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Operating and navigating a boat after dark is a different, more challenging task than night travel by car, ATV or snowmobile. First, there is no set trail, no road and no roadside markings. Second, the vehicle has no headlights to illuminate the path. Third, there are no brakes.
On the other hand, the boater chooses how fast to travel – and the right decision at night is SLOW.
The nighttime boater has to develop keen powers of observation to track the water and the weather. Night vision, a knowledge of the body of water, warning markers and subtle sounds all provide important clues.
Good night vision, in particular, is necessary to see obstacles in and on the water, to avoid land, to see bow lights, stern lights, mooring lights, warning buoys and navigational markers. Boat operators need to interpret the direction other boats are traveling based on the light combinations they see. Red lights show the left or port side of a boat. Green lights show the right or starboard side. On smaller boats, the red and green lights are right next to each other at the front or bow. On larger craft, the red and green lights are split, separated by the width of the boat. The white stern light must be raised and visible all around the boat.
As darkness approaches on water, sound becomes more important. You have to hear other boats. On both clear and foggy nights, you will often hear a boat before you see it. If motor noise whines and gets louder, a boat is speeding up and approaching you. As motor noise drops in pitch and volume, the boat is moving away from you. A slow, chugging sound can indicate a fisher who is trolling, perhaps trailing lines far behind and out to the side from the running lights. A boat whistle or horn is a call for help or a warning that you are approaching an accident.
A boater's sense of touch is also important for night navigation. You need to be familiar with your craft to reach down without looking to find the throttle, gear shift and ignition. In an emergency, you won't have time to look down for these controls. The boater must learn the feel of the boat underway, know how it operates in river currents or waves. You have to feel when you are towing an anchor, when the boat is on plane or plowing through the water.
Know the law
To safely run a boat at night, you also must know boating laws. There are different lighting requirements for boats under 16 feet in length, over 26 feet and larger. Laws also require boaters to operate craft at a speed that is "reasonable and prudent" for conditions to avoid collisions with people, piers and other legal obstacles like moored boats. I like to call this the "strict liability" law. The responsibility to avoid hitting something in or on the water rests clearly with the boat operator. People can lawfully swim at night without any lighting. Piers don't have to be lit. Boaters need to travel slowly and avoid drifting close to shore.
One other boating law warrants particular caution – the anchored or drifting boat light law. Any structure fixed or floating on the water, any moored or drifting boat outside of designated anchorage or beyond 200 feet from shore, must be lighted from sunset to sunrise with a white light visible for 360 degrees from a distance of a mile. What clues does this give the evening boater? If you are traveling within 200 feet of shore, expect unlit boats, rafts and docks in the water. If you see a single light in the middle of a lake, it is likely a boat. These lights can be very confusing for the moving boater because they blend in well with white lights of roads and residences along the shore. Slow down until you are sure which lights are coming from boats and which are on shore, then proceed with caution.
The prepared boater also carries a spotlight at night. Warnings and channels are marked with unlit buoys covered with reflective surfaces. Rocky points, sandbars, protruding rocks and extremely shallow areas may not be marked at all. Bridges may be marked with lights, but many are just marked with reflective tape. In spring, floating logs and floating ice chunks pose an additional hazard. Lowhead dams and wingdams in fast-flowing water are especially dangerous.
Nighttime boaters should be extremely familiar with the body of water they are traveling. Landmarks clearly visible during the day can disappear in the darkness. Operators need to learn a whole new set of nighttime landmarks – like lighted water towers or radio towers from nearby cities. Tall trees, rocky hillsides, valleys, open fields, shore lights and wooded shorelines can all provide good navigation clues. Harbors carry their own distinct beacon lights. Communications equipment and electronic positioning gear can also help you navigate with more confidence.
Can you cruise after dark?
Then there are judgment calls. As difficult as night navigation can be, you need to remain aware of others who are boating at night. Test yourself in the following three nighttime scenarios:
You are cruising in your 16-foot boat at about 30 mph on a lake that's five miles long and about a mile wide. You are in the middle of the lake and hear the high-pitched whine of a motorboat that is getting louder and louder. Directly in front of you but just off to your left you see a red light. About five feet left of the red light you see a green light. These lights are now about 300 yards in front of you. The red light disappears and now you see the green light dead ahead. The green light disappears about 200 yards in front of you and you can no longer see the boat. What do you do?
