Boating is a very fun activity. Most people think about boating during the day while the sun is shining, but there are others who choose to boat during the evening.
Evening boating can be an entirely new experience whether you choose to watch the sunset over the water, watch a fireworks show, go out for a late meal, or any other night time activity.
When you are out on the water during the evening, you will want to make sure you know and follow the navigation rules for nighttime boating.
These rules are generally similar to the navigation rules during the daytime, but they are even more important and there are special considerations to make.
There are also some tips to follow while out on the water in the dark.
These rules and tips can be found below!
1. What Speed Can I Go When Boating at Night?
When boating during all hours of the day there is not really a set speed or “speed limit”.
This does not mean that you can or should always go as fast as you can.
The navigation rule in place for speed states that the operator of a vessel should always be traveling at a safe speed.
A safe speed is defined as a speed that allows the operator to take proper and effective action to avoid any collisions and that will still allow the operator to stop within a safe distance that is appropriate under each and every circumstance or condition.
This means that the operator will need to take certain factors into account when determining the proper speed.
These factors include:
- Traffic Density
- Background light available at night
- The proximity of potential hazards
- Vessel’s draft
- Radar limitations
- Weather conditions including wind, sea, and current
This means that during periods with low visibility, such as heavy fog conditions, storms, or at night, you should be going slower than you would go on average during the day with perfect visibility.
Remember that while you are boating at night on a body of water that doesn’t have any lights to illuminate your way, you are relying on the small lights featured on the other vessels to determine where traffic is.
For this reason, if you are going too fast and you come around a bend, you might not see another vessel in time to stop.
Even with fancy equipment and your eyes on the lookout, you will likely not see anything or anyone else until they are too close.
Always make sure you are going at a speed that will allow you to stop whenever necessary even at a moment’s notice.
You will also want to be sure that you follow any “no-wake” zone rules during the evening as well as in the daytime.
It is also a good idea to go slow in rivers or other shallow water during the evening. In shallow water or rivers, there can be large stumps, rocks, or other obstructions that can damage your propeller.
Boats are legally required to be equipped with the proper nighttime navigation lights. Even if you do not intend to take your boat out at night, you will still require these lights for your boat to be legal.
These lights are also needed during other periods of low visibility such as thick fog or intense storms.
There are specific lights that are required for boats during times of low visibility.
Depending on the size of boat you are operating, here are the different lights you will need:
Boats less than 39.4 feet long or 12 meters:
These boats need 1 red light and 1 green light at both the front, port, and starboard sides of the boat.
You will also need one white light that can be seen from all angles up to 2 miles away.
Boats larger than 39.4 feet long or 12 meters:
These boats will still need the same red and green lights as the smaller size.
You will also need 2 white lights, 1 at the stern and 1 at the aft that can be seen up to 2 miles away as well.
You will also need a red light on your port side and a green light on the starboard side that can be seen up to 1 mile away.
Sailboats or Unpowered Boats:
Unpowered boats that are under 23 feet only need 1 white light on them. These boats can include sailboats, rowboats, or kayaks. If you choose to, you can still add the red and green lights in their appropriate place.
Larger sailboats should have lights similar to the powered boat lights on the side and the aft, but there could also have a tri-color light on the masthead that can be visible up to 2 miles away.
Never use red and blue lights on your vessel. These lights are reserved for official vessels.
3. What Does a Single White Light Mean on a Boat at Night?
When you see only a white light on a boat, you are headed straight for the other vessel you are overtaking that vessel.
- Single White Light:
If you only see the white light, the other boat is the stand-on vessel no matter if it is underway or anchored. You should be able to go around it on either side.
- White and Green Light:
If you see both green and white light, you are the stand-on vessel. This means you need to stand-on and let the other boat pass on either side. Be prepared to give way in case the other vessel does not know the proper navigation rules.
- White and Red Light:
When you see both the red and white light, you are supposed to give way to the other vessel. You should either slow down and allow the vessel to pass or you can turn to your right and pass behind the other vessel.
- Only Red or Green Lights:
If you only see a red or green light, you may be approaching a sailboat or unpowered boat. You must always give way for a sailboat. A sailboat should always be the stan-on vessel.
For additional information about the navigation light rules during the evening, you should read this article where we go into great detail about rules for lights on the boat.
When your visibility is cut off, you will need to more heavily rely on sound. Because of this, you should know the proper navigation sound rules.
These rules include:
Sound Signals the Indicate Direction:
- 1 Short Blast: this indicates that you will pass on your port side.
- 2 Short Blasts: this indicates the plan to pass on your starboard side.
- 3 Short Blasts: this indicates you intend to back up.
Sound Signals that indicate Location:
- 1 Long Blast: this can be used to indicate you are coming around a bend in the river or you are leaving your dock or slip.
- 1 Long Blast then 3 Short Blasts: this indicates you are backing up.
- 1 Long Blast in intervals less than 2 minutes apart: this indicates that you are a power vessel when you are in blind areas or heavy fog.
Sound signals that indicate Danger:
- 5 Short Blasts: this indicates danger and can be used to indicate a potential collision.
For additional information about the navigation sound rules, follow the link below:
Navigation rules are similar at night as they are during the daytime.
