Sailing Safely: Which Lights Does Your Boat Need?

You’ve never truly lived until you’ve gone sailing, at least that’s how the saying goes. Few other experiences can top sailing off in the open waters and navigating the seas. And when it comes to scenic views, what’s better than enjoying the sunset or sunrise from the deck of your boat, while the saltiness of the sea air cleanses your mind and soul? But, as with every other activity, safety should be of the highest concern. You can never truly enjoy something until you know that you’re doing it 100% safely and when it comes to boats, lights have the highest priority concerning safety gear. Your boat is mandated by maritime law to have certain navigation lights mounted on it and turned on in the time between sunset and sunrise and in times of low visibility during the day, so let’s take a look at the different types of lights which your boat needs to have before it can set off in its conquest of the seas.

Types of Navigation Lights


First off, what are marine navigation lights? They are a set of lights that are mounted on your ship and which are used to signal your position and your line of motion to other ships in the sea. Navigation lights are the first line of safety for your boat and play a key role in your safety and carefree sailing. They help you navigate your boat safely and make sure that at any time you are visible to fellow sailors. They are a guarantee that your directions are well-known in advance and collision with other vessels is not possible.

So, what are the common types of navigation lights? There are four of them and they’re called masthead, sidelights (port and starboard) and sternlight. Navigation lights have usually used bulbs, but recently LED boat lights have emerged, using semiconductor technology and bringing several advantages for cruisers. They use up quite less energy than traditional lights, which in turn prolongs their life expectancy and they have a precise directional output, which provides a perfect narrow beam. Even though they are not suitable for filling up the full 360 degrees light output, such lights are starting to emerge in the market.


The masthead light is usually a white navigation light that is located on the centerline of the boat. This is a forward-facing light, which means that its purpose is to show your boat’s location to other vessels which are coming your way. The standard arc of its light is prescribed at 225 degrees, so basically it’s not visible only from a small angle from behind your boat. It must be turned on at all times after the sunset and before the sunrise. Depending on the length of your vessel, your masthead light must be visible from a certain prescribed distance, ranging from 2 to 6 miles. Masthead lights are available as both LED lights and bulb lights, the LED ones usually used by longer vessels, and the bulb ones for shorter vessels.



The sidelights are, as the name itself implies, located on the sides of your boat and are divided into portlights, which are placed on the left side and need to shine a red light and starboard lights, which are placed on the right side and need to shine a green light. The sidelights basically cover half of the masthead’s range, with each of them shining an unbroken light covering 112.5 degrees of the horizon, left and right respectively. If your boat is more than 20 metres long, these lights need to be separate and mounted on their respective side, but if you have a vessel that is shorter than that, then these two lights can be combined into just one light, covering the whole 225 degrees, which is then placed on the fore and aft centerline of your boat. The visibility range for port and starboard lights is 1 to 2 miles, of course, depending on the size of the boat and just like the masthead, they are available in both LED and bulb versions.

The starboard and portlights play a crucial role in marine safety when two ships have a reciprocal course and their paths are bound to intersect. In this situation, if your boat sees the green starboard light, then you have the right of way and can continue following your course, with caution, of course. If your boat sees the red port light, that means that you are approaching the other vessel from its left side and you have to yield the right of way. If safe conditions exist, you should also try to alter your course and turn it into starboard.

Stern Light

The stern light is basically the opposite thing of a masthead – it is located on the back of the ship, i.e. the stern, so it is visible to other vessels approaching yours from behind. It shines an unbroken white light and covers up the area which is not covered by the masthead – an arc of 135 degrees, 67,5 degrees on each side of the boat respectively. This light helps you be seen by boats approaching from your back, so it is important to make frequent checks to it in order to make sure that it’s properly working and keeping you safe at sea. Stern lights also come in a bulb and LED versions, depending on your preferences and your boat’s requirements.

To Sum Up

Before you cast off your boat, make sure that you have installed all the lights needed for safety and examine them thoroughly so that you’re positive they’re all functioning properly. Also, consult with your respective state or county maritime laws so that you’re confident that your boat is compliant with them and that you can safely and carelessly enjoy the salty waves.