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From the SIERRA Experts

SAFETY TIPS FOR BOATING AT NIGHT

A red and white boat illuminated in open water at night

Boaters who only venture out during the day can face a stressful situation if they find themselves caught out in the dark. Depending on where you are and the conditions, you might be faced with an open ocean of inky blackness in all directions. Or, you may have to deal with navigating a narrow channel with unlit markers and dangerous shallows on both sides. In more urban areas, you may be faced with a blinding and confusing array of city lights that makes it hard to see smaller harbor openings.

Fortunately, boating at night is nothing to be feared. It does, however, require practice, preparation, and common sense. Fishing at night or romantic and relaxing moonlight cruises are just some of the new experiences you can enjoy when you’re comfortable navigating at night. Here are some tips for safe boating in the dark.

Plan Ahead

Some boaters intend to be on the water at night, while others find themselves out in the dark completely by accident. Perhaps they were slowed down by weather or underestimated the time it would take to reach their destination. Being caught out in the dark when you aren’t prepared is the definition of a stressful boating situation. When undertaking any voyage, be realistic about how long it will take. Factor in things outside of your control such as wind, waves, and storms - these can greatly slow your progress.

Slow Down When Boating at Night

This should go without saying, but one of the most important things to do when boating at night is to pull back on the throttles. Even if you’re an experienced nighttime boater, you need to adjust to the fact that you’re operating with limited visibility. It’s harder to see obstacles and distances are harder to judge accurately. Objects in the water, such as floating logs or crab trap buoys that are hard to see even in daylight, can be nearly impossible to see at night. 

Use as Many Eyes and Ears as Possible

Keeping a sharp lookout is key to boating safely in the dark. If you have passengers onboard, give them the job of keeping their eyes fixed on the horizon to look for unlit buoys, boats at anchor, running boats, floating objects, and other possible dangers. Having multiple sets of eyes on the lookout allows the driver to divert his attention periodically to watch chart plotters, radar, gauges, and other onboard systems. Don’t just look, either. Keep your ears open for the sounds of boat engines, bells, fog horns, and other noises that could alert you to potential danger even before you can see it.

Know How to Use Your Boat's Radar

Even small boats today are bristling with high-tech navigation electronics, radar included. Practice with your radar during daylight and in the areas where you boat most frequently. This will help you get familiar with how things like jetties and harbor entrances, piers, moored vessels, points of land, and other features look on your radar screen. When it’s pitch black or you're socked in with fog, you’ll have confidence in your ability to find your way through danger by watching your radar display.

Know Your Light Colors 

Running lights on vessels are red and green— red to mark the port side and green for starboard - together with a white stern light. If you have trouble remembering which is which, remember Red Port Wine. With practice, you’ll be able to tell which way a vessel is approaching you - crossing your path or moving away from you - by the lights you are able to see. If you see both red and green, the boat is coming at you head-on. If you see either red or green alone, it means the vessel is crossing your path from either the left or right. If you see only white, it means the other boat is ahead of you or is moving away. The same goes for entering a harbor — red and green lights mark the left and right side of the channel entrance, respectively. Remember the saying “Red Right, Returning,” as keeping the red light on your vessel’s right side will ensure you stay safely in the channel.

Trust Your Other Navigation Electronics

Together with a radar, a boat’s GPS/chart plotter is a powerful tool for navigating in the dark. Your plotter will show your boat’s position and progress along a planned route. Understanding the symbols and icons on the electronic charts can alert you to upcoming navigation aids and help keep you inside the channel. Detailed electronic charts can also highlight shallow areas and obstructions and guide you right into your slip. Adding Automatic Identification System (AIS) to your system and overlaying AIS targets onto your chart display can be very helpful in verifying radar targets and when fishing around or transiting through commercial shipping lanes during the night.

Protect Your Night Vision

It may seem counterintuitive, but bright lights on your boat can reduce your ability to see ahead of the vessel at night. Many MFDs, gauges, and other electronics on the helm have night settings that reduce the brightness of the display. Others have a red night vision mode that won’t affect your natural ability to see in the dark. In a pinch, you can also cover electronics, screens, and gauge displays with a towel when you’re not looking at them. Turn off any unnecessary spreader lights, cockpit lights, and helm lights when driving in the dark. Avoid using forward-facing spotlights or high-powered flashlights, as it will take your eyes several minutes to adjust to the darkness again once you turn them off. 

Night Vision Technology

Night vision technology is within reach of more boaters than ever before and can provide a whole new level of confidence for boaters who venture out at night. In fact, for fishermen who go after lobster and crabs, offshore swordfish anglers, and cruisers who travel long distances at night, this should be standard equipment.

Boating at night might seem scary at first, but if you use your senses, take it slow, and learn how to trust your boat’s advanced marine electronics, you’ll soon find yourself enjoying a whole new world on the water.

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