The only differences are:
- To reduce your speed.
- To place more emphasis on following sound signals.
- To know the proper light signals.
The evening can be darker with lower visibility so it is even more important for you to know the ins and outs of the navigation rules and to follow them.
A miscommunication about who has the right of way could be dangerous at any time, but especially at night.
If you cannot see other boats, you could have an issue seeing what the other boat is doing and you could be less likely to react to them in a timely manner versus in the daytime.
Other Important Tips for Boating at Night:
There are tips for boating at night that are not necessary rules but can still help you during nighttime navigation.
These tips include:
6. Use your Skipper:
The skipper is an important asset to have on a boat in case something happens and the operator needs someone else to take over.
In addition to this, the skipper can be very helpful while navigating at night. At night, the skipper can serve as an extra pair of eyes while boating in times of low visibility.
Even with excellent vision, your eyes can become tired while trying to see in the dark. If you get too tired, you can rotate the control of the helm with your skipper.
Your skipper can also help you look out for the lights that will be present on other boats. These can be harder to see than simply seeing the other vessel during the daytime.
An extra pair of eyes can mean that you see other vessels faster which allows you to react faster.
Make sure you follow the navigation rules listed above when it comes to interpreting the lights on a boat.
7. Keep your Ears Open:
With lower visibility, you should also keep your ears open while operating your vessel in the evening.
It can be beneficial to turn your radio off and make sure you are not utilizing headphones while boating at night.
You will need your ears to hear bells, markers, engines, or horns on any approaching boats.
Make sure you follow the navigation rules listed above when it comes to horn sounds.
8. Use Spotlights and Searchlights Appropriately:
Make sure that you do not immediately shine a spotlight or searchlight on a vessel.
Boats are not equipped with headlights similar to automobiles for a reason. If you try to flash lights directly at other boaters, you could blind or disorient them.
Make sure you only use this tool when needed.
You might also be tempted to add headlights or continuously use a spotlight while out on the water. These don’t work because unlike on the road, boats can be coming from any direction.
Also, you will be the only boat that is using a spotlight while out on the water. You will want to follow the navigation light rules that are already in place.
Spotlights can also cause an unnatural shining on the waves that can look like floats or debris which can create a sense of danger.
9. Ensure you Do Not Use Docking Lights as Headlights:
Your boat might have docking lights that look like headlights. You will want to make sure that you do not mistake these or use these as headlights.
They do not cast as long of a beam as specific headlamps.
These lights are only supposed to be for maneuvering over close-quarter marinas or turning into docks or slips.
10. Drink Responsibly:
Whenever you are boating, but especially at night, you will want to make sure you are alert and boating safely.
This means that if you do choose to drink alcohol, you will want to do so responsibly.
Alcohol can lower your reaction time, your decision making power, and can make the operation of your vessel more dangerous.
Most boating accidents are due to operator error and a large portion of them had alcohol involved in some way.
11. Turn Down Any Ambient Light:
It is a good idea to turn down any ambient light. Any light on your boat can reduce your ability to see off the boat.
Your eyes will adjust better to the darkness if you do not have any other light onboard your vessel.
Ambient lights can include:
- The chart plotter
- Courtesy lights
- Electronic devices
If you are unable to turn a light off, you could drape a towel over it to drown out the light.
12. Don’t Spend a Lot of Time Looking at the Stars:
It can be disorienting to look at the stars in the dark while moving.
It can also cause vertigo to look at the stars while moving. Vertigo can even lead to seasickness if you are not careful.
If you want to look at the stars or even map them, you should do this while you are not moving to make sure that you do not get sick or disoriented.
If you anchor your vessel, looking at the stars while out on the water can be a really relaxing and beautiful experience.
While out on the water, you can see the stars better than while on land. This is because of a lack of light pollution while out on the dark water.
13. Novice Boating:
If you are a novice boater, you will want to be completely sure that you have a handle on anything that nighttime boating can throw at you.
Being fully confident on the water can be crucial at anytime but particularly at night.
User error is one of the main causes of boating accidents. This can be because of a bad call made by the operator or by an operator who was not fully knowledgeable about the navigation rules while boating.
If you are unsure about your skills as an operator, you might want to consider a boaters safety class.
Operator error is drastically reduced with operators who have completed a boaters safety course.
Knowing the proper rules and regulations can help you when it comes to interacting with other vessels and it will also help you understand how others will operate their vessels.
It can also help to have an experienced boater on board with you in case of an emergency.
What to Pack for Nighttime Boating:
It is also important to make sure you pack the proper supplies for nighttime boating.
You will also want to pack for evening boating, even if you do not plan to be out at night. There is always a possibility for unforeseen circumstances.
14. Pack Emergency Light Gear:
At night there will be some specialized emergency gear that you will want to have on your vessel. This can include:
This is in addition to the safety equipment that you should always have on your boat. Which includes life jackets, fire extinguishers, floatation devices, carbon monoxide detectors, and other equipment required by law.
15. Pack Warm Clothing:
It is important to pack warm clothing if you intend to boat at night. The weather can feel chillier when the sun goes down, even on a summer’s night.
