Navigating at night

Doug King | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 6

Boating at night is fun, but it’s vital to be well prepared and to navigate safely.

With the summer boating season well underway, boaters are enjoying more time on the water, with many venturing out at night. Night boating is fun, but introduces a whole new range of challenges. Careful planning and sensible, cautious operation are required. The night navigator needs confidence in their ability, and a sound knowledge of the rules and the boating environment.

In September 2007, a tragic boating crash at night near the mouth of the Brisbane River cost the life of a 40-year-old man. The incident was the result of a number of separate small errors culminating in a collision at speed with a rock breakwater. The Brisbane Coroner’s report identified a number of contributing factors. It makes sobering and sad reading and, while we won’t delve into all the details, it identified a number of important learnings.


Planning and forethought is key. Night boating requires greater attention to detail as visual cues available by day may not be visible at night. Local knowledge and previous experience are invaluable, but not always possible. If you are going somewhere unfamiliar, start by reviewing the track you wish to take on an up-to-date marine chart.

Take careful note of navigation aids that are along your route and put together a track that uses beacons with lights as milestones. Beacons and buoys that are lit at night are identified by a magenta-coloured ‘teardrop’ next to their chart symbol. The light’s character (colour, sequence etc) is shown underneath. Understand clearly what the beacons mean and where the safe water is. Use the beacons as your primary signposts along your route.

Next, review unlit beacons and any dangers such as reefs or shallow water, then visualise the route and the things you should see as you progress along it. It may be possible to use known landmarks as guides, but be aware that they are not normally built with marine navigation in mind and may not be as helpful as you envisage.

If you have a GPS chartplotter, consider entering an electronic route with waypoints as an aid.

There are some cardinal rules when using GPS plotters at any time, but at night they’re even more important. Do not rely on the plotter solely for navigation. It is an aid and should be used to cross-check what you have planned and see as you travel along.

Ensure your chart’s data card is up-to-date. This is particularly important in coastal areas and ports, where changes to navigable areas due to port developments are often made. In the Brisbane incident, the boat collided with reclaimed land not shown on the boat operator’s GPS chart, as the chart card was not up-to-date.

Don’t use the ‘highway’ display mode exclusively – highway display mode depicts the boat travelling along a central lane or ‘highway’ on the plotter, and doesn’t display chart information such as depths and navigation aids. And remember – GPS plotters do not show other vessels!

If your boat is fitted with a compass, it is sound practice to write down compass courses for each leg of your journey. These courses can be followed and will assist is accurate navigation. A more complete navigation plan that includes distances and estimated times for each stage of the journey should be prepared for extended trips.


Once you have planned your trip, check the boat for the correct safety equipment and lighting. There are regulations that specify the lights on vessels, so check your state’s marine authority or a current boating safety handbook for details.

A boat’s lights enable other mariners to determine your relative direction of travel so they can make decisions regarding what rule applies with regard to giving way. Any variation from the regulated lighting requirements can lead to confusion and incorrect manoeuvres being employed, increasing the risk of collision.

A quick refresher on which lights are required: between sunset and sunrise, power-driven vessels must have a white masthead light and a white stern light. An all-round light on smaller powerboats is permitted. The masthead light indicates a power-driven vessel as opposed to a sailing vessel.

A red light on the port side of the vessel and green light on the starboard side indicate the crossing zones. These lights must be shown when underway. The crossing rule applies if one of the coloured lights is seen below the masthead light.

Vessels under sail show only port and starboard side lights and a white stern light. If no masthead light is seen, you can assume you are observing a sailboat.

At anchor, all vessels must display an all-round white light. Displaying red and green lights while anchored, or not displaying a light at all, are potentially dangerous common problems.

If you are unsure of which lights to display, it’s best to review the requirements in your state’s boating guide. LED navigation lights provide superior visibility, and are increasingly popular and easy to acquire.

While on the subject of lights, the continual use of spotlights or headlights is not permitted, as they can mask the required lights and may affect the night vision of others. You may use a spotlight to illuminate a danger or an unlit beacon, so long as it’s brief and doesn’t interfere with other mariners.

