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Running Your Boat at Night
Part I

By, Captain George East

All professional captains agree that running at night in a properly prepared vessel with a properly trained crew is not a white knuckled event. On the contrary, to be at sea at night or on a charted inland waterway on a calm clear night can be a wonderful and rewarding experience. You wouldn’t believe the thousands of stars that you can see 50 to 100 miles off shore.

Photograph courtesy of Cindy Kwitchoff, July 4th, 2008


At night, the much cooler temperatures and significantly lighter traffic are reason enough to master the techniques needed to safely cruise after dark. Also, there could come a time when you have no choice but to make a night run, and to do that in a stressful situation without building up some experience and confidence could lead to a less than acceptable outcome.

I will limit my comments to running on inland rivers because this is the environment where most of you will operate. The following are accepted standard practices in no particular order of importance:


Run only at hull speed (6 to 10 Knots). That’s about 14 feet/second, which is just enough time to make a course correction to avoid a collision with drift or an unlighted vessel. Yes, it happens all the time that someone forgot to turn on navigation lights.


A good tip is to keep your eyes moving in a scan from side to side. At night, your peripheral vision is sharper than looking straight at something. Don’t forget to regularly look behind you to maintain 360 degree situational awareness.


Your instrument lights will be red or soft blue/green which will not harm your night vision. Turn the brilliance down on your electronics because they are very bright at night. Carry a red lens flashlight to illuminate a chart or to see anything on your boat at night. Do not allow any white or bright light to enter your field of vision. Use your spotlight sparingly because the glare is as bad as the light. If that is unavoidable, close one eye so you will still have some night vision when the light goes out. If your night vision is completely compromised it could take 20+ minutes to regain it.


Make a habit of checking your nav lights and spot light before you get underway every time you go out, even if you do not plan to be out after dark. Carry spare bulbs for all nav lights. Keep several flashlights on board with both red and white lenses.


Learn to recognize other vessels’ course relative to yours by understanding the lights you see and what they represent. This is a huge topic and is a major part of Coast Guard Exams, but I will simplify it for you as what to expect when you are on our local river:

  • If you see a green light to left and a red light to right, you are seeing a boat coming right at you.
  • If you see a green light and a white light, you are looking at the starboard side of a boat going from left to right of your course.
  • If you see a red light and a white light, you are seeing the port side of a boat going from right to left of your course.
  • If you see only a white light, that is a boat directly ahead of you and going in the same direction.

There are many more variations to the above that relate to vessel size, type, etc., and they are available for you to review in various publications, but the above will do just fine when you are first starting out.


As you know, there are a lot of towboats pushing long strings of barges. They are usually three wide by five long for a total of fifteen on the Ohio River, and they run 24 hours a day. It is imperative that you learn to recognize these large and cumbersome vessels at night and determine their course and direction relative to your boat. You must do this in sufficient time to safely avoid them by a comfortable margin in order to safely navigate your boat at night.

If you see a green light to your left and a flashing yellow/amber light in the middle and a red light to your right with some distance separating all of them then that is the lead barge of a tow boat coming towards you. The Coast Guard Rules dictate that only the lead barge be lit. THE REST OF THE BARGES IN THE STRING WILL BE DARK--VERY DARK!! Remember, if the barges are full they will be low in the water. The towboat itself will be lit according to standard powerboat requirements, i.e. red port and green starboard displayed high on the pilothouse. Keep this in mind if you see a red light and after a considerable distance a red light fairly high off the water. This is the port side of a barge string 500+ feet long, moving from right to left across you course.

The opposite is true if you see green lights in the same context. If you see a yellow light over a yellow light fairly high off the water ahead of you, that is the stern of a towboat going the same direction you are. Most towboats will have yellow deck illumination on the decks of the towboat at night for crew safety. But, this is not always the case on the barges. Recognizing and safely avoiding these behemoths is not difficult but does require remaining alert at all times. You will easily see them from a considerable distance and in plenty of time to give them a wide berth.


When you are running at night and recognize a situation when there is even the slightest possibility of a “close encounter of the crunch kind”, initiate a course correction of your vessel immediately. Professional captains use the big and early rule to stay out of trouble. “Big and early” means to execute a large turn as soon as you see the need. By doing this, the captain of the other vessel will see different lights displayed by your vessel and will immediately know that you have turned and which direction you are now going. A slight course correction at night might not be noticed by the other captain and they could possibly turn the same way you did and make matters worse.


