Navigate At Night

Confidence is key for safe boating under the cover of darkness.

FSF Staff July 29, 2011

To the inexperienced, safely navigating a boat at night can be a truly hair-raising experience. Without sufficient light, everything appears different under the cover of darkness and your ability to judge distances and unfamiliar objects is greatly impaired. With only the light of the moon the water becomes harder to read and reflections from various sources can greatly hinder your vision. However, don’t let the unfamiliarity discourage you. Fishing and boating at night can be a very enjoyable experience, and whether you planned on returning to port after sunset, just emerged victorious after a long battle or simply lost track of time, you’ll eventually be forced to navigate at night.

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With basic knowledge you’ll be able to capitalize on the night bite. Photo: Lowrance

Before you can safely operate at night, you need to make sure your navigation lights are both functional and clearly visible to other boaters. Even though navigation light requirements vary depending on the type, size and intended use of vessel, navigation light combinations are relatively easy to decipher and were designed not to be mistaken for any other light source. Navigating near city lights can make this a little tricky and you must be able to differentiate navigational lights from background lights. It is highly advisable that you spend the required time learning the Coast Guard Rules of the Road. Better yet, sign up for a safe boating course and carry a navigation light chart with you. They are available for only a few dollars at retailers like West Marine and Boat Owners Warehouse. You will greatly enhance your navigational knowledge and on the water situational awareness. As the operator of the vessel, you have a responsibility to keep the boat and its passengers safe.

Unfortunately, the human eye isn’t designed to perform well in the dark and it takes a reasonable amount of time for your eyes and pupils to adjust to the dark. To help speed the process you can turn off all cockpit and cabin lights, and dim electronic displays and gauges. It takes considerable time to acquire your night vision and instruments should have a soft green or red hue. Try to keep any source of white light from entering your field of view. If your eyes have adjusted to the dark and you have to view something under bright light, do so with one eye closed or use a small reading light rather than illuminating the entire deck.

Many boats are equipped with a spotlight, either handheld or joystick controlled, but you need to use these lights with caution. Only use your spotlight for brief periods, as you want to avoid at all costs shining your light at an oncoming vessel. If you have to search for a navigational marker, start your search from the outside of the channel so as not to blind oncoming vessels or hinder the visibility of your running lights.

If you’re not already aware, many prized game fish are nocturnal predators—fishing at night is also a great way to beat the summertime heat. When you find yourself in the vicinity of other boats targeting the same glamorous game fish, you cannot rely solely on your navigational skills. It’s highly possible that the other boats may not see you, may not recognize you, or may not react accordingly to your running lights. Pay careful attention to those around you and don’t hesitate to adjust your heading to avoid collision. Being responsible means avoiding collision at all costs, even if you have the right of way. The best advice is to simply slow down when navigating at night. You obviously can’t decipher objects or distances in the dark as well as you can in the daylight and you will need a considerable amount of time to react to what you are seeing in relation to your speed, direction of travel and distance of other vessels relative to your position.

If your boat is outfitted with a radar unit you should use it to your advantage. If you don’t have radar but would like to navigate at night on a regular basis, get one! Radar helps increase your situational awareness and with the latest units capable of overlaying returns on GPS charts, users can see and define what they otherwise might not. Just remember that while radar is an extremely beneficial tool, nighttime is not the time to learn the intricacies of your unit. Study the user’s manual and learn how to operate the radar in advance.

If you’re still a bit skeptical than you may want to invest in a pair of night vision binoculars. With technology borrowed from the military, FLIR thermal imaging cameras are yet another option. These high-tech optics take the guesswork out of navigating at night by turning nighttime into daytime with state-of-the-art thermal imaging.

Whether you’re headed home from a successful nighttime swordfish trip, heading out to the reef to score some tasty ‘tails or just cruising down the ICW on a romantic moonlit cruise, stay out as late as you want knowing you can safely navigate at night.

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