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Boating at Night? Here’s What You Need to Consider to Avoid an Accident

Boating in the dark raises important visibility issues that boaters need to consider before leaving the dock.

boater using a flare at night for safety on the water
Using a handheld flare at dusk aboard a boat 16-21 feet. (Photo courtesy of Water Sports Foundation)

Are you an evening romantic? Early morning angler? Boating at night raises important visibility issues that boaters need to consider before leaving the dock for boating safety. Things look very different at night, making it easy to become lost or disoriented, and the chance of a boating accident greatly increases after the sun goes down.

Weather is an especially critical factor at night. 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), 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 not only your own visibility but how well other boats can see you at night. Practice risk assessment for boating safety. Is it a high-traffic holiday weekend? Is there a full moon?

Boater using a VHF-FM radio for boating safety
Boater using a handheld VHF-DSC marine band radio. (Photo courtesy of Water Sports Foundation)

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 potential hazards, then mark your progress on a chart as you go. Practicing these basic rules of navigation will lessen your risk of running aground or becoming otherwise disoriented or lost.

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.

Boating Safety: Navigating undocumented obstructions

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. Illustrations of appropriate lighting for your vessel can be found in A Boater’s Guide to Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats and Safety Tips. Make sure you have extra light bulbs and fuses aboard.

Boat captain using navigation charts to assist in boating safety on the water and to avoid boating accidents
Using navigation charts and GPS can be helpful in avoiding boating accidents, but aren’t to be solely relied on when boating at night. (Photo courtesy of Water Sports Foundation)

Other than your navigation lights, eliminate all white lights onboard 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 moving on the water will improve your ability to stay alert for hazards and approaching vessels.

Read Next: Lake Wylie Marine Commission to Issue New Boating Regulations

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