Long clothing can also help to deter bugs and the potential for insect bites.
Even if you do not end up needed the long clothing, it is better to have something and not need it than to need it and not have it.
You should also have clothing in case of foul weather such as storms.
You will also want to bring towels in case you get wet, even if you do not intend to.
16. Bring Sleeping Supplies When Necessary:
If you plan to stay out overnight, you will want to make sure that you have the proper sleeping equipment.
Even on a warm summer night, you will want to have a blanket in case it gets cold.
You will also want to pack pillows and other comfort items.
17. Pack Bug Spray:
Like warm clothing that can deter bugs, you should also make sure you have bug spray to keep them at bay.
Bugs are often worse at night and can make any trip uncomfortable.
Bug bites are also uncomfortable in the long term and you might regret not properly deterring them.
18. Bring Sufficient Food and Water:
Make sure when you are out on the water you have enough food and water for your trip. Even at night, you can suffer from dehydration in warm weather.
Like mentioned, accidents and unforeseen things can happen. If you end up being stranded you will want to make sure you have the proper nutrients to sustain yourself until help arrives.
If you are planning on staying out overnight, make sure you bring the proper food and water for all passengers.
19. Bring Chart Plotters, GPS Devices, and Radars:
A GPS device can help you see the direction that you are heading, it can give you directions, and can even sometimes give you a scan of the coves that might be in the area.
You can get a chart plotter or you could buy a GPS device that comes with a chart plotter.
Chart plotters indicate where fixed objects are. These can be buoys and markers. This does not include other boaters.
The radar is a very reliable tool that can indicate the distance of something that is in the water.
You can also bring and utilize a compass. This can help you find your home port or your destination when you cannot use landmarks to find your destination.
These objects are very helpful when it comes to navigation, but you will not want to solely rely on these devices. You will want to keep your eye out for yourself.
20. Pack the Proper Communication Devices:
You will want to make sure you have a communication device on board your boat at any time day or night.
Anything can happen while you are out on the water, so you will want to make sure you can get help when you need it.
It is also a good idea to have a VHF radio on board in case your cell phone is unable to get service or dies.
You will also want to make sure you know the proper emergency channels so that you can get the proper assistance when needed.
21. Don’t Forget to Enjoy Yourself!
While you are trying to remember all the proper rules for nighttime boating, do not forget to enjoy yourself.
Boating at night can be an entirely new experience versus boating during the daytime.
It is often quieter and offers a different experience to daytime boating.
Some unique experiences you can have during a nighttime boating outing includes:
- Watching the sunset.
- Looking at, or charting the stars.
- Watching evening fireworks.
- Having a late dockside meal.
- Camping on your boat overnight.
Nighttime boating often offers an experience with less boating traffic and less overall noise.
You will also be able to enjoy the open water with a blazing or hot sun, a cooler and breezy air, and calmer water without a wake.
22. Keep at It!
The final tip for boating at night is to keep at it. Experience is important when it comes to boating during the day as well as at night.
In the beginning, you should have another experienced boat operator on board in case of an emergency as well as for the second set of eyes.
You will want to continue to practice boating at night to make sure you get the hang of it.
The saying “it’s as different as night and day” is highly applicable when it comes to operating a boat.
Once you get the hang of it and really know what you are doing, you can enjoy many relaxing and no stress evenings out on the water with you and your fellow passengers.
It is also beneficial to practice on nights that have a full moon or a bright moon. This can help to add additional light to see by while you get used to the difference that comes with nighttime boating and navigation.
If you own a boat, you might be wondering how to get more use and enjoyment out of it. The solution for you could be to get into evening boating.
Boating at night can be a completely enjoyable and relaxing experience without a harsh sun and high boating traffic.
Evening boating can be quiet and relaxing as well as you can do many different types of experiences that you cannot do during daytime boating.
If you properly prepare, you can have an enjoyable experience for you and your passengers at night.
Preparations can include:
- Knowing the proper navigation rules when it comes to the right of way, light signals, and sound signals.
- Knowing the proper speeds for nighttime boating.
- Making sure you are confident in your operating skills.
- Bringing the proper safety equipment.
- Bringing the proper navigation equipment.
- Bringing the proper clothes, bug spray, towels, sleeping items, and other equipment.
- Preparing your boat to lower light and sound so it isn’t distracting.
- Behaving safely when it comes to operation and the use of alcohol.
- Having an experienced skipper as a backup.
Make sure when you go boating at night, you remember the safety and navigation rules. Being safe out on the water should always be the top priority.
Reducing user error is a matter of being safe and taking the proper boater training classes to make sure you know the proper navigation rules, right of way rules, sound signals, and lighting signals and the proper time to use them.
Remember to have fun when you are out on the water no matter what time of day it is. Having a boat is a fun activity and investment for you and your passenger. You will want to make sure you are enjoying it and using it to its full potential.
Shelby Sullivan is a freelance journalist who specializes in boating and recreational watercraft. She captains her family pontoon boat in her spare time with her fiancee and dog on the freshwater lakes of the United States. Shelby prefers swimming to suntanning, and you can most likely find her reading in the shade of the pontoon awning.