Boating at Night: How to Navigate Safely After Sundown

You might be doing a little late night fishing. You might have taken your honey on a romantic sunset cruise.

Or you might’ve simply been having too much fun on the water to realize how late it had gotten, and by the time the sun started going down, you were out of time to navigate your way back home in daylight.

There are many reasons you might find yourself navigating waters at night.

While it’s not ideal—that there aren’t more hours in a day, that is—you can still navigate safely home. Just be prepared with the right tools and these few tips.

The Basics of Nighttime Boating Safety

Slow Down!

Cut back on the throttle! Don’t rush to get home because it’s starting to get late. Take a slower pace.

Ahead of you could be logs or debris that can damage your boat or even your motor. Not to mention, the shore lights reflecting on the water’s surface can easily become confused with the lights shining from other boats.

In fact, you may want to check with local county or state regulations. Often times lower speed limits are enforced during the night hours, even to idle speeds.

Use an Extra Pair of Eyes

If you plan to stay out past daylight hours, bring a buddy along to be an extra pair of eyes for when you return home.

Even if you have excellent vision, your eyes can become strained and tired from constant scanning. Tap your buddy and rotate places at the helm if need be.

Listen to Your Surroundings

Hearing is the next sense you use when you have limited vision. Turn off any stereos—and don’t even think of using headphones!—to better hear your surroundings. You need to hear bells on markers and the horns and engines of other approaching boats.

The On-board Lighting You Need for Boating at Night

Overhead Lights and Chart Lights

You know what it’s like walk into an unlit room and temporarily lose your sense of sight. Without going into scientific details, the rods and pupils in our eyes need some time to fully adjust to the dark. And if you’ve ever turned on a light switch after becoming acclimated, you know it’s even worse.

Overhead lighting and cockpit lighting is nice to have—specifically for reading charts—but should be dimmed to enhance your night vision as much as possible. I recommend installing an extra dimmer switch (buy on Amazon) if there’s not one already.

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The majority of marine electronics have a night mode feature which allows you to have back-lit illumination and minimize harsh lighting on your eyes.

Running Lights

It doesn’t matter what kind of vessel you own, but it does matter that you recognize the standard signals set in place by the U.S. Coast Guard. Understanding the lights of boats is very important for your safety.

And—since it may not be too often you find yourself using the running lights—always make certain they’re working properly!

Very important to remember: The starboard green light is on your right; the port red light is on your left!

When it’s dark, your running lights should be on at all times. The red and green navigation lights are located on the bow of the boat and meant to indicate to other vessels which way they’re headed toward you.

If you see only green and white navigation lights, it means you’re the stand-on boat and you have the right of way. They should pass to your left, but be cautious in case the other captain maneuvers quickly or doesn’t know their navigation rules.

If you see red and white navigation lights, it’s coming up on your right and you should give way to the other vessel.

If you see both red and green, it signifies that the vessel is meeting you head-on.

If you see only red or only green, it’s a sailboat and always gives way! Red means you pass behind it to the right. Green means you pass behind it on the left.

When you see the white light located on the boat’s stern, it signifies that a stand-on vessel is in front of you or moving away from you. It may be underway or anchored, but since you can’t determine what’s what too well in the dark, be careful not to approach too fast and overtake the vessel. Instead, go around it on either side.

Powerboats should also have a 360-degree white light on at all times.

Three stacked white lights indicate a much larger vessel that you don’t want to play a game of chicken with—possibly an enormous barge. Allow them plenty of space and get out of their way!

You can see how important lighting will be while boating at night.

Don’t confuse other boaters by keeping under-deck lighting on. It’s crucial that other boaters are able to distinguish between your red and green running lights.

The only exception might be if you’re at a standstill watching Fourth of July fireworks and need a little extra visibility in a crowded cove.

Spotlights and Searchlights

If, in fact, you see a boat headed your way, this might be a good time to break out your spotlight. But don’t flash it just yet!

There’s a reason boats lack headlights like automobiles. Don’t flash lights directly at other boaters or you’ll blind and disorient them, which only makes matters worse! When your eyes have adjusted to the dark, shining a spotlight makes one have to first squint off the glare.

You can find spotlights that are both handheld and mounted.

Go Light Stryker Searchlight with Wireless Dash and Handheld remotes, Permanent Mount, White
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  • Permanent mount; 370 Rotation x 135 Tilt; integrated 12V DC High-Torque Motors
  • Wireless hand held and dash mounted remotes eliminates need for running a wiring harness and increase versatility
  • 200,000 Candela, 5.5 Amps; exclusive Cr5 Pentabeam II Technology
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A fixed mount (buy on Amazon) is good for larger vessels.

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  • Dimensions: 5.75" x 3.25" x 6.5"

I find that a rechargeable handheld (buy on Amazon) is more beneficial for smaller crafts.

Docking Lights

Docking lights may appear like your boat’s headlights, but they’re not quite good enough at casting long-distance beams to be proper headlights.

They’re properly used for close-quarter maneuvering around marinas and tight turns into slips.

Boating at Night: How to Navigate Safely After Sundown

Chart Plotters, GPS and Radars

A GPS device will help you see the direction you’re headed, give you directions and can give you a scan of the coves in the area.

A chartplotter indicates where fixed objects such as buoys and markers are found, but not so much other boaters.

Often, you’ll find that GPS devices are integrated with chartplotters for boaters. For example, the Garmin GPSMAP 78sc which is pictured right (click to buy on Amazon) is a relatively simple option with both included.

Garmin GPSMAP 78sc Waterproof Marine GPS and Chartplotter
  • Marine-friendly handheld with high-sensitivity GPS receiver and 2.6-inch color TFT display
  • Perfect for boating/watersports--waterproof to IPX7 standards; floats in water
  • Built-in BlueChart g2 U.S./Bahamas coastal charts with shorelines, depth contours, navaids, harbors, marinas, and more
  • Built-in 3-axis tilt-compensated electronic compass and barometric altimeter for heading/altitude/weather
  • Share your waypoints, tracks, routes and geocaches wirelessly with other compatible device user

The radar is considered a very reliable tool and can indicate the distance of something in the water. But even advanced models have a transmitter main bang effect where the pulse of other items become too close to accurately determine a proximity—which by then means you’re already on top of it and it’s too late.

The Simrad GO7 XSE device (click here to check out the reviews from fellow boaters on Amazon) is one option that shows how you can have it all.

All of these are fantastic tools to assist in night navigation, but you don’t want to rely on them entirely. You’ll need to keep your eyes peeled too!

I recommend purchasing yourself a night vision scope (buy on Amazon). And of course, a good old-fashioned compass could come in handy should one of your navigating instruments suddenly stop working.

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How to Relax Responsibly While Boating at Night

As the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun!

And when you’re on the water, part of that fun often comes with enjoying a few beers (or whatever wets your whistle).

But it also goes without saying that, while you’re relaxing and beating the heat with a few drinks, you should also do so responsibly. And this goes double for the captain!

Heading back in the dark already impairs your vision, imagine doing so under the influence. It’s unsafe for everyone—you, your passengers, and other boaters—at any time, day or night! Be sure that you have a designated driver to get you all home, if you’re going to be partaking in the fun.

And always make sure you have the appropriate safety equipment any time you go out on the water. You can check out our previous post on safety equipment for boating as well as essential items to be prepared when boating to get a general idea.

Driving at night can be an enjoyable experience, and sometimes you get so wrapped up in the nice, quiet solitude that you tend to forget your troubles, but you still need to be prepared and alert of your surroundings.

If not, it could be a bad end to your perfect day on the water!

Brette DeVore is a freelance content writer, editor and marketer. A former interior designer with a love for travel and the outdoors, her specialties range from hospitality and lifestyle to tourism and recreation. Catch her camping beneath the stars, reading by the bonfire.