Night safety

The dangers of boating at night time and the requirements for different types of vessels to display appropriate lighting.

Be bright – be safe at night

When night falls, it’s a completely different world on the water and so vessels that operate from sunset to sunrise, whether at anchor or underway, must carry and exhibit the correct lights.

Go slow

When fog, glare, smoke or darkness restricts your visibility, you must slow down to a safe speed. A safe speed is one at which you can stop and avoid a collision, considering the circumstances and conditions at the time.

You wouldn’t drive fast on a dark road without headlights – the same applies on dark waterways. Be bright!

Remember, the faster you go, the faster you approach hazards and the less time you have to react. Hitting a hazard at speed can have a greater impact on you, your passengers and your boat.

Be bright at night

Be seen

You may be able to see others, but can they see you? At night, every type of craft on the water needs lights in order to be seen. Whether you’re paddling, rowing, sailing or motoring, everyone needs to be able to recognise where you are and what you’re doing.

Make sure you have the right lights for your craft and that they work properly. Use them as soon as the sun goes down or when visibility is poor. Your lights should be mounted in a position that gives you optimum night vision and allow others to see you from every direction.

You must carry a working waterproof floating torch. It may help others see you if you shine your torch on your sails or superstructure.

Make sure you don’t adversely affect your night vision, or the vision of other boat skippers.

Navigation lights checklist

Check your lights before heading out. When boating at night or in times of restricted visibility:

  • Check switches are on
  • Check navigation lights are on and working
  • Physically check each light is on
  • Turn off cabin lights as they may reduce your ability to see
  • If the vessel has a flybridge and weather permits, it is generally preferable to drive from there as you will have a better all round view
  • If you anchor at night, show an all round white light clearly visible through an arc of 360 degrees, where it can best be seen.

Keep a lookout

Navigating at night requires special care, it can be like looking into a black hole. Look and listen at all times, as a number of hazards such as logs, moored boats or sandbanks are unlit.

Navigation lights may not be as bright as other lights and background lights may hide something that is closer. If it is a large ship, the lights might be high and you may not realise that you are looking at the sides of a black hull.

If you have the slightest doubt, stop, ensure you are lit and have a good look around you.

Know your waterway

Navigation markers can aid you in safe passage of a waterway. These aids to navigation can indicate where prominent hazards are, but should be coupled with reference to a map or chart and use of local knowledge of the area, particularly in the dark.

Different lights

  • All round white light - A white light showing an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 360 degrees
  • Masthead light - A white light placed over the fore and aft centreline of a vessel, showing an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 225 degrees and fixed to show from anywhere ahead, to just behind the beams of the vessel
  • Sidelights - A green light on the starboard (right) side, and a red light on the port (left) side of a vessel. Each shows an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 112.5 degrees, and is fixed to show from ahead to just behind the beam of the vessel on its respective side. On a vessel of less than 20 metres in length, the sidelights may be combined in one light unit, carried on the fore and aft centreline of the vessel
  • Sternlight - A white light placed near the stern, showing an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 135 degrees, fixed to show from behind the vessel.
Diagram showing the arc of light to be projected from navigation lights

Range of visibility

Vessels under 12 metres

  • Masthead light – 2 nautical miles (nm)
  • Sidelight – 1nm
  • Stern light – 2nm
  • All round lights – 2nm.

Vessels 12 metres to 20 metres

  • Masthead light – 3nm
  • Sidelight and stern light – 2nm
  • All round lights – 2nm.
Examples of incorrectly placed navigation lights - either obscured by the engine or superstructure, or not projecting outwards in an arc.

Placement of lights

Incorrectly installed navigation lights

Navigation lights should be installed correctly so they show the appropriate arc of light and are not obscured by the vessel's superstructure as shown in the diagram, or interfered with by deck lights. This reduces the vessel's visibility and is dangerous.

The diagram shows incorrectly installed sidelights. Don't install them so they point only forward or straight up. They need to point out across the water.

Correctly placed all-round white light, visible from all directions


The masthead and/or all round white light must be fitted (if practical) on the centreline (bow to stern) of the vessel.

Power vessels underway

Vessels under seven metres and less than seven knots

Powered vessels of less than seven metres in length, with a maximum speed of seven knots or less, shall exhibit a white light visible all round and if possible, separate and/or combined sidelights.

Vessels under 12 metres

Shall exhibit one of the following:

  • Separate or combined sidelights; a masthead light and a stern light
  • Separate or combined sidelights and an all round white light.

The masthead or white all round light shall be carried at least one metre above the sidelights.

Diagram showing correct lighting positions for vessels under 12m, as described in the text.
Vessel under 12m

Vessels 12 metres to 20 metres

Shall exhibit one of the following:

  • A masthead light, separate sidelights and stern light
  • A masthead light, combined sidelights and stern light.

The masthead light shall be carried at least 2.5 metres above the gunwale. Combined sidelights shall be carried at least one metre below the masthead light.

Diagram showing the correct lighting positions for vessels over 12m, as described in the text.
Vessel over 12m

Sailing vessels underway

Sailing vessels while underway (being motor driven) under power should exhibit navigation lights applicable to power driven vessels.

Sailing vessels under seven metres

Sailing vessels of less than seven metres in length, or vessels being rowed, should if practicable exhibit the lights required for sailing vessels over seven metres.

If not they should have ready use of an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.

Sailing vessels seven metres to 20 metres

Shall exhibit one of the following:

  • A combined lantern, that is at or near the top of the mast and incorporates sidelights and stern light
  • Separate sidelights and stern light.
Diagram showing lighting requirements for sailing vessels seven metres to 20 metres, as described in the text.
Diagram showing the lighting requirements for sailing vessels over 20 metres, as described in the text.

Sailing vessels over 20 metres

Must exhibit sidelights and stern light and may carry the optional red and green all round lights. However, these vessels may not carry a combined lantern.

Daigram showing optional lights for sailing vessels, as described in the text.

Optional lights for sailing vessels

A sailing vessel of any length which is fitted with sidelights and a stern light (but not a combined lantern) may, in addition, carry two all round lights in a vertical line at or near the top of the mast. The upper light shall be red and the lower green.

Diagram showing an all-round white light on a power boat at anchor.

Power and sailing vessels at anchor

Vessels less than 50 metres in length at anchor shall exhibit an all round white light, placed where it may be well seen.

Anchor lights must always be shown from sunset to sunrise. If you are at anchor in a busy area, then show additional lights such as deck lights or cabin lights to ensure you are seen and keep a good watch.

Rowing/paddle vessels

Such craft must have a torch or lantern ready to display in time to prevent a collision. Craft that are more than four metres long should exhibit two all-round lights, either continuous or a combination of continuous and flashing white lights, positioned at either end, in accordance with the Code of Conduct for Rowing.

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