How To Boat At Night [Complete Guide]

In this article, we'll cover how to boat at night. Knowing the navigation rules, boating safety requirements and all the night-time navigation information is really important.

You can find many online courses that will help educate you. Getting a boating safety education certificate will advance your knowledge for boating at night also.

Here's a look at what exactly will be covered: 

  • Navigation Lights requirements
  • Boating Safety
  • boat navigation lights (deck lights, onboard lights, courtesy lights, starboard side lights, reflective markers, background lights, cabin lights, additional lights etc.)
  • Do boats have headlights
  • Do you need lights on a boat 
  • How to pass a boat at night 
  • Where is the anchor light on a boat
  • What lights should be on a boat at night 
  • What are docking lights on a boat 
  • What's the boat speed limit at night 
  • What color are boat navigation lights 
  • Safety when boating  at night 
  • Standard signals
  • Understanding Navigating Instruments
  • The Appropriate Safety Equipment
  • Right of way when night boating

It is crucial your boat is equipped with the right lighting for boating at night. All modern boats are equipped with these lights so you shouldn't be concerned here. 

This article will apply to the majority of boat owners including a powered craft owner, sailing vessel owner or any personal watercraft for that matter.

However, as everything is in darkness, you'll need to take extra care at night. Poor visibility and limited vision means it's much easier to crash or sink so knowing your navigation lights, and what each color means is very very important. 

It is also beneficial to ensure you have the proper headlights and an attached strobe light for a little extra visibility. This will mean you aren't relying on any one primary source for lighting.

Don't forget, there are also licensing requirements for boating at night. This will vary from country to country but a simple google search for boating information in your local area should provide you with any regulatory requirements specific to your region.

As a reminder, this can vary so please do this first before ever boating at night. It's better to be safe than sorry. If you want to go into every little regulatory detail, you can check out the coast guard site.

This will brush up your skills on boating safety.

Whether it's larger boats, small boats or any type of boat operator for that matter, you must have navigation lights for periods of darkness or poor visibility like a heavy fog.

Excellent vision is super important when out on a boat at night. The last thing you want is restricted visibility or to be invisible when out on the open water.

Understanding lighted landmarks in your area is also something you'll need to know! 

Everything is explained in detail below but here is a video to help guide you too. (some people prefer video for learning)

Boat Navigation Lights 

Before ever considering to boat at night, you'll need to have a full understanding of the boat navigation lights and what each color means. 

Here's a chart to illustrate the colors: 

how to boat at night lights
Image courtesy of BoatED

As you can see from the above chart, every boat should have the following colored lights at night: 

Red - The red light on a boat should be on the port side (left side) of the bow. 

Green - The green light should be on the starboard side (right side)  of the bow 

White Light - You'll need an all-round white light if the vessel is below 39.5 feet or both a masthead light and a stern light. 

These lights must be clearly visible from a distance of one mile away on a smaller vessel (under 39.4ft) or two miles away on vessels larger than 39.4ft. 

All boats should have these fitted so it's not something to worry about. If, however, you are concerned, you can always buy these online. Just because you don't plan on boating at night, it's good practice to make sure these are still in good working order. 

Any boat on the waters between sunset and sunrise is required to have these lights. And for very good reason too!

These lights will protect you from collisions with other vessels. These are some of the main requirements for a boat. However, you'll also need docking lights. 

What are docking lights on a boat? Boat docking lights are what are more commonly known as boat headlights. They are positioned at the front of the boat. They help the boat owner with visibility during the night and also help others to see you. 

You should have at least two of these at the front of your boat in the color of white. 

Do you need lights on a boat?

In case it isn't obvious yet, the answer is YES. Don't assume you'll never use your boat at night and don't need them. Boating safety for you and your passengers means staying visible is important! 

You could find yourself in heavy fog and will most definitely need them then. As mentioned above, you should have the colors white, green and red and these colors should be in the correct places on the boat. 

These lights are relatively cheap and it's better to get the LED lights for a longer life. 

You want to stay safe when boating at night whether it be a sailboat or a speedboat and having these lights installed is a step in the right direction

However, for anyone who's ever boated at night, you'll know that even with these lights, it can still be tricky to see other vessels.

Always be cautious as a boat can creep up on you in what seems like nowhere. 

Reducing your speed in the water at night is one way to ensure a safe journey. 

How to pass a boat at night

When you are on board your vessel, you need to know how to correctly pass a boat at night.

The video above helps explain the right way to do this. However, if you prefer written instructions, read on.

how to pass a boat at night

If a boat is approaching you ahead and we see green and white lights, this means the boat is approaching across your path from your port side.  (the left) 

You can maintain your course as this boat has to give way to you. However, still remain cautious as accidents can and do happen.  The boat crossing your path from the left might not see you so be aware. 

