Your Boat at Night
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
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
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
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.
Founder, Port KY
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.