Safety equipment should be ready for use at all times. It is a requirement to wear a personal flotation device when operating at night, in some states even on larger vessels.


A safe speed is vital. You must travel at a speed that allows you to identify hazards and other vessels in time to take evasive action. In nearly every circumstance, your boat’s speed at night should be reduced compared to the speed you normally travel at during the day. Take into account visibility, backlighting, density of traffic, atmospheric and sea conditions.

Travelling at reduced speed allows more time for you to scan, process the information you gather, and then make decisions about what you have seen and what action to take. Unsafe speeds can result in a quick development of potential conflicts with other vessels or objects, which can lead to poor or rushed decision-making.

An extra-vigilant lookout is vital and should be your primary focus. Use a systematic scanning technique: start at the horizon and bring your gaze back to the boat. Scan in 20 to 30-degree increments on both port and starboard sides with a look behind you at regular intervals. Things look very different at night and can be harder to see, particularly where there are coastal lights in the background. Backlighting is a significant hazard when approaching populated or built-up areas, and extra caution must be exercised.

Adjusting to night vision is important. It can take around 30 minutes for the eye to become accustomed to night light and only seconds to destroy the acclimatisation. Avoid bright lights on the boat while underway and don’t use the internal cabin lights and torches. As red light doesn’t affect night vision, some red cellophane over your torch lens makes a handy night light if you need lighting while underway. If undertaking regular night-time trips, consider fitting permanent red-light fixtures.


Watch out for larger vessels when offshore and in approaches to ports. They travel quickly and the time taken from when first sighted on the horizon until they are on top of you can be as little as 15 minutes. Large vessels can be difficult to see against back lighting such as lights onshore. Sometimes it’s easier to look for ‘black gaps’ as large ships block out the background lights.

Also bear in mind that small boats can be difficult to see from larger vessels and their radar does not always positively identify small boats. Don’t assume that you have been seen by a larger ship and keep well clear.

If you are operating in areas of high shipping traffic density, such as harbours or approaches to a port, find out the radio channel for the port control. These can easily be found on port authority websites. The location and movements of shipping can be monitored on the radio, and this helps build up a mental picture of ship locations.

Radar is a useful navigational device and is becoming more affordable for small boats. Radar transmits microwave beams and uses the received reflections off solid objects to paint a picture on a screen. Using radar, however, requires training and skill to interpret the picture displayed. As with GPS, it is an aid only and should not be relied upon as your only source of safe navigation.

Once on the water, good situational awareness is necessary. It can be disorienting at night, so use the ‘milestone’ beacons or key landmarks identified in your planning to verify your position. It is extremely important that you monitor where you should be at any given time and confirm it regularly. If you are not sure of your position, slow down or stop to check.

Don’t become focussed on one thing only. Scan your GPS, then confirm your location visually. Continually scan around you for other vessels and to identify navigational aids.

If you are operating on inland waters or rivers, there may be no navigational aids. Common sense dictates that slow speeds are the order of the day. Correct boat lights must be displayed and greater care is needed. Good local knowledge is recommended and more careful planning necessary.

In the Brisbane incident, the skipper had limited experience in travelling at night and in the area the incident occurred. Added to that, a number of small errors compounded, developing into a tragedy.

Going out at night should not be feared – it can expand your boating horizons and be extremely satisfying. The key to safe night boating is preparation, understanding the rules, good situational awareness, and extra caution.


Follow these points when operating at night so you can slowly build experience and enjoy more time on the water:

• Wear a PFD at all times if required by law

• Show the proper lights

• Plan ahead and familiarise yourself with navigation hazards

• Always travel at reduced speed and travel using obvious landmarks and navigation aids as a guide

• Allow greater safety margins when approaching navigation beacons and aids, wharves, and known anchorages or fishing areas

• Keep a careful lookout all around you

• Monitor your progress. If things are not going as planned – stop and assess the situation

• Don’t be overly reliant on your GPS – use your eyes to maximum advantage and refer to the GPS to confirm what you see

• Expect the unexpected

• Be aware that in populated areas, lights and targets may be lost in the background lighting

• Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.

How to-Safety