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October 29, 2009

Nighttime Navigation

Learn how to enjoy nighttime boating and fishing safely

Picking a needle out of a haystack." "Driving a backcountry road without any headlights." "Walking around the block blindfolded." These represent just a few of the responses from weekend boaters when asked, "Why not run your boat at night?"

Certainly, safely navigating a vessel in the dark takes additional skills and perhaps greater focus and concentration. But it is so worth it: The romance, the adventure and the expansion of your boating day are all benefits! And of course, everyone knows fishing is often better at night.

Imagine being able to take your friends out at sunset for a terrific evening bite or leave the harbor in the wee hours to head offshore to fish at dawn. In fact, night swordfishing has become more popular up and down the East Coast. Or for that matter, imagine taking your family or friends across the bay on a moonlit night for a fun dinner at a waterside restaurant - and back again!

Establishing a comfort level with the channels and navigational aids you use at night represents the first and perhaps most important step toward safe piloting in the dark. When you step outside your comfort boundaries, anxiety often causes poor decision-making, which then engenders panic. So start your navigation lessons onshore.

Break out your Chapman Piloting & Seamanship or International or Inland Rules of the Road (www.navcen.uscg.gov/mwv/navrules/navrules.htm), and refresh your memory about all the navigation aids. Read "Lights and Shapes" to determine what "Morse A," "Occulting" and other signal characteristics mean. Learn to accurately time the interval of a flashing light without needing a stopwatch. Check your local paper or online nav charts at home. Note what lights mark the channel of your harbor.

Now head to the water on an evening with good visibility. From a vantage point onshore, and with your chart and a flashlight in hand, start looking at the outermost end of the channel and pick out each light and marker as you follow a path into the inner harbor. Expect some difficulty discerning navigation lights with all the other shore lights in the background. Now is the time to adjust your focus to navaids - when you have no vessel or lives in the balance. You'll soon find yourself picking the appropriate signals out with no difficulty. You have just accomplished exactly half of your night-navigation mission. In addition to navaids, you need to be able to identify other vessels, their direction and speed.

Many of you probably know about running lights: Vessels display a green light to starboard and a red light to port (like the wine). And every vessel under way must also display at least one white light that shines 360 degrees. Here are the three main variables of which you should be aware:

1. Direction: You should be able to tell the direction another recreational vessel is traveling based on the lights you can see and their positions relative to each other. Watch as vessels come and go in the channel  to be able to picture their light configuration later.

2. Speed: The Law of Constant Bearing applies here. If you see a boat in the distance and it stays exactly in the same place relative to your boat, chances are good that you're headed for a collision! Know your "Rules of the Road" and adhere to them. Give right of way when called for, and don't assume the other vessel's skipper is as knowledgeable as you. If in doubt, pull back on the throttles and stop until the other vessel clears.

3. Type of vessel: Most recreational vessels have a single white 360-degree light, one red and one green running light. But many commercial vessels have special lights that designate their vessel type and immediate actions. For example, fishing vessels towing nets or tugboats towing a barge both have very specific running-light displays. For a full list of these that you can actually print out and carry with you, visit www.boatus.org/onlinecourse/reviewpages/boatusf/project/info2c.htm, or look in the boater's bible - Chapman Piloting & Seamanship.

Obviously, when running your boat at night, your prime directive should be to slow down. This gives you more time to think about what you're seeing around you and diminishes potential damage from hitting unseen or submerged flotsam and jetsam. Here are several other things to remember while navigating at  night or in any other limited-visibility situation:

• You know what rocks and other obstructions are in your local waters. Rest assured that they haven't moved since the sun went down.

• Trust your navigation equipment. Your chart plotter, compass, depth sounder et al. won't lie to you - or at least, not much. (GPS has occasionally been known to be slightly inaccurate.) Take it slow and compare all your instrument feedback. The ability to overlay your radar display on your chart display can be invaluable. And of course, products like FLIR's night-vision camera systems can take any remaining guesswork completely out of the equation. Using infrared night vision is like ... boating in daylight!

• It never hurts to take a boating-safety course. Several are available, but you can find a very comprehensive free one accepted for certification in many states at www.boatus.org.