Boat Navigation Lights

Boat Lighting – Complete Guide to Navigation Lights

I was sitting in the garage the other day admiring my boat when I noticed the green navigation light on the side of the hull, and it dawned on me that I haven’t had the boat out after sunset yet. It also got me wondering about the different places I’d like to travel this summer and what it would be like to navigate in the dark if I had to.

In addition to the legally required lights, I highly recommend having a marine waterproof spotlight in your boat at all times (this is the one I prefer, which you can buy on Amazon with tons of good reviews). The little headlight on a boat is nowhere near bright enough to safely navigate if you get caught on the water at night. Trust me, it can save you thousands in boat repairs and a dangerous situation.

I wanted to make sure that I fully understood everything there was to know about navigation lights, so I did some online research. I’ve put together a complete guide of the information I found online talking about the different navigation lights and what I needed to know about them.

What Are Navigation Lights On a Boat?

Boats require specific lighting configuration when operating between sunset and sunrise, or at times when visibility is restricted such as when it’s raining or foggy. Navigation lights are used to help other boaters see you when visibility is reduced, and it allows you also to see the other boaters to avoid collisions.

Navigation lights are also used to communicate with the other boats sharing the water. For example, the navigation lights can tell another boater, what size your vessel is, and in which direction you are heading. This information can be used by the boat caption to determine what the appropriate course of action would be as you approach each other.

By law, the navigation lights come in specific colors; white, red, and green. Even the arc of the illuminated light, the range of visibility, and the location is all specific to what type of vessel you are operating.

Do not assume that your boat came with the appropriate lighting or equipment from the factory or showroom. It is your responsibility to make sure that your boat has the proper navigation lighting configuration before you head out on the water.

What Type Of Boats Requires Navigation Lights?

Basically, in a nutshell, all boats require navigation lights if you’ll be operating them between sunset and sunrise, or whenever visibility is reduced.

This goes for the following types of vessels:

  • Motorized vessels
  • Non-motorized vessels
  • Sailing vessels (Operating under sails)
  • Sailing vessels (Operating under motor power)
  • Vessels engaged in fishing
  • Vessels engaged in trawling
  • Towing vessels
  • Anchored vessels
  • Human-powered vessels such as Rowboats (Kayaks and canoes)

What Lights Are Required On a Boat?

Boats are required to have navigation lights. Navigation lights are required whenever you are operating your vessel between sunset and sunrise, or during any other times when your visibility is restricted from elements such as fog or rain.

The type of lights required depends on the length of your vessel as well as if it’s a powered or non-powered vessel. But in general, all navigation lighting systems will consist of red and green sidelights, as well as one or more white lights. A red sidelight indicates the port side of the vessel, while a green light shows the starboard side of the vessel. The white light in most cases is called an all-around light, which means it can be seen from any angle by other boaters.

Another type of navigation light is a yellow light. A yellow light is not very common to see, but if you do happen to see one, it would mean that a  lead boat is towing another boat. 

It is your responsibility to make sure you have the proper navigation lighting. It is also recommended that you take spare bulbs with you. The USCG doesn’t care if the lights were working when you left, they only care that the lights are not working when they are required.

Lights Required For Power Vessels Underway:

A powered vessel includes all motorized boats, including sailboats that use a motor.

boat lighting 1

Vessel length: Under 12 meters (39.4 FT.)
Lighting requirement:

  • One all-around white light that is visible at 360 degrees, and can be seen from two miles away. The all-around white light must be mounted at least 39 inches above the side lights.
  • A pair of red and green sidelights that are visible 112.5 degrees and can be seen at least one mile away.
boat lighting 2

Vessel length: 12 meters to 20 meters (39.4 FT. to 65.6 FT.) 
Lighting requirement:

  • A white masthead light located at the front of the boat, pointing in the direction you are traveling. This must be visible at 225 degrees and from two miles away. The masthead light must be positioned at least 8 feet above the gunnel.
  • A white stern light located at the rear of the boat that is visible at 135 degrees