Mailboat Letters

Published: October 2014

Shedding More Light

The "Light Up The Night" article in the July 2014 issue was well-written and addressed an extremely important topic, seeing and being seen at night. I know because I was at the helm of the sailboat in the example cited in the 2012 collision with a sportfisher off the coast of Delaware in the opening photo. The last statement about that incident, "because she too, was in violation of a navigation rule (use of lighting)," is incorrect. This statement is not a fact that could be proven. The Coast Guard Report of Investigation does not state that at all. It cited two rules for the sailboat: Rule 5. Look-Out, and Rule 7. Risk of Collision (radar reflector on board, but stowed away); and five rules for the sportfisher: Rule 5. Look-Out, Rule 6. Safe Speed, Rule 7. Risk of Collision, Rule 8. Action to Avoid Collision, and Rule 15. Crossing Situation.


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During the 12 years I spent as a USCG Auxiliary Vessel Examiner, I ran across many nav light failures. While the usual broken and corroded wire connectors were in the majority, some standouts made me stop and think: "Holy cow! How lucky was this guy!" Here are a few examples:

  • A nearly new 55-foot sportfisher with red sidelights on both sides! Came from the factory with the upside-down red light on the starboard side.
  • The combination light that used to be on top of the pulpit that was relocated to the underside of the pulpit to make way for an anchor roller. Not only was the light now obscured by the anchor flukes, but the color sectors were reversed!
  • The masthead white light was replaced with a floodlight to light up the cockpit. "The wiring was already there."
  • A welded aluminum hard top frame bolted to the flybridge within an inch of and directly in front of the sidelights. The masthead light was obscured by a radar dome directly in front of it. This was a charterboat with a USCG vessel inspection decal that routinely ran at night.
  • Lights were routinely obscured by canvas, life rings, radar domes, fender baskets, and fenders, and even the helmsman in normal operation.
The common theme for all of these is the boat owner's lack of understanding of a simple concept: The nav lights tell everyone else what you are doing.


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Just read Daniel Rutherford's excellent "Light Up The Night" article in the July 2014 Seaworthy. As he points out, the term "masthead light" does suggest that it is found at the top of the mast (wrong). A way to avoid this confusion is to think of it as a mast headlight, often located on a mast but always aimed ahead and visible only in the 225-degree arc forward of the boat.


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Mr. Rutherford's article "Light Up The Night" uses the terminology "privileged" and "burdened" in the paragraph "COLREGS and Night Navigation." This is incorrect and no longer used. Rules 16 and 17 of the Navigation Rules International-Inland states that the terminology is "Action by Give-way Vessel" and "Action by Stand-on Vessel."


Editor: Oops, you're right. We goofed and used the outdated terms. Thanks to all the readers who caught the error!

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If any of the scenarios described in the nav light article does result in a collision, does the failure to comply with the COLREG rules assign blame for the collision to the noncompliant boat in a court of law? I mean, does liability for damage and injury fall to the noncompliant boat legally?


Dan Rutherford: In my experience, there is never (unless one of the boats is unattended on a legal mooring and it is struck by another) a case where only one of the parties is at fault in an accident under the COLREGS. Remember that all boat operators have the principal duties to keep a proper lookout and to take action to avoid collision. Obviously all factors will be taken into account, but in the end, the fault will be apportioned between the two vessels, usually with the higher percentage falling on the vessel with the most rule violations.

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I live on a lake five miles long, and we have sailboats, powerboats, and rowing shells (35-40 feet). The rowers go out at night with only a small light on the tip of the bow and stern that is not visible with eight oars out. They say there is no regulation on rowboats. Are they right?


Dan Rutherford: Any boat operating at night must carry a light. As to what rules apply, if your lake is noncontiguous with another state, it is probably not a federal waterway and thus state regulations may apply. You need to check to see if your particular state has adopted the COLREGS or if there are any specific state regulations governing this activity. That said, I refer you to COLREGS Rule 25 Sailing Vessels Underway and Vessels Under Oars, Sub Section (d) (ii), which states: "A vessel under oars may exhibit the lights prescribed in this rule for sailing vessels, but if she does not, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision." I have read the rules carefully and I do not see any length restriction when it comes to "Vessels Under Oars."

There have been many high-profile accidents involving rowing shells in collisions. They are low, dark, and difficult to see. My advice to anyone who knows that this sort of activity is close by is to keep a vigilant watch and have a powerful light available to search forward of your position. My advice to those involved in rowing is to wear bright clothing and to put SOLAS reflective tape on the oar tips.

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Note to anyone working on a bi-color bow light. On some lights the lens can be put back with red to port, green to starboard or green to port, red to starboard. In changing a light bulb while hanging nearly upside down over the bow pulpit and trying not to drop any tools or parts into the water, I accidentally put the lens back in backwards. I had green on port and red on starboard. I didn't even notice it until a race when there was a boat to starboard of us with their lights on, and I could see his red light. Then I looked at my lights and realized that they were different than the other boat.


More Lightning Talk

Marine antennas in the vertical position can have an induced charge from nearby lightning strikes at times sufficient to cause damage to equipment. In theory, the induced charge from a nearby lightning strike will be much less if the antennas are in the down position. Look at any marina, all the boats have the antennas in the up or vertical position. A strike a few boats away will often result in melted radios, which could be avoided with the simple task of putting the antennas down.


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Many thanks for the article, "Lowering The Lightning Odds," in the July 2014 issue of Seaworthy. I look forward to the promised future issue with an article on boats and lightning. Specifically, what happens in a boat when directly or indirectly struck by lightning? Do all the wiring and instruments go poof? And, what happens to the people onboard?


Editor: Unfortunately, the answer is, "It depends." Lightning is unpredictable at best, and, at worst, it can appear completely irrational. Our claim files show a wide variety of damage with fried electronics at the top of the list. More serious damage occurs when lightning cannot find an easy exit out of the boat and ends up blowing through fiberglass or out thru-hulls. That can result in sinking.

Luckily, injuries to people aboard are quite unusual based on the claim files. The lightning is looking for the most efficient route to ground, and that doesn't normally include passing through a person unless they are holding on to something along that route, like a wire stay on a sailboat. But these generalizations are not based on a thorough analysis of our claim files — we plan to do that next winter and report our findings sometime next year. Stay tuned!

ESD And Defibrillators

In the "ESD Or Drowning?" article in the July 2014 issue, AED stands for "automated external defibrillator." The "automated" part is important because it will analyze the heartbeat and advise that a shock is needed if ventricular fibrillation (VF) is detected. If VF is not detected, it will advise no shock should be delivered.


Need A Lift?

Photo of boat lift

After reading your spring articles about checking out your boat, I discovered the starboard aft cable of my boat lift was more than 75-percent rusted through. Fortunately I caught it before the stern of the boat, a 21-foot Mariah Talari, ended up under water. I now have four stainless steel cables and no more galvanized cables for me. Thanks for prodding me to inspect all aspects of the "boat."


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