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Running Your Boat at Night
Part II

By, Captain Eric

Independence Day, 2008, was overcast, with periods of rain decreasing during the evening hours. As the evening went on, the ceilings dropped to approximately 800' above ground level, as was indicated by the tops of the downtown buildings reaching to touch the clouds occasionally. We were docked downtown with a load of eight adults and four children, who were anxiously awaiting the fireworks display. I will use this trip to highlight examples of what you may encounter at night.

As George mentioned, nighttime boating can be very rewarding. It can also present its own unique set of challenges for boaters, such as the lack of normal references as you navigate the river at night.

My favorite time to return to the slip is about thirty minutes after the sun sets. During this time of day, the temperature starts to drop and the wind usually dies down, making for some of the best summer boating. Early mornings are just as nice, but try getting guests to get moving at that time of day. With the fireworks ending close to 11 p.m., our return trip north would be at a very dark hour.

Near downtown Louisville, both shorelines provide plenty of lights to help you maintain your situational awareness. A little familiarity goes a long way at night, but it is also a good idea to have navigational charts on hand to identify both the sailing lines (where you can expect barge traffic) and the channel markers. As you travel further north past Twelve Mile Island, there is a noticeable decrease in ambient lighting, and navigation can become much more challenging. A clear, moonlit night will make running easy, but a little haze and cloud cover can make you feel like you are driving inside a bottle of ink.

There always seems to be a rush of people trying to be the first to get home after an event like the fireworks, so I try to wait a little while before leaving. I would rather have a smooth ride going hull speed at the end of the pack than mix it up with all the other boats, many of which will zoom past you on plane. The crowd gets thinner as you first pass Admiral's Anchor, a few boat ramps, and eventually, Limestone Bay and Harrod's Creek.

There was a time when I thought radar was a toy for the wealthy, and that a spinning array on a sunny afternoon was a gross display of excess. After buying a boat which already had radar already installed, I gained (no pun intended) an entirely different perception. Radar can be a great tool during the day to watch for other boaters. With the radar on, for example, PWCs zooming up from behind are no longer surprises.

On that 4th of July night, as we headed north, past Utica, Indiana, the usefulness of the radar at night was highlighted. Approaching Twelve Mile Island from the south, we made the decision to travel on the Indiana side of the island due to the number of boats anchored on the Kentucky side. Knowing that this was where we could expect commercial barges, my cousin and I, on the flybridge, maintained a steady watch for traffic. An extra set of eyes proved invaluable. We encountered haze so thick that, combined with the darkness, made it difficult to see the shoreline. Using the radar was like playing a video game--that is, we could maintain the boat's heading by keeping the shoreline to the sides of the radar display.

As we passed Utica, we observed the following lights: (Note that the picture is a very close representative of what we saw that night, as there was not enough light to show the horizon.)

The lights on the horizon at the sides were obviously from the shoreline, and at first glance, it was easy to see that there was a large boat heading upriver. As we got a little closer, the red and green lights got wider, so we figured that we were closing on the boat. As they spread apart, we started to rethink the possibilities. Could it be two boats? Was the pulsing amber next to the red on the front of an approaching tow? Sure enough, the radar started to show two targets out there:

Right, the view from the Raymarine 611xx monochrome radar display on the bridge:

The radar displayed the shore to either side (Utica on left), the barges at the tip of Twelve Mile Island (top right) and the two approaching targets, one larger than the other (top middle).

As we moved up the river and debated what we saw, other lights started coming into view, giving us a much better picture (below):

With the realization that we were pointed directly toward the front of a downbound barge, we turned 30 degrees to the right, and headed toward the other, smaller boat. It was funny how, at night, the lights played tricks with your eyes and caused doubt in what we were looking at.

It is very important to know how to interpret lights and try to figure out what is out there. As we later passed the two vessels, it became very obvious what we were dealing with--a large tow and a houseboat (see picture below). A simple radio call on Ch. 16 or 13 would have gotten a response from the barge, eliminating any doubt if anybody was operating in the area. Following is "the Big Picture" on the situation we had that night:


Now that you've seen the overhead view, take another look at the top picture. How would you interpret those lights on a hazy night? Things aren't always as they appear.


Barge picture courtesy of Tim Terman
Illustrations by Captain Eric, PortKY.com

I have since been considering an upgrade to my electronics package, including the addition of a new chartplotter with GPS and an HD radar unit. A Raymarine tech indicated that for our intended use on the river, an entry-level 2 kW dome with an 18 mile range would be more than enough. Coupled with GPS and a moving map, navigation should be a snap. In the meantime however, I'm really happy to have my old Raymarine 611xx in good working order.

In summary, think about where you intend to operate at night. Are you equipped to do it safely (VHF radio, lights in working order). Have you thought about what the river will look like when the moonlight and city lights disappear? Do you have navigational charts, and do you know what you expect to see as you keep moving? Nighttime is definitely more of a challenge, but can also be a great break from the routine. We hope this article has given you some useful information in preparation for operating your boat at night.

-Captain Eric


Eric Grubb
Founder, Port KY
Licensed Master

Eric grew up around boats, trading summers on board his parents' Sea Rays for many man-hours of swabbing the decks. He grew up by the little town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, overlooking the the Dashields Locks and Dam. He has traveled the Great Lakes, Lake Huron's North Channel, Gulf of Mexico and several rivers to include the Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha, Mohawk (Erie Canal), Tennessee, Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Mobile Rivers.

As a commercial pilot, Eric flies jets and is a flight instructor. He has owned recreational boats ranging from PWCs to most recently, a flybridge convertible that he keeps in a Louisville marina (MM 590). You can also find him with his family on the "Escape Pod," an 18' fishing boat. His most memorable journey was aboard the J. S. Lewis, a 155' towboat in service since 1931.

Eric is a USCG Licensed Master with a Commerical Tow Assistance rating, and is a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Riverman and the Louisville Sail and Power Squadron. After moving to Louisville, he conceived the idea for Louisville's Port KY website while searching for information to help him become a safer and more knowledgable local boater. He has worked hard over the years to educate other boaters by promoting safety classes through Port KY and by hosting captain's classes and related events.










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