Staying safe after the sun goes down

Published online: Apr 14, 2012 Feature Brandon Barrus
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Boating after sunset can be a great experience. The odds of getting heatstroke go way down, and usually the waterways are a lot less crowded. In addition, romantic cruises in the moonlight work a lot better if you can actually see the moon.

However, despite all of these positives, there is one setback to the joy that is nighttime boating: it's harder for other boaters to see you, and vice versa. Imagine driving on the freeway at night, except you have no headlights, lanes are nonexistent, and traffic can come at you from literally any direction. Sound fun? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Last December, a Florida man was charged with vessel homicide and manslaughter after crashing into a channel marker late one night. His wife was sitting near the bow, and at the moment of impact, her head hit the sign on the marker, knocking her unconscious. She died the next day. Tests showed the accused's blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit, but the darkness of the environment definitely played a part in this tragedy.

So if you don't want to spend your next nighttime cruise paralyzed with fear that you'll be run down by a 120-foot-long houseboat, follow these tips (and laws!) for a safer experience after the sun has set. The Coast Guard offers a comprehensive guide to boating called Navigation Rules, International-Inland, which happily covers this very topic. These rules affect any boat under 39 feet in length, which easily covers most pontoon or deck boats we know about.

For starters, you are required to have a masthead light, usually located at the starboard stern section of the boat. This light needs to be white in color and fairly elevated, to make it more visible to oncoming boats.

"Well, we've got visibility taken care of," you may say. "Anyone can now easily see me up ahead." Not so fast, my friend. Consider this: would a nearby boat know which direction you're facing if all they can see is a white light? What about determining your heading? I'm afraid this is simply not possible using a single light. That's where the Christmas lights come in.

By Christmas lights I'm not suggesting you string lights along your boat and then make them blink in time to Manheim Steamroller. Instead, the Coast Guard requires a red light be displayed on the port side of your boat, while a green light be placed on the starboard side. This allows an oncoming boat to quickly assess which way you are facing, and so determine which way you're heading, and respond appropriately. He sees a green light? You're obviously heading to his right. Red light? You're cruising towards some destination on his left. See how this works?

Pop quiz: What does it mean if you see a red and a green light? Take immediate action, because this likely means the other craft is heading directly at you! It is important to note that the red and green lights need only be on if you are underway. When anchored, turn them off and display only the white masthead light. This shows other boats in the area that you are not, in fact, heading anywhere at all, and they can take that into account.

One fun and creative way to make sure you're visible to other boaters is to install Flexi-Wide LED strip lighting, from Vista Manufacturing. You may have noticed it featured on the cover of the Fall issue of PDB. If you wondered what was making the Manitou pictured there glow, this is the answer. Flexi-Wide light strips can be installed in minutes, and are cool to the touch when running. For more information, visit www.vistamfg.com.

Now that you've taken the time to light your boat in accordance with Coast Guard guidelines (any maybe beyond), don't feel like it's time to relax just yet. After all, we all know about people who disregard such protocols, and all it takes is one bonehead to cause a serious accident on the water. For that reason, always exercise extreme caution when boating at night. A lake you may know like the back of your hand can become completely unfamiliar to you with the absence of any familiar landmarks, and new landmarks can pop up in the form of house lights or radio towers.

To keep your night vision sharp, dim down your console lights. A bright console will keep your pupils constricted, letting less light in and making it harder to see exactly what that blur ahead of you is. For the same reason, keep other interior lights off while underway. The Coast Guard also recommends wearing eye protection when boating at night, as bug activity is increased after sunset and taking a mosquito to the eye can ruin your boating experience pretty fast.

If all this talk of collisions and lighting makes you too nervous to boat at night at all, don't let your fears paralyze you. Take short trips on your local waterway at night to familiarize yourself with the area after dark. Even if you aren't planning on making any boating runs at night, you may find yourself in a situation where you are forced to, and it's better to be prepared for such an eventuality.

So get your red, white and green lights installed as soon as possible, and make sure you're one of the smart ones on the water after dark. It helps everyone.

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