Blinded by the lights

In previous blogs I’ve addressed navigational lighting from the Nautical Rules of the Road and suggested that you think about upgrading your incandescent navigation lights to the modern super-bright and long-life LED lights. Lighting is a good thing, but being seen and preventing collisions is even better.

Can navigational lights be a bad thing? A recent near miss involving lights brought this to mind. The Nautical Rules of the Road clearly spell out what lights are to be on, when and where. Showing other vessels where you are, what you are doing, and which way you are moving remains an important safety consideration.

It seems to have become an industry habit to leave running lights showing even when moored up against a pier or nested alongside another vessel. I’ve seen it everywhere towing vessels operate, so the bad habit isn’t exclusive to coastal or river environments. I’m not sure why boats do it, but some I’ve asked say they forget to turn them off when they dock. Others have said lights are left on to avoid forgetting to flip the switch before getting underway again. The most ridiculous reason I heard was that keeping them on all the time, day and night, moored and underway, saves wear and tear on the bulbs and switches when turning them on and off. Really?

The recent near-miss situation involved a vessel moored up alongside barges in a fleeting area and showing its running lights. When an underway boat came around the bend, he found quite a bit of back lighting along the shore, and other commercial and recreational traffic all showing lighting. A classic scenario we’ve all experienced.

The moored vessel with running lights on surprised and confused the underway pilot, who was already making a tough turn and trying to dodge all of the traffic that he thought was coming at him – including the moored boat with his running lights showing. The pilot tried calling the moored vessel and got no reply because the wheelhouse wasn’t manned. A moored vessel with running lights shining won’t show up on VTS, and maybe not appear correctly on AIS either. Confusion and the absence of communication is a recipe for accidents.

One can argue that pilots should know where the fleeting and mooring areas are located and shouldn’t sweat those lights, but the Rules distinguish clearly between navigational lighting, moored, underway, or making way. Do your brethren a favor and simplify the mass of lights to be contended with. Wouldn’t you appreciate the same courtesy? When you are moored, extinguish those running lights – but do remember to put them on again when getting underway in darkness or restricted visibility. It’s on your checklist. Right? (You do have a checklist for getting underway, don’t you? Just checking.)

Also, a friendly reminder that the 2016 hurricane season starts now! Getting ready is a better move than getting lucky.

Sail Safe!

About the author

Capt. Peter Squicciarini

Capt. Peter Squicciarini is a licensed master mariner and marine safety specialist at the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Va. He has worked on towing, passenger, and fishing vessels, and was a safety and compliance manager for an East Coast tug and barge company. He also served in the Navy as a surface ship officer and commanded several warships. He can be reached at


  1. Avatar
    A.R. Birdsong on


    I apologize upfront for the geeky response.

    Oddly enough there is validity in the idea of not turning a light bulb on and off.
    For that matter there is validity of not power cycling anything that has electricity running through it.
    Applying power to a circuit creates a wave front down the length of a circuit that physically can shorten the life of the device.
    At a very small (electron) level it is the equivalency of going from still air to striking a gong and letting it resonate through the air.
    I direct you to where a light bulb has been running constantly for a good while.
    The long life is attributed to low voltage meaning less heat and almost no power cycles.
    At the same time there is more vibration aboard a commercial boat that I should imagine exceeds any shock from turning a bulb in and off other than that caused by repetitive heating and cooling caused by normal operation.

    The heat aspect is one of the reasons that LEDs last longer than incandescent bulbs.

    Regardless of the physics NAV lights should be ON or OFF as the case may be to indicate to others the appropriate situation.
    Also I have never seen a failed NAV light switch.
    You can damage one by impact but even with my own personal Murphy Field I have never had a light switch “go bad” on me.

    LEDs are great and in my opinion used exclusively on new construction and upgraded when possible.
    I much prefer the idea of DC power floating about versus 115VAC.
    Especially when you consider the wet environment.

    I don’t believe the USCG has addressed the blue spectrum light pollution from LEDs.
    LEDs, while giving off enough light of a specific color and intensity to be qualified as NAV lights they also give off additional blue spectrum light that is visible for longer distances.

    I agree with you that operators and masters often are lazy about turning lights off and failing to check that they are on when they should be.
    I’m certain that at some time you have heard or made a call to a boat to “check a light.”

    I have no knowledge of any AIS transceivers that are connected to NAV lights such that the status of the boat is not reported.
    I have seen situations were the AIS was turned off after anchoring but usually the NAV lights were turned off, Anchor lights on along with deck lights.

    Pilot boats apparently do not have an on/off switch for their NAV lights irrespective of mooring lines.

    Respectfully submitted.

  2. Avatar

    Sometimes in rivers and bays you can’t tell if some boats are moving, anchored or moored the non-running lights are so bright. The deck lights, spot lights are overwhelming the dim (in comparison) nav lights. It’s not so bad in the ocean, you just give them a wide berth and try and save your night vision.
    Some of the fishing boats are trying to turn night into day. I think the big lights are in place of a fancy belt buckle. I first went to sea in the 50s and somehow we survived without the bright lights.

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