Blinded by the Light

By Tom Neale, 5/28/2009


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Blinding Sunlight Breaks Through Fog

A few days ago Mel and I were running upriver in our old center console Mako, making around 20 knots and loving it. I decided to turn and head back toward the mouth of the river. I don’t change course or speed without looking around me, and so after taking a careful look forward and around, I turned my head to look astern.  Instantly I was blinded. The late afternoon sun was low and very bright.  Its glare on the water multiplied its effect many fold. The Queen Mary could have been back there and I wouldn’t have seen it. She would have seen me, because she would have had the sun from astern. But if I had turned into her, that wouldn’t have made much difference. It would have been blotto time.

I knew there was a boat astern, coming my way, because I had passed it earlier. I just didn’t know how far back it was, because I wasn’t sure of its speed and whether it had maintained that speed. I pulled back the throttle and began to slow, keeping watch ahead and astern through very dark sunglasses that I had aboard.  Finally I reached a point where I was sure the coast was clear and completed my turn, heading back into the sun, in the opposite direction—but running very slowly.

We’ve been temporarily blinded by the light on many other occasions. It happens frequently, for example, when you’re traveling on the ICW in the early morning or in the evening. The creeks and rivers twist and turn, and it isn’t unusual to come around a bend and suddenly be staring straight into the sun with its brilliancy filling your vision. It also isn’t unusual to leave the shadow of a tree-line and be blinded. On occasions we’ve suddenly broken through fog or white-out rain storms and, rather than finally being able to see again, found ourselves unexpectedly blinded by bright sun and glare. These events are bad enough as they are. You need to be able to see other craft. But they’re made worse by the fact that often they occur suddenly when you don’t expect it. And it can come from above (the sun) or below from the surface of the water. It can also be a culmination of both. When it happens, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust and for normal vision to return. Obviously this type of thing can have serious long term very bad consequences on your vision. But it can also have immediate very bad consequences on your life.

There’s a tendency to think, “Oh, the other skipper will see me, because the sun will be from his stern.” But sometimes it doesn’t work this way.  It can be a deadly mistake to assume that the other skipper is doing what he’s supposed to be doing. It can even be a deadly mistake to assume that he’s able to see and to understand what’s happening ahead, even if he is carefully watching. He may have just looked astern himself and be blinking away his blindness. Or you may be in shadow from his perspective.

I learned a valuable lesson about this sort of thing last winter when Mel and I were riding in an offshore high performance boat on an organized poker run in the Florida Keys.  The weather was good and light was right, but nevertheless, they had, among many other safety rules, a very wise practice.  Any time one of the boats came off a plane (which is to significantly slow down), all of the occupants, except the person at the wheel, threw up their hands.  This served as a signal to boats roaring in from behind that there was a drastic slowing down ahead, happening quickly.

At first blush one might think that this was unnecessary. And maybe in most instances it would be. After all, the skippers in the boats astern were looking ahead and would see the boat ahead suddenly slow. But would they? The scary fact is that even if you, in the following boat, are keeping careful watch ahead, you might misinterpret what you’re seeing.  You’re seeing the boat’s stern—not its broadside. And change of motion, particularly with that view, isn’t necessarily that obvious, especially if one or more of the boats are running at high speed.  The wake also changes, but again it might not be that obvious immediately. And light conditions, whether it’s bright sun, glare, or not enough sun, can make it even more difficult to correctly see and interpret what you’re seeing. A hesitation in taking the correct action on the part of either boat can be disastrous, particularly if speed is involved. Even if speed of both boats isn’t involved, momentary blindness can be disastrous. There has been more than one occasion when a fixed aid to navigation on the side of the channel disappears in the light. This is stationary, of course. But if you’re going fast when you hit it, that may not matter.

Tom’s Tips About Bright Light Blindness

1. For this and a million other reasons, it’s good to have a partner with you when you’re running a boat—not just soaking up rays or day dreaming, but keeping up with what’s going on so that he or she can step up to help, quickly, if needed.

Click Here for More Tips

There’s a flip side to being blinded by the light. It can even happen at night in total darkness. This is when another skipper shines his spotlight on you and catches you in the eye. It’s against the law to do this, but it happens. It sometimes happens by mistake. If another skipper feels he needs to illuminate your boat, he may not know where you are on the boat and where you’re looking and he may not know what type of boat you have and which way you’re heading. Theoretically, there’s a lot that you can and should do to find out who’s there and what’s going on without shining a light on another boat. We check our radar. We call on the VHF. If we had one (and we hope to get one) we could use an AIS. We look with our great pair of light gathering binoculars (Steiner Commander XP 7X50). But sometimes, for whatever reason, a skipper will shine a powerful spotlight at you, blinding you when you least need it. And then, of course, sometimes skippers do it simply from ignorance, being unfamiliar with the rules of the road, prudent seamanship, and common sense. Whatever the reason, when it happens to you, you’re blind for a short but critical period of time.

Being blinded by the light is just one more thing that can happen on the water to ruin your day—or night. The more we’re prepared for it, the better we can handle it.

Copyright 2004-2009 Tom Neale

Boating and water sports involve risk.  Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk.  You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others.  Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.