Lessons Learned - September 2019

Navigation Lights

The USCG Navigation Rules devote quite a lot of time and print to lights and shapes. There are only 38 rules and 12 of them deal with lights. Everyone that has a boat greater than 12 meters (39–feet 4–inches) in length is required to keep a copy of the Navigation Rules on board and PART C – LIGHTS AND SHAPES, dealing with vessel lights and shapes is usually in color for easy understanding. With the favorable weather, boating season is in full force and we find our boating days extending into the non–daylight hours. It might be a good time to get out the rule book, dust it off, and look at Rules 20 to 31 to refresh your memory of the various navigation light combinations that you might expect to encounter.

As Delta and San Francisco Bay boaters, you, at some point, will come across just about every type of vessel described in the rules with a just few exceptions. The only vessels that I have not seen in San Francisco Bay area are a hovercraft, a submarine, or a mine sweeper, but I have come across these vessels in other ports along the West Coast.

With a little practice you can identify the type of vessel, their heading in relationship to your vessel, and then determine if you are the stand–on or give–way vessel. You should be able to recognize the various light combinations of other vessels so that you will know how you should safely maneuver your vessel.

Rule 20 describes the application of this section. I paraphrase the relevant points

(a)Rules in this part shall be complied with in all weather conditions

(b)The Rules concerning lights shall be complied with from sunset to sunrise

(c)The prescribed lights shall be exhibited from sunrise to sunset in restricted visibility, i.e.: fog

For safety and so that I do not forget to activate them, I have navigation lights in the on position at all times when my or my client′s vessel is underway.

Let′s start with the easy ones that we all know. Rule 21 describes the characteristics of the different navigation lights. The red sidelight is located on the port side, the green sidelight is located on the starboard side, the white masthead light forward is located along the centerline of the vessel and is higher than the red and green sidelights, and the white stern light is located obviously at the stern. The red and green sidelights have an arc from dead ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the beam, the mast head light has an arc of 225 degrees, and the stern light has an arc of 135 degrees. For vessels less than 12 meters in length, the masthead and stern lights can be combined into a single all around white light.

The masthead light is sometimes referred to as the “steaming light” and the term is derived from the days when sailing vessels were just beginning to install auxiliary steam engine power. To indicate that the sailing vessel had engaged mechanical propulsion they would activate the steaming light. The same applies today when a sailing vessel has engaged their engine, they must activate their steaming light to indicate to other vessels that they are now under power and be treated as such according to the rules.

Rule 23 covers power driven vessels and gives the basic array of navigation lights, masthead light, sidelights, and stern light, from which the arrays for other vessel types are derived. Note that there are significant differences between the International Rules and the Inland Rules with regard to navigation lights. The Inland Rules allow more optional displays and are less stringent in the positioning requirements. These more relaxed provisions were often concessions to special–interest groups who wished to retain their traditional light configurations. Rule 23 applies to ordinary power–driven vessels of all sizes from the recreational boat to the supertanker. It applies to power–driven fishing vessels when they are not engaged in fishing. It applies to tugboats assisting in ship maneuvering either not connected to the ship or connected with a short line or cable. It does not apply to power driven vessels that are anchored, aground, or tied to a dock.

All vessels greater than 7–meters in length must have red and green sidelights, with the red being on the port side and the green on starboard, as well as a white stern light. Power driven vessels also have a white masthead light forward while vessels not propelled by mechanical means do not. At anchor all vessels less than 50–meters in length will have a white all around light and vessels greater than 50–meters will have two all around white lights while at anchor. There are a few exceptions and some key differences between the international and inland rules with the most notable being for vessels less than 7–meters or 21–feet in length. International Rule 23(D)(ii) allows power driven vessels less than 7–meters in length and capable of speeds less than 7 knots to exhibit only an all around white light but this exclusion does not exist in the Inland Rules. For vessels not propelled by mechanical means, the rules specifically mention under sail or oar, need only have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent a collision. Really. Review Rule 25(D)(i) & (ii), both international and inland.

Those are the basic lights and almost every power driven vessel that is underway will exhibit these lights but depending on the type of vessel and her job she will exhibit additional lights. A good example would be vessels greater than 50–meters (165–feet) in length must have a second masthead light abaft and higher than higher than the forward one.

Vessels engaged in towing have unique navigation lights that will allow us to determine if the tug is pushing ahead, towing alongside, or towing astern and if the barge is more than 200–meters astern of the tug. There are significant differences between the Inland rules and the International rules for tugs and tows. Since we are most likely to encounter these vessels in the Bay and Delta we will consider the inland rules only.

