Boating after Dark

Feb 25, 2020

For new, or even experienced boaties, navigating at night can seem like a daunting experience. When the sun sets and darkness creeps in, it can be nerve-wracking not being able to see all your surroundings. But boating at night doesn’t have to be a formidable experience. With the right knowledge and equipment, a night out on the water can be wonderfully rewarding. 


One of the most important things to remember when boating at night is to stay within your comfort zone. Drop your speed, give things a wider berth if necessary and take a cautious approach.  No matter what type of equipment you have onboard, you will never have the same visibility at night as during the day. Depending on the moonlight, it is likely that objects won’t come into view until they are relatively close. Remember, it is harder to see something in the water when it’s dark, so make sure you have enough time to stop or alter course to avoid a collision.

Speeding at night can have dire consequences. For example, last year, an Auckland boatie was ordered to pay a fine following a nighttime collision with a moored vessel. The skipper of the boat was travelling at excessive speed in a designated mooring area, and the impact resulted in damage to both vessels and injuries to several people. When commenting on the case Neil Rowarth, MNZ’s North Regional Compliance Manager, stated "To help keep yourself and others safe you must keep a proper lookout at all times. At night, slow down and be particularly careful”.

The right types of navigation lights

Properly fitted navigation lights are essential if you are to be recognised at night. In the same way that cars are required to have headlights, taillights and indicators, proper navigation lights are also necessary when boating. 

There are different types of navigation lights, depending on the vessel.

A sailing vessel (when sailing) is only required to display side-lights (the red and green lights) and a stern light.

A power-driven vessels must also show a white masthead light. However, if you have a powerboat of less than 12 metres in length, an all-round white light can replace the stern and masthead lights.  

When a sailing vessel is using its engine, it is required to show the lights of a power-driven vessel.

A power driven vessel (e.g. dinghy) of less than 7m in length whose speed doe not exceed 7 knots can exhibit an all-round white light.

Navigation lights are essential in helping you to be seen by other boaties and to allow you to act in a seamanlike manner. For example, you can work out if you’re overtaking someone if you only see the stern light, or if you’re crossing someone you will know what direction they are travelling according to whether you see a green or red light. If you see both red and green then they are travelling directly towards you! You’ll also know if the boat is a power-driven vessel, a rowboat or yacht depending on the lights they have. 

One common mistake made by many yacht owners is to fit a masthead light (sometimes called the motoring light) lower than the tricolour (at the top of the mast). When motoring the masthead light must be above the side-lights.

When navigating at night in a busy harbour, or where there are a lot of background land lights, it’s very easy to become confused with all the light ‘pollution’. Have a look around - if you see a flashing light it could be a navigation mark or a high speed ferry. If it’s fixed it could be another vessel, and so you have to decide from looking at the lights what direction it’s travelling, what type of vessel it is, its length, and if you are the give way or stand vessel.

To really know what you are doing at night, Coastguard Boating Education's Boatmaster course will help you gain these skills and give you more confidence boating at night.

Visit for more information.


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New Member Day Skipper Course $100 discount:
To use your National Coastguard NZ new member discount for $100 off a Day Skipper course, please in put your membership number in the Discount Code field below (e.g. 123456). This discount code may not be used in conjunction with any other offer, and can only be redeemed once. 

10% Membership discount:
To use your National Coastguard NZ 10% membership discount on other selected Home Study courses, input "CGM" and your Coastguard membership number (e.g. CGM78091) into the  "Discount Code" field below. This discount code may not be used in conjunction with any other offer. The courses included in this discount offer are: Day Skipper (Not to be used in conjunction with $100 discount), Boatmaster, Maritime VHF Radio Operator Certificate, Inboard Engine Maintenance, Outboard Engine Maintenance and GPS Operator.

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