Boating Safely: Do I Need Navigation Lights On My Boat?

Date Posted: 21 December 2022 

Boating Safely: Do I Need Navigation Lights On My Boat? main image Boating Safely: Do I Need Navigation Lights On My Boat? image

Boat navigation is crucial to ensure that your vessel is on the right track throughout your voyage. When charting a course, it is of the utmost importance that you prioritise the safety of other boats as well as your own. One way to do this is to invest in navigation lights for your boat.

What Are Navigation Lights On a Boat?

Navigation lights are usually displayed on a boat to ensure safety while on open waters. These lights help indicate what size and type of vessel you're in, whether you're at anchor or underway, and your direction of travel. Navigation lights come in different sizes and colours — usually white, red or green — all of which convey different messages regarding your vessel and position.

There are 5 types of navigation lights for boats including:

  • Al-round white light: a white light displaying an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 360 degrees.
  • Masthead light: a white light placed over the centreline (bow to stern) of a boat or ship, displaying an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 225 degrees.
  • Sidelights: a green light on the starboard (right) side and a red light on the port (left) side of a boat. Each displays an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 112.5 degrees. On vessels up to 20m long, the sidelights can be combined into one light unit, carried on the centreline (bow to stern) of the vessel.
  • Sternlight: a white light placed near the stern or the rear of the boat, displaying an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 135 degrees.
  • Tricoloured combined lantern: a combination of sidelights and sternlight at the top of the mast of a sailing boat.

The type of lights you need depends on the type of vessel you are in. The placement of your lights is also very important to ensure that they display the appropriate arc of light and meet the minimum range of visibility. They should also be installed in such a way that the light source is not obstructed by anyone or anything at any point.

Why Do You Need Navigation Lights?

Navigation lights are used to prevent collisions at night or in times of reduced visibility. Without navigation lights, you are putting yourself and others at risk. By using the appropriate boat navigation lights, you will be able to see other nearby vessels while at the same time making your presence known to them.

Knowing how to read navigation lights is essential when you are enjoying the water. Being able to recognise the lights on other vessels can help avoid collisions and accidents.

Here is a breakdown of what different types of navigation lights mean.

Vessel at Anchor or Underway

An all-round white light indicates that a vessel is at anchor. This is the same for any vessel up to 50m long at anchor. An all-round white light or torch light could also indicate that a vessel is underway. This applies to any vessel up to 7m long. When a vessel is underway, it may be going in any direction. It could either be moving towards you, away from you, or crossing left or right.

Vessel Travelling Towards You or Away from You

If you see a green light to your port and a red light to your starboard, this indicates that a sailing boat or powerboat is travelling towards you. Sailing boats or powerboats that are using their engine may also display a masthead light. However, if you see an all-round white light or white sternlight, this could indicate that a sailing boat or powerboat is moving away from you.

Vessel Crossing Your Path

If a vessel is crossing your path, you can determine the direction of travel based on the colour of the sidelights. For instance, if you see a red sidelight, the boat is crossing your path from your right side to your left side. A green sidelight in turn will indicate that the boat is crossing your path from your left side to your right side. While a powerboat or sailing boat using its engine also displays a masthead light, ships or other large vessels over 50m long display two masthead lights.


The top three lights are vital in interpreting a dredge’s restricted manoeuvrability. The sidelights show you which side is safe to pass on. The side that is green is all clear, while red indicates obstruction to the side. If you see red, do not pass from that side.

Vehicular Ferry & High-Speed Ferry

Vehicular ferries are quite distinct and easy to spot. These ferries display two red lights at either end. They also display a green light above the red light placed in the direction of travel. In addition to this, they also display an all-round orange flashing light. With high-speed ferries, they display the normal lights for a powerboat underway, along with an all-round flashing yellow light when travelling at considerable speed.

Commercial Fishing Vessel

Commercial fishing vessels display special lights to convey their current activities, such as trawling. Since trawling restricts manoeuvrability, it can be dangerous to pass from that side. If you see a commercial fishing vessel travelling towards you, pay attention to the colour of lights displayed. If you see a green light over white, this indicates that the ship is trawling. If you see a red light over the while, it indicates that the ship is fishing.

Navigation Lights on Smaller Boats

If a boat is smaller in size, chances are that they will use smaller lights, so make sure to be on the lookout. Small boats usually only display a single white light or a torch light. This can indicate that the boat is at anchor or travelling away from you. If you see a lot of lights, or lights up high, this usually indicates a much larger vessel, such as a ship or commercial fishing boat.

What Are the Rules Regarding Navigation Lights?

Navigation lights are always required to be displayed when it is dark out, including  the period of time from sunset to sunrise, and at times of restricted visibility, such as when there’s fog, smoke or glare.

This is because there is a range of visibility requirements for different lights which will have an impact on the effectiveness of the light beam. The minimum range of visibility for all-round white lights is 2 nautical miles. Due to this fact, the light should not be obstructed by any person or any part of the boat. As for masthead lights, vessels up to 12m long have a range of 2 nautical miles, while vessels between 12 and 20m long need masthead lights with a range of 3 nautical miles. When it comes to sidelights, vessels up to 12m long need to have sidelights with a range of 1 nautical mile, while for vessels between 12 and 20m long this is increased to 2 nautical miles.

There are boat navigation light rules regarding what type of light you must use depending on the size of the boat as well. When at anchor, all vessels up to 50m long must display an all-round white light in a spot on the boat where it can best be seen.

The type of light you must display when underway is different depending on your boat size.

Powered Boats

For powered boats up to 7m long, you need to have an all-round white light and separated or combined sidelights if possible. For vessels up to 12m long, it is a must to have separated or combined sidelights. You must also have a masthead light and a sternlight, along with an all-round white light. The masthead or all-round white light must be a minimum of 1m above the sidelights. If the boat size is between 12m and 50m long, it must have a masthead light placed at a minimum of 2.5m above the gunwale, separated or combined sidelights, and a sternlight. If using combined sidelights, they must be placed at a minimum of 1m below the masthead light.

Sailing Boats

With sailing boats up to 7m long, they must display sidelights and a sternlight, if possible. With sailing boats sized between 7m and 20m, they must display either a combined lantern with sidelights and a sternlight at or near the top of the mast, or separate sidelights and a sternlight. There is no requirement for boats over 20m long to carry a combined lantern. They must, however, display sidelights and a sternlight. Sailing boats may also carry two all-round lights placed in a vertical line at or near the top of the mast. The upper light should be red, while the lower light should be green.

Paddle Crafts

It is recommended to wear a head torch if you are in a paddle craft. For paddle crafts or rowboats over 4m long, it is required to display two all-round white lights, with one at each end of the boat. The lights can be displayed in continuous beams or a combination of continuous and flashing.

Get Navigation Lights at Mr Boats Today!

If you are planning to set sail, be well-prepared for night-time or any tricky weather conditions with the best navigation lights available at Mr Boats! With every product meeting our high standards, you can rest assured that you will only receive the finest quality at the best prices available all-round!

As a Sydney-based family run business with over 100 years of industry experience, our qualified staff can guide you through any marine-related query you may have. Not only will we be able to point you in the right direction, but we can also provide expert advice regarding any minor installations.

Browse our wide range of boat navigation lights at Mr Boats and get in touch with us today for any enquiries!

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