Your Boat at Night
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.
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
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
MAINTAIN A CONSTANT SHARP WATCH
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.
PROTECT YOUR NIGHT VISION
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.
MAINTAIN YOUR NAVIGATION LIGHTS AND
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
RECREATIONAL VESSEL LIGHTING
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
- 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
COMMERCIAL VESSEL LIGHTING
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
AVOIDING NIGHTTIME COLLISIONS
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
OHIO RIVER LIGHTED NAVIGATION AIDS
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 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!
A FEW TIPS
- 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.
to Part II
Links/Resources tab to the left to find links to
the Navigational Charts
Capt. George East
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
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
was contributed to this site by Paradigm Yacht
Sales, Louisville's largest brokerage.
looking to buy or sell a boat, you can reach
P.O. Box 1043
US Highway 42
Prospect, KY 40059