A power–driven vessel when pushing ahead or towing alongside will display two white masthead lights in a vertical line and two yellow towing lights at the stern instead of the white stern light. If the tug is greater than 165–feet in length then he would have a masthead light abaft and higher than the two forward ones.

A barge will display red and green navigation lights and will have a special flashing yellow light and if pushed alongside will have a white stern light.

When towing astern, the tug will have two masthead lights in a vertical line if the tow is less than 200–meters and will have three in a vertical line if greater than 200–meters astern. In addition to the third masthead light they are also required to display a diamond shape where it can best be seen. In addition to the white stern light, the tug will have a yellow towing light above the stern light. These lights are the same for both Inland and International. Generally when inside the bay, tugs are pushing ahead or towing alongside but may shift to towing astern on their transit out, usually once west of Alcatraz Island.

Wonder how you would know that the dark blob on the water displaying red and green sidelights, steaming light, and a stern light and for some reason the blob does not show up on your RADAR? Submarines display a distinctive additional light that is yellow or amber in color and flashes in a unique sequence of one flash per second for three seconds, followed by three seconds off. A few years back while travelling overnight along the Washington coast to Canada we could clearly see a yellow flashing light but had no RADAR returns and it took several seconds for us to determine what we were seeing. It was not until we got out the binoculars that we could make out the relatively dim red port sidelight and her white masthead light. So, where is this light combination written in the rules? SUBPART A – General, Rule 1 of course, and not where you would expect it to be in Subpart C.

In San Francisco Bay and to a lesser extent the Delta there is quite a bit of tug traffic and you should be familiar with their basic light combinations. A quick look at Rule 24 describes the lighting requirements for towing and pushing.

Lesson Learned

All vessels operating at night, or in restricted visibility, are required to display navigation lights. If you are operating between sunset and sunrise you must have the navigation lights activated. Operating your boat at night can be a lot of fun and safe but you should be able to recognize the various combinations of navigation lights. Reading the Navigation Rules can be a tedious task so perhaps getting a navigation light cheat sheet, reviewing one of the many websites, or even a set of flash cards will help. If you have not taken a USCG Auxiliary or US Power Squadron basic boating class for a few years this can be a good review as they cover lights and shapes along with other important information. The California Boaters Card covers the basics of navigation light requirements and is also a good review even if you do not fall into the phased–in requirements. Surprisingly I was doing a vessel safety check on a fairly new boat and found the combination masthead/anchor light had been installed backwards. The anchor light part was fine, but the white masthead light faced aft instead of forward. Another easy fix, just unscrew and rotate the fixture 180 degrees. The incorrect installation of no white light forward and a two white facing aft, would confuse other vessels and I wonder why the owner had not discovered this during his routine vessel checks.

While sitting back enjoying a glass of port and a cigar, I consider one of the more colorful light combinations and one that we see regularly in San Francisco Bay and occasionally on the Delta. I was thinking back to a late night entrance into Santa Barbara a few years ago when we came around the breakwater and found the channel almost completely plugged up with a dredge. Although not unexpected since the USCG Weekly Local Notice to Mariners listed the harbor as being dredged, we didn′t expect him so near the entrance and right in the middle of a very narrow channel. Look closely at the photo and you can make out the various lights that indicate the nature of the vessels work and the safe side to pass. Have you experienced this light configuration?

The red–white–red in a vertical line indicated a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver, Rule 27, the two vertical green lights to our left, and the two vertical red lights to our right indicate that she is a dredge engaged in dredging operations, Rule 27(D)(i)(ii). These lights indicate the safe to pass side, green–green, and the restricted side, red–red. Part (iv) is the row of flashing yellow lights to our right and mark the dredge pipeline length and course. In the photo it is difficult to make out the navigation lights due to all of the background lighting and in real life it was equally difficult. You will see this quite often in San Francisco Bay and in the Stockton Deep Water Channel. If you don′t recognize the light combination, get out your rules book and take a look at Rule 27. This is one that you don′t want to make a mistake around.

Incidentally, prominently displayed in my office in an effort to warn off any wayward lurkers, is my very own properly configured light exhibit.

Take a look at the USCG Aux web site at http://cgaux.org/boat inged/ or the US Power Squadron web site at http://www.usps.org/ The course is available on–line, by DVD, or class.

Have a good story to tell, send me an email. patcarson@yachtsmanmagazine.com. I love a good story. H


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