Next up is a boat crosses your path in front of you from the right. 

boat at night safety

If you see a red and white light from a boat ahead, it means the boat is approaching you from the starboard side. (right side)

In this case, you are the give-way vessel and must stop or slow down until the boat has crossed your boat.

Next up is overtaking a boat

pass a boat at night

If you're approaching a single white light, this indicates you are approaching the stern of a boat.

This means you're going to overtake a boat either anchored or moving at a slower pace in the same direction as you.

In this case, you can go around this boat at either side but as we constantly repeat throughout this article, please be cautious and reduce your speeds.
Better safe than sorry.

Another situation, you see only a red or green light, this means it's a sailboat in your path and you must always give way to a sailboat.

boating at night

If you're completely new trying to learn this, it can seem complicated but honestly, you'll pick it up in no time and it'll become second nature to you.

Can anyone remember learning to drive for the first time?  Well, I'm sure that seemed daunting for most at the start and then it became second nature.

The same applies to boating at night. You'll get good at it with practice. 

So to summarize, what lights need to be on a boat at night? When boating at night, you'll need three lights, red, green and white. The red light is on the port side, the green light is on the starboard and the white light is placed at the front and rear and top of the boat (all-rounder) 

How to boat at night (Another solution)

If you are willing to spend a bit of money to upgrade your visibility at night, you can purchase a multi-sensor thermal night vision camera system. 

how to boat at night

This will really help with the night vision. This isn't necessary but for those that are willing to fork out some cash, you can grab a system from a minimum of $500 and more expensive ones can cost $2,000 + depending on the grade. 

These cameras will make it much easier to see at night and are particularly useful if you are regularly boating at night. 

Please don't forget that this isn't a requirement (it's a luxury) Some boats might actually have some form of this system already installed so this might not concern all of you. 

But it is a pretty cool thing to have on-board and it certainly does help. But how many people are willing to fork out thousands on these, especially for recreational boat users

Where is the anchor light on a boat? 

Another way of understanding an anchor light is by thinking of it as the parking light. When your boat is anchored at night, you'll need an anchor light. 

This has nothing to do with the anchor itself but rather the light you'll need when stationary (at anchor)

The types of anchor lights required will vary from boat to boat but essentially it's a white all-rounder light on the top of your boat.

Remember where we said the white lights were placed above? Well, the white light placed on the roof or on top of the mast is considered the anchor light.

To keep things super simple and not get overly complicated, you need three lights. White, red and green.

There are different ways of saying each light but it is universally understood what each color actually means for you when you see it in your path.

What is the speed limit for boating at night? The speed limit will vary. There are certain rules set up in certain areas.

Example: Lake Michigan has a speed limit of 55.mph. It's the responsibility of the boat owner to know the speed limit in your local area and it's not recommended to travel at speed in the night especially when visibility is poor.

Anyone that's been on a boat at speed will know how dangerous it can be so please be very cautious with your speed at night especially when in and around harbours or other areas with a build-up of boats.

Safety when boating at night

If you haven't noticed by now, safety is a huge part of boating at night, well boating in general actual. 

What are some steps to take before heading out on the waters at night?

  • Check your red, green and white lights are fully functional 
  • Bring a searchlight/torch with you too for extra visibility. 
  • Have flares in case of emergencies. 
  • Ensure your life jackets are fully functional 
  • Make sure your communication (radios and phones are in working order) 
  • Make sure your transponder is working (this could save your life and will help signal to rescue crews where your location is should the worst happen)
  • Fire safety equipment 
  • Common Sense

These are some of the important safety precautions when boating at night. Believe it or not, common sense needs to be mentioned because some people will do ridiculous things on a boat especially at night when they think they won't be noticed. 

Obviously, we want our readers to be safe and enjoy their trip so please make sure you have safety procedures in check, you have the right equipment to be seen at night, you can make distress signals should the worst happen. 

Like all things, 99 times of 100 you'll be fine but it only takes one time and it's much better to be prepared for such an instance. 


When boating at night, you'll need to take extra caution. It's probably more difficult to boat at night (especially recreational boat users) as visibility can be very poor even with a fully lit boat. To prevent yourself from issues, make sure your boat has all the required lights and they are all fully functional. 

You'll also need to know which boats to give way to as shown in the video above.

It doesn't have to be complicated but light night driving, night boating is more dangerous than day time boating. 

Also, before heading out at night, make sure you follow the checklist above to ensure you're prepared. Most people forget the simple things so keep the checklist nearby. 

And finally, if you have any pictures from boating at night and don't mind sharing them, we'd love you to send them our way as we plan to feature some in upcoming articles. 

We love looking at all the images from our readers from around the world as each different part of the world has it's own unique challenges when boating at night. Hopefully, you've gotten some value from this article and we wish everyone a safe and enjoyable boating trip at night. As we know, boating at night can be super peaceful so enjoy it!