Lit navigational aids are rarely fixed or steady. A fixed or steady red, green or white light is probably another vessel. If it blinks or exhibits any type of sequence, it is most likely a navigational aid. Among the exceptions are the blinking yellow lights located on the bow of the first in a line of pushed barges, the flashing yellows of commercial towers and, of course, the flashing blue lights of a prowling sea cop.
There are numerous light configurations for various vessels out there, but I try to be intimately and instantly familiar with the basic range and running lights of ships and the towing lights of tugs and barges.
The tug that exhibits three white towing lights is towing its barge(s) astern. The tug that exhibits two white towing lights is either pushing or towing alongside. Barges have their own light configurations (red and green running, no range lights) but in real life, barge lights are often dim and hard to see. If you spot a tug with three in-line white towing lights, don't even think of passing astern of it; a tow line can be unexpectedly long.
Harbor and channel lit navigational aids can be obscured by background lights on land that can be considerably brighter than the aids. However, the background lights will not have the same sequence. When I'm running in an area surrounded by shore-side lights — New York Harbor is an excellent example — I always slow down and scan the area. The aids will stand out from the surrounding light pollution. With practice, they will be spotted for the beacons they are.
As a matter of fact, practice is the secret. Lighted navigational aids are designed for use — and night runs add to the fun and challenge of boating.
Preparing a Boat for a Night Run
I have fond memories of my service drill instructor howling in my ear while I stripped and cleaned a weapon while blindfolded. Hopefully nobody is planning to take potshots at us when we're cruising aboard the family yacht, but being able to find gear and operate equipment by touch is not a bad concept when preparing for a cruise. I run a darkened ship at night — running lights and red-tinged instrumentation only — because I fervently believe in maintaining night vision. I don't want to ruin it by switching on a light to find something. Before the trip, I place whatever I'll need so I'll know where to grab it. I put life jackets, heaving and dock lines and my tool kit where I can lay hands on them sight-unseen.
A boat I run has a powerful spotlight mounted on the cabin roof; while the on/off switch is at the helm, its power switch is on the electrical panel — as is the power for the anchor release. Before I wised up, there were times I needed to switch the spotlight on or get the hook down, and I had to grope around the panel and finally use a night-vision-destroying flashlight to find the switch. Now I count switches and can find them blind; the same goes with more mundane stuff. I always turn the pressure pump switch off when running — day or night — because if a hose breaks or a fitting fails I won't hear the pump over the noise of the engines as it cycles itself to death. But when passengers want running water, they want it now, so I show them how to find the panel switch by feel when they need to hit the tap. That's a good test. Can you find the important switches on your panel without looking? It could come in handy someday — or night.
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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.