Boat Navigation Light Rules

Does your boat meet the boat navigation light rules? Check in here to learn all about those green and red boat lights.

Navigation lights are critical gear on any boat, whether you operate after dark or not. While thoseboatlights green and red boat lights (along with some others) are always required after the sun sets, navigation lights also need to be used in any type of restricted visibility. That means that these lights come into play when it’s foggy or a heavy overcast makes it difficult to see, too. Plus, even if you intend to be back on dry land before nightfall you never know when an unexpected situation or mechanical issues will keep you out on the water longer than expected. So, no matter what those lights need to be present and in good working order at all times.

Basic boat navigation light rules are set by the U.S. Coast Guard, and may be augmented by state or local requirements as well. You can look at all of the USCG navigational rules, but we can set out the basics regarding what lights are required on a boat here:

  • All boats under seven meters which cannot exceed seven knots – Sail and power boats of this size can display an all-around white light, and may display green and red side lights as well.
  • Powerboats under 12 meters – Must show an all-around white light visible from 360 degrees (generally called a masthead light) and red and green side lights visible at 112.5 degrees placed above the hull and at least one meter below the masthead light. Or, they may have a masthead light visible at 225 degrees plus a stern light visible at 135 degrees. Side lights must be visible from one nautical mile, and masthead and stern lights must be visible from two nautical miles.
  • Sailboats under 12 meters – Must show green and red side lights (meeting the same requirements as those found on a powerboat) and a white stern light, or, may show a tri-colored masthead light.
  • Powerboats up to 20 meters – Side lights, masthead, and stern lights are all required as listed above; side and stern lights must be visible to two nautical miles and masthead lights to three nautical miles.
  • Sailboats up to 20 meter – Must show side lights and a white stern light or tricolored masthead light as listed above; all must be visible to two nautical miles.
  • All boats over 20 meters – Must show lights as listed above but masthead lights must be visible at five nautical miles.
  • All boats at anchor – An all-around white light visible for at least two nautical miles must be displayed.

Now that you know what lights need to be on a boat in reduced visibility, it’s important to remember a few other key points that people sometimes forget.

  • First off, note that if a sailboat is operating with an engine running, it’s considered a powerboat under the rules and must be lighted accordingly.
  • Secondly, remember that it’s your personal responsibility to make sure these lights are operational. Just having them aboard isn’t enough so before every trip, it’s a good idea to flip the switches and verify that everything is working properly.
  • Third, if your boat has docking lights leave them off while operating in open waters. Boats don’t have headlights and those with forward-facing white beams are intended to be illuminated while docking, only.
  • Finally, check your state and locality rules and make sure you meet these as well, because in some areas there may be additional requirements. 

Where to Put Navigation Lights on a Boat

Most of the time, deciding where to put navigation lights on a boat has already been done for you. Modern boats will leave the factory with proper lighting already installed and you won’t have to worry about it. If you have to replace any lights, the safest move is to simply mimic the original placement and type.

When it comes to small craft, however, like jon boats or dinghies, the boat may not come equipped with any lights at all. In fact, they may not have the electrical systems and switch panels necessary to run lights, should you want to add them. In this case you’ll want to get portable lights.

Portable navigation lights which are battery-powered may be attached to the boat with clamps, suction cups, or bases that fit into fishing rod holders. These work just fine, as long as you make sure the batteries are fresh and carry a spare set. To some degree, where you put them may depend on the boat itself and what mounting options are available. That said, if you use portable green and red boat lights, they should be placed facing forward at the bow of the boat as close to the centerline as possible. White all-around lights should be at or near the stern if practical, but in this case the most important thing is to make sure they’re clearly visible. A light on a short pole can easily be blocked from view by a person or obstruction, so it needs to be elevated higher than anything and anyone on the boat.

Following the boat navigation light rules and requirements isn’t just necessary under the law, it’s also an important aspect of safe boating. We all want to make sure our days — and nights — spent aboard a boat are as safe as possible, so be sure your boat’s navigation lights are up to snuff.

To make sure you’re up to date on all aspects of boating safety, be sure to check out our Boating Safety Guide.

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