February 10, 2014
Clarifying some light confusion over vessel light requirements.
Side lights on one package: Popup LED 210M from Accon Marine.
There are minimum lighting standards for boating in Florida waters— in fact all U.S. coastal and inland waters, outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 33, Navigation and Navigable Waters. Knowing the basics for the majority of boats you might encounter while inshore in Florida will help you keep your boat visible and interpret what you encounter.
Lighting requirements vary based on boat style and length, and whether the boat is underway or anchored. Boats less than 39.4 feet require side lights that are visible to one mile (red on port/left, green on starboard/right). They may be combined into one light that is mounted centerline at the front of the bow, a common lighting configuration for many skiffs and bay boats. Additionally, a white all-round (anchor) light that is one meter higher than the side lights must be visible for 2 miles. This is the light most commonly seen on the removable post at the back of most skiffs and bay boats; by law it's supposed to be visible, at the required intensity, from 360 degrees. Bigger boats have similar requirements, but more of ‘em. When underway, all vessels between 39.4 and 65.6 feet are required to have side lights, a white masthead light and a white stern light. Larger boats require brighter lights; side lights on boats over 39.4 feet must be visible for 2 miles on a clear night. The mast light must be at least a meter higher
than the side lights and be visible for 3 miles. Although vessels of this size aren't likely to be fishing in coastal waters after dark, you are very likely to encounter them at night especially if you are fishing near an inlet.
At bottom, two kinds of white all-round lights: portable and 12 volt pole light. At top, side light mounted on T-top for optimal visibility. See main story for small boat applications.
Side lights, masthead lights and all-around lights must conform to specific requirements for intensity and—importantly— angle of visibility. Those old forward- looking “snake-eye” lights tucked up under the gunnel of flats boats? Unless each one is visible to 112.5 degrees aft from centerline (from straight ahead to 22.5 degrees astern of the beam), and 5 degrees above and below the horizon,
they don't qualify. Most builders are aware of the regulations these days, but refinishers of used boats should consult the full rules on the Internet.
What about when anchored up for fishing? Most anchored or moored boats require only the correct 360-degree white light. Side lights are not required to be on; and in fact some boaters suggest you have them off so oncoming traffic doesn't assume you are under power and able to maneuver immediately. Drifting is not considered anchored or moored, so if drift fishing at night you are considered “underway” and must maintain appropriate lighting.
Although it is not required, a handheld flashlight is highly recommended. Aside from making it easier to find dropped tackle inside the boat, the extra light can come in handy when trying to get another boater's attention. Further, a spotlight should be standard equipment on night trips, especially when in unfamiliar water. Highly reflective channel markers are simple to see with a quick flash of a spotlight. It also reduces the chances of hitting large debris floating on or just under the surface. One note on handheld spot lights: They can cause temporary night blindness. Aim them away from yourself and other persons on the vessel, and avoid pointing them into the white walls of your gunnels. And never shine a spotlight at another vessel for the same reasons. Blinding another boater can jeopardize the safety of both vessels.
For summarized lighting requirements see www.boat-ed.com/florida. For more detailed U.S. Coast Guard info, visit www.navcen.uscg.gov. FS
The increased popularity of kayak fishing has led to a growing fleet of night prowling paddlers. These vessels—if not equipped with a combustion or electric motor—are required to carry only a handheld light such as a flashlight. This allows the paddler to signal oncoming boats of their presence. I'll admit this minimum requirement used to make me feel pretty comfortable. However, as I've encountered more kayakers at night while in a powerboat, I can see that an all-round white pole light, same as required for small power boats, is a very good idea. Know, too, that paddle-craft operating at night on most coastal waters are required to carry Visual Distress Signals (signal flares), same as for powerboats.