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Boating After Dark? Here’s What You Need To Avoid An Accident

Boating safety tips for sailing at night from the U.S. Coast Guard

Are you an evening romantic or an early morning angler? Boating in the dark raises important visibility issues that boaters need to consider before leaving the dock. Things look very different at night and it’s easy to become lost or disoriented, plus the chance of an accident greatly increases after the sun goes down. The U.S. Coast Guard offers the following safety tips.

Weather is especially critical.  Be sure to check the forecast before heading out, either from local media or your marine VHF-FM radio weather channel.  Statewide weather forecasts and warnings are available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at www.noaa.gov, which also lists local National Weather Service contacts.  Besides checking for any incoming storms, consider the phases of the moon and the amount of cloud cover, both of which can affect your visibility – and how well other boats see you – in the dark. Practice risk assessment.  Is it a high-traffic holiday weekend?  Is there a full moon?

Have a clear idea of where you want to go and plot a course before heading out.  Study the route for water depth, landmarks, navigation aids and any hazards, then mark your progress on a chart as you go.  Practicing these basic rules of navigation will lessen your risk of becoming disoriented, lost, or running aground.  Also make a habit of filing a float plan with a relative or friend who can then make the appropriate notifications if you fail to return as scheduled.   

In addition to having up-to-date charts onboard, use your radar and GPS, if your boat is so equipped.  But don’t rely on GPS alone.  Operating in or near areas of restricted visibility raises the risk of running into a fixed object or another vessel.  A GPS can’t tell you what obstructions are just under the surface of the water or between you and your destination.

Make sure that your navigation lights are “energized and burning brightly,” as specified by the Navigation Rules.  [If you have taken a U.S. Power Squadron or Coast Guard boating course, you will know that each boat has a recommended placement for lighting that creates a pattern for other boaters to gauge the size of your boat.] Illustrations of appropriate lighting for your vessel can be found in A Boater’s Guide to Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats and Safety Tips, online at uscgboating.org and then go to regulations/federal _requirements_brochure.aspx.

Make sure you have extra light bulbs and fuses aboard.

Other than your navigation lights, eliminate all white lights on board as they can affect your night vision and reduce your ability to see other vessels and objects in or on the water.  Consider replacing them with red lights, which will not affect your night vision.  Set your instrument panel dimmer switch to the lowest readable setting.

Do a marine VHF-FM radio check with a marina, another boat, or the towing companies to make sure it’s working properly and, as with every excursion, make sure you have a full fuel tank before heading out.  You never want to run out of fuel, but especially not in the dark.

Finally, keep the distractions down. Turning down music and TVs and asking your passengers to keep conversation at a reduced level while underway will improve your ability to stay alert for hazards and approaching vessels.  

The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.