A column of caution about holiday boating lights

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 1, 2003

Special to the News-Herald

Here it is just a few days after Thanksgiving and the Madison Avenue machine is well underway with commercials! We have the songs, the sales, appearances by the Jolly Elf – there is no end! SAVE, SAVE, SAVE, the signs are everywhere. School holiday events are underway, and every day closer to the event the more antsy the kids get!

At the same time that children are madly dashing off letters or, nowadays e-mails to the North Pole, religious organizations are gearing up for holiday celebrations and while a team of family members have begun searching for the new holiday decorations bought at last year’s day after Christmas sale.


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This coordination requires the persistence of Patton, matched with the strategy of Clausewitz. It is the holidays.

Most recreational boaters get involved in &uot;ringing in&uot; the holidays in different locations. The &uot;Parade of Holiday Lights&uot; is a stable for maritime communities all over the country. Some locations such as Annapolis Maryland and Norfolk Virginia really go all out. Yacht Clubs really get into it, with some pretty amazing decorations.

One question that always seemed to be asked by recreational boaters, both sail and power, is what additional lights or decorations can recreational boaters put on their vessels to celebrate the season while still following the Nautical Rules of The Road?

Good question. The Nautical Rules of The Road are very specific when it comes to the issue of &uot;additional&uot; lights and their display. These rules apply not only to holiday decorations or festive additions but the overall change an operator might make to any fixed lighting scheme onboard while the vessel is underway or anchor. However, if a vessel is pierside you can decorate to your heart’s content.

The reason for the rule, and its application to underway or anchored vessels, is simple. By following the Nautical Rules of The Road operators can be confident, especially during foggy, snow filled nights, that the masthead light and side lights that are seen on the horizon, from a different boat, really show that vessel headed towards you, on an east to west course. In addition by using the correct lighting scheme operators quickly summarize when vessels are involved in specific activities such as towing or fishing. The potential confusion provided by festive lights could endanger both vessels. The interfere and overall disruption of night vision, that additional lights could have on a look-out or operator, are significant.

What exactly do the rules say about additional lights? Rule 20 has the answer for both Inland and International Rules.

&uot;The Rules concerning lights shall be complied with from sunset to sunrise, and during such times no other lights shall be exhibited, except such lights as cannot be mistaken for the lights specified in these rules or do not impair their visibility or distinctive character, or interfere with the keeping of proper look-out.&uot;

Like all rules there are exceptions, such as providing an opportunity to display holiday decorations and lights in a controlled environment as part of an event. This decision is made by the controlling Coast Guard Captain of The Port. Random displays however, that cloud another vessel’s understanding or view are not in keeping with the Rules, plain and simple.

Bottom line, keep it simple and reasonable ensuring placement in an area where others views are effected. Until next week, boat safe, boat smart and a belated Happy Thanksgiving!