Road, and always, boat sober. 

By Dave Rowe (aboardstinkpot.com) and Jeff Foulk (argonav.io)