If you said C, you are correct. First, you should have noticed a fair amount of width between the red and green bow lights, meaning you are dealing with a wide boat like a pontoon or deck boat. Second, the lack of a white stern light should have concerned you. It was either obstructed or not working. In either case, it's a clue you need to assess boat length and direction, so slow down. Third, when the red light disappeared and the green light appeared dead ahead, it tells you the boat is turning to its port side – it's making a left turn in front of you. As the boat turned and you still did not see the stern light, that confirmed the stern light was not working. When the green light disappeared about 200 yards ahead of you, you now knew you were coming up directly behind the boat. You only have 200 yards to take evasive action. Since you are the overtaking boat, you have the right to pass the slower craft on either side as long as it is done safely. Since you can't clearly see the stern, slow down and assess the situation.
When operating a boat at night, you must drive defensively and cautiously. In this scenario, the oncoming boat was not legally lighted. It's not unusual to find boats that don't meet night lighting requirements. I notice many pontoon boats with canopies that can totally obstruct the stern light, or the operator fails to install it.
You are coming from a river into a flowage at 1:00 a.m. The flowage is about a mile wide and it is a dark night with no moonlight. In the distance, you hear a radio playing loudly. As you head toward shore, you see a string of bright, white lights all about the same height. From time to time, you also see a dim white light that is lower than the other lights and it never seems to be in the same place. As you head for the landing at the nightclub, the dim white light is right in front of you. Your speed is about 25 mph and you are only 400 feet from the landing. What should you do?
B is the correct answer. At 1:00 a.m. on a flowage, the radio could very well be coming from another boat. The white string of lights is a building and the bobbing dim light moving at a lower level probably comes from a boat or boats at anchor. Due to the extreme darkness, the boat or boats may not be visible until you are within 50 feet or so. Play it safe and cut back your speed immediately. Remember, a boat within 200 feet of the shore that is drifting may not have any lights on, so take your time.
Earlier in the day, you finished putting a high-speed prop on your motorboat. The marina told you the boat could now do about 72 mph. It is now 11:00 p.m. and the lake is smooth as glass. It is a dark night and your night vision is restricted to about 50 feet. The lake is quiet and you can't see or hear any other boat traffic. You take your boat out and decide to open the throttle up to see if the craft will reach 72 mph. As you are going across the lake, you suddenly see a white flashlight beam about 200 feet in front of your craft. What do you do?
If you said D, you are correct. At 72 mph, you are covering 105.59 feet per second. It takes three-quarters of a second for your brain to recognize the danger and another three-quarters of a second to respond. In this amount of time, you have traveled 158.39 feet. You have 41.61 feet to make a move and avoid the boat – less than half a second. Is it possible to avoid this boat? Yes. Is it likely? No.
Muscle-powered boats like canoes, kayaks and rowboats need only show a flashlight or lantern in time to avoid a collision. The rowboat showed its light 200 feet or two-thirds of a football field in advance of a possible accident. Muscle-powered craft and sailboats under sail have the right-of-way over motorboats, so you were required to yield the right-of-way to the rowboat and pass to the stern. Given that your night vision was restricted to 50 feet, you wouldn't distinguish the bow from the stern of the rowboat until you were within 50 feet and had less than a half-second to react. Clearly, you would have been exceeding reasonable, prudent speed and you seriously endangered yourself and anyone else on the water.
These three scenarios represent just a small fraction of the boating situations and judgments a nighttime boater will encounter. If you choose to operate a boat at night, remember these tips: Slow down. Know the boating laws. Know the body of water. Keep your senses sharp – fatigue, alcohol and drugs can be deadly for boat operators. Watch out for other boaters and obstructions. You don't want to be dead right.
Dean Gullickson is a DNR boating safety instructor and a conservation warden stationed in Chippewa Falls.