The Ohio River has sufficient lighted aids to navigation for mariners to always know their location at night within a few hundred yards. They are easily found on Ohio River charts that can be acquired on line or at some marine stores in the area.* After you get the charts, locate the nav aids on the bank in the daytime so you will know where to look at night. Again, there are a lot of books written on river and coastal navigation but in this area all you need to know is the red lights will be on the KY side of the river and the green lights will be on the IN side of the river.

The lights are indicated on the chart along with the mile marker. The navigational aid itself displays these mile markers with black on white but they are not visible at night. Everything looks different at night, so the importance of these lights for the local recreational boater is to know where you are on the river and be able to tell the Coast Guard or the River Patrol exactly where you are if you need to report an emergency.


If I could choose only one electronic device beyond a VHF radio and a depth sounder for the river, it would be a quality marine radar. There are several economical units available. You do not need one that belongs on the bridge of the QE2. Do some research, and talk to other boaters who have radar for their opinion before you buy. All the units on the market have more features than a recreational boater will ever need, so stay away from too many whistles and bells. Many of the more affordable units are still so good that you will even see your wake on the radar screen. Be sure that you choose one that will allow you to turn the screen brightness down at night to preserve your night vision. I would suggest that you have a qualified marine electronics technician install the unit, as I have heard too many horror stories from do it yourself installations.


Above, the Raymarine E80. Photo courtesy of Raymarine.

Learning to use the radar is not extremely difficult, but the gain in nighttime situational awareness is incredible. The latest models are self-tuning and will usually have a range from 1/8 mile to 24 + miles. They will show commercial and recreational traffic as well as floating navigational aids and the banks and turns of the river. I normally use a ¼ mile to ½ mile range for the river. At that range you will get a good radar return on smaller boats and buoys but also “paint” larger commercial traffic in time to make a course correction if necessary.

The best way to learn to use the radar is to use it frequently during the day so that you can compare what you see on the radar with what you see with your eyes. Do this several times before trying to use it at night or during times of low visibility.

There are some responsibilities that go along with having a radar unit. For example, if you leave the dock you should turn it on. Note that this does NOT relieve you of keeping a sharp lookout at all times while underway. There is nothing anymore comforting when caught out on a dark foggy night that the warm glow of the radar showing exactly what is going on all around you and the precise location of the entrance to your marina. In addition to all of the above, it really looks cool!


  • Don’t drink alcohol and run at night, period!!!
  • Discourage your passengers from moving around the boat at night while underway.
  • Turn your VHF radio on and listen for traffic or an emergency.
  • Practice a man overboard procedure during the day.
  • Keep your boat properly maintained.


Have fun!!! The river at night is peaceful, cool, quiet and magical. Go out and enjoy it. You will love it!!! I wish you all clear skies and a following sea.

-Cap’n George

Continue to Part II


*See the Links/Resources tab to the left to find links to the Navigational Charts


Capt. George East

George East has been boating since he was seventeen, has had other interests including flying (FAA licensed pilot) car racing, and snow skiing, but he has always remained an ardent boater. After earning a USCG captain's license some 25 years ago, George spent time as a delivery and demonstration captain for one of the major motoryacht manufacturers.

During this same period, while he was building a successful construction and ready mix concrete company, George still found time to own and operate several boats including two Chris-Crafts, a Gulfstar, and two Hatterases.

Fast forward to the present to find George retired from his businesses, devoting all of his energy to boats and the boating industry. George currently holds a 100 Ton USCG Master's license. His specialties are classic Chris-Craft and Hatteras yachts. George instructed with the U.S. Power Squadron for 15 years, and is now a broker with Paradigm Yacht Sales in Louisville, Kentucky and Cape Coral, Florida.


This article was contributed to this site by Paradigm Yacht Sales, Louisville's largest brokerage.

Whether you're looking to buy or sell a boat, you can reach them at:

Paradigm Yacht Sales
P.O. Box 1043
US Highway 42
Prospect, KY 40059

877-468-7594 Toll Free
Fax: 502-292-0442








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