Safe Boating at Night

Published on November 1, 2021


Our tips for boating after dark this fall season

The days are getting shorter so it’s possible to get caught out on the water after dark if you’re boating this fall. Whether you’re coming back from a waterfront dinner, overnighting before the season ends or are out on a moonlit romantic cruise, here are five tips to enjoy safe boating on your Sea Ray at night.

1) Prepare Your Gear

Check that you have fresh batteries in your flashlights and headlamps, put binoculars close to the helm and locate personal floatation devices (PFDs). You may consider having everyone wear a PFD with an attached strobe light or glowstick in case someone goes overboard. The engine(s) should be in good working order and all navigation and communication electronics should be functional. Test the running lights. Hot drinks and snacks can make nighttime passages go quicker and keep tired people alert. Advise your crew of your specific nighttime boating rules before you head out. 

2) Slow Down and Use Your Senses

Visibility is reduced at night so you’ll need to slow down. Distances are harder to judge, obstacles are difficult to see, and moisture and temperature changes create distortion. Preserve your night vision, which can take 20 minutes to adapt back to darkness after a flash of light. Use flashlights with a red filter and keep light use inside the vessel to a minimum. If you have someone along, keep that second pair of eyes on the horizon with a periodic 360-dgree scan to ensure no one is coming from behind or at an angle. Unless there’s a full moon, open water with no obstacles or shallows and no traffic, don’t run your Sea Ray on plane close to shore. Use your hearing, which may seem more acute in the dark when you can’t rely on your eyes. Turn off the stereo, stop talking and listen. You may hear fog horns, bells or other boats approaching.

3) Trust Your Instruments and Know Your Navigation Lights

Your eyes can play tricks on you in the dark so if your chartplotter is updated and working, trust it. Understand what you’re seeing. Running and marker lights are red and green. Entering a harbor in North America follows the rule: Red, Right, Returning which means keep the red lights to starboard to stay in a safe channel. Consider what a boat looks like under way on the water. Red and green lights shine forward on either side and a white light is usually aft at the stern, unless it’s a steaming light. If you see both red and green, a boat is coming at you. If you see white, the boat is most likely moving away, but you need to identify if white is a stern light. Before departing, check to make sure your navigation lights are operable so you’re visible to others.

4) Dock with Caution

Don’t use headlights or spotlights until you’re close to your target like a dock or another boat and are looking for detail like cleats and handholds. Only approach a dock as fast as you’re willing to hit it and that goes for both day and night. Ask crew not to jump onto a dock but rather step off calmly when the boat is close. Double-check everyone’s knots and hitches before leaving the boat unattended in a slip for the night. 

5) Overnight Safely

Safe overnighting on a Sea Ray is a bit like glamping; it always helps to have good bedding on hand. In hot climates, a sheet and pillow may be all that’s needed. For colder nights aboard, have extra blankets or a sleeping bag and an outfit that will keep you warm and dry. Screens on hatches keep mosquitos out or you can bring insect repellent. Check that the anchor is secure and that there’s room to swing if the wind changes direction. Standing anchor watch may be necessary when there’s a question about the anchor holding or if a change in weather is expected. The individual on watch should take good bearings on their surroundings to monitor if the anchor has dragged. 

Walk around the boat with a flashlight to check for loose items on deck that can take flight in a gust of wind. Turn off unnecessary equipment to conserve battery power. Secure everything before bedtime because boats are notorious noise amplifiers and everything that gets loose seems louder at night.

Safe boating in the dark is just a matter of preparation, vigilance and eventually experience. Think through what you’ll be doing and then prepare the boat, your gear, your crew and yourself, and you’ll find a new adventure in nighttime boating. 

Read about preparing your boat for the winter here.

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