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Boating After Dark

Don't let a bad night ruin a perfect day on the water. Here's what you need to bring — and do — if you're caught out after sunset.

Boating after dark

Boating after dark can be scary if you're not prepared. Here's how to safely enjoy a night out on the water. (Photo: Getty Images/Casarsaguru)

Eventually, by choice or not, most boaters find themselves out on the water at night. Whether the day got away from you, or because of a breakdown, or if you just feel ready for a new challenge, being prepared is key. There's some gear you need to have aboard and some safety practices to deploy, but you can handle this.

Tip

Most of the gear and techniques for boating at night also apply for boating in fog.

The three main tenets of boating at night: Avoid hitting anything in the water, avoid being hit by other boats, and make sure you and your crew don't go overboard. Steer clear of those and, once you're comfortable and prepared, the nocturnal water world can be magical.

Safety Gear

When night falls, it's even more important to have the required safety gear onboard, some of which is more likely to be needed in the dark. Even if you don't wear a life jacket during the day, everyone aboard should don one at night. Falling overboard is more dangerous after dark because the critical sense of sight is severely diminished, and a skipper can quickly be struck in a frantic effort to find the person in the water.

If you've never used a lot of your safety gear before, get it out and make sure it's in good order before heading out. Start with this checklist:

  • Keep your cellphone handy for letting those ashore know you're running late or staying overnight to avoid sending out an unnecessary rescue party. (See the article "Why You Should Use A Float Plan".)
Raymarine VHF radio

  • Have a VHF radio to call for help in case you lose cellphone coverage. For a handheld unit, have extra batteries.
  • Have an anchor, anchor rode, and anchor light in case you need to stay somewhere overnight. You'll be glad you practiced your anchoring in the daylight. (Go to YouTube.com for a video on how to anchor.)
  • GPS/chartplotter. It's much more difficult to find your way home in open water when it's dark. Landmarks may look different or disappear altogether.
  • Flares. Have these on hand in case you need to signal in an emergency. Before you leave, ensure they aren't expired — 42 months from the date of manufacture.
Binoculars
  • Good binoculars collect the available light and can help you identify aids to navigation (ATONs), other boats, and shore-side landmarks. Night vision devices can be useful, but most aren't practical for using full time at night.
  • Have a sound-signaling device where you can quickly reach it in case you need to signal. Note: Five blasts is the danger signal, which warns other boaters nearby that something is not right and immediate action is needed.
  • Keep a few glowsticks around and have each of your crew carry one. It's much easier to find someone overboard if he or she has a light.
  • Have a warm jacket. Nights on the water can get chilly.
  • Tie signal lights and whistles to each life jacket.

Techniques

Much of what applies during the day also applies for night boating, except you need to be even more aware. Landmarks and familiar surroundings disappear. Lights can be deceiving: Is that an anchor light or a far-off street lamp? You won't be able to easily see things in the water such as crab pots and floating logs.

The first rule? Slow down! Things in the water, like debris and exposed rocks, are much harder to see in the dark. Don't assume every boater will have navigation lights on; if they don't, you may not see them until it's too late.

Be stealthy. Going slower means going quieter, so you're more likely to hear nearby surf or another boat's engine. Turn off music and have crew talk quietly.

Make sure your navigation lights are operational even if you never plan to be out late. Turn them on before sunset. Navigation lights let other boaters see you, and the configuration and colors let them know if you're anchored or moving and in what direction. While lights are required to be visible between 1 and 2 miles away, bad connections and crazed covers are common problems that significantly reduce their visibility.

Save your night vision by avoiding white lights and turning off unnecessary lights onboard. Use red lights (a red LED headlamp or a blue-green headlamp is ideal), and you'll still be able to see your navigation tools and surroundings. Dim displays as much as possible, and don't spend too much time looking at them. It can take several minutes for your eyes to readjust from just a few seconds of normal light.

Keep your crew safely in the center of the boat so they're less likely to fall overboard.

Serach light

Keep a strong spotlight aboard for emergencies or in case fast-moving boats or ships don't see you. It will hurt your night vision (and maybe theirs) when you use it, so use with caution. Don't shine the light into the eyes of those running other vessels.

Have a dedicated lookout posted near your bow to scan for navigation aids and other boats or the shore.

Be aware of background lights that might look like buoys or markers. They may actually be the lights of another boat or even lights ashore.

Don't drink alcohol! Boating at night takes all of your concentration, and being impaired makes it less likely you'll get home safely.

Stay out of shipping lanes.

Get an On-Water Towing Membership from BoatUS If you break down, they'll get you home safely 24/7.

Author

Charles Fort

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Charles Fort handles BoatUS Magazine’s exclusive Reports section, a group of in-depth tech features in every issue written to help readers avoid accidental damage to their boats. He’s also on the BoatUS video team, and writes investigative features for the magazine. He writes BoatUS Magazine’s Consumer Affairs column, is member of the National Association of Marine Surveyors, he’s on ABYC’s tech committees, and has a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard license. Charles once took his young family cruising for a year, before returning to head up BoatUS’s Consumer Affairs department, helping Members with dispute-mediation when they have consumer issues with marine products. He lives in California, where he’s BoatUS Magazine’s West Coast editor.