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Day Shapes and Night Lights

COLREGS: Part 2.

Although the COLREGS (Collision Regulations) are pretty clear about what should and should not be displayed on a vessel, they also tend to be a little obtuse, and thus open to potential misinterpretation – something we have been guilty of as well.

An improperly lit sailboat. The masthead light indicates it is at anchor. The stern light suggests it is under way, although you should be able to see the red port light as well as a steaming light if it is under power. You have no way of knowing what this guy is doing (and by the way, he's heading for the rocks!)

Even if not stated in this way, perhaps the most important thing a pleasure craft operator should remember is “Might is Right”. A really big boat, no matter what it is, has right of way over any sail or power pleasure craft – particularly in near coastal waters. These big boats will for the most part fall into two categories, which do have right of way, or are “the stand on vessel” in a crossing situation. They will either have to follow the deep water channel and are thus “constrained by draft”, be otherwise “restricted in their ability to maneuver”, or they are tugs towing a barge.

As a rule of thumb, the boat that is better able to maneuver should stay clear of the vessel that cannot do so as easily.

During the day, it’s often reasonably easy to determine what we are looking at.  But what about at night? Then we need to rely on lights. Again there are rules as to what a vessel should display. Adding more lights may make you more visible, but it will also make identifying what your vessel is doing more difficult for an observer, and may thus actually endanger you.

The lights displayed by a pleasure craft (under 20 meters) are very simple. Towards or at the bow you must have the red and green forward and side facing lights. A vessel under power, and this includes a sailboat motor sailing, must have an all around white light (if less than 6 meters). For a vessel less than 12 meters this light can be split into two parts with one being stern mounted and aft facing, and the other mast mounted and forward and side facing. A sailboat sailing without motor must switch the all around white light off so it is not confused with a power driven vessel.

As the rules defining the stand-on and give way vessel apply during the day as well as when it is dark, there is one requirement you way only rarely see adhered to for sailboats. When a sailboat is motor sailing during the day, it must display a black cone with the pointy end down in its fore triangle.

Translating from what they are supposed to look like to what the lights actually look like takes a bit of practice.

If you now see a vessel with these lights (and nothing else), you have a basis for determining whether you or the other must give way. If you see a white light and/or a red light, you must steer clear of the other – assuming that you are both under power. As it is always wiser to err on the side of caution, particularly at night, insisting on a sailboat having ‘rights’ over a power boat, is not necessarily the best choice. If you see a green light on the other vessel, yours is the stand-on boat. Again, you should assume that the other skipper has not seen you and though you should maintain course and speed, you must also be prepared to take evasive action.

When you see another boat that looks like it may cross your path at night, it is a good idea to scan the water some distance behind it. It may just be a tugboat towing a barge, and barges are not always well lit. Whatever happens, do not pass between a towboat and whatever it is towing.

Day shape and night lights acceptable for a sailboat motoring or motor sailing.

There really is not a lot of need to learn the sometimes complex lighting patterns required by different types of boats. Suffice to remember that is a boat is lit up with additional lights, it is safe to presume that it is a larger craft, or is in some way encumbered and that you should give it a wide berth.

At anchor things are a little simpler. Boats over 7 meters and less than 50 meters must display a white all around light at night and a black ball during the day. Other lights such as deck lights, spreader lights etc are all permitted, and basically just make your boat more visible. The only lights you should not have on are the red and green running lights, as these would give an incorrect and dangerous message to other mariners.

What the sailboat in the photo above should have displayed. If it is motoring, it is a motor boat. It could also have used a tricolor at the masthead - a single light fixture that has green and red facing forward and white the remainder of the way around.

A round ball is used to designate a boat at anchor anywhere other than a designated anchorage during the day. We have never seen this in practice except by container ships anchored offshore awaiting a pilot or tide. Yet it is required by law.

Please do not rely on this discussion alone. There are many more rules that apply to what one is required to do in crossing and passing situations. Please take the time to review the COLREGS and absorb the rules. To review the actual regulations and learn more, visit this site


To review COLREGS Part 1: The Rules of the Road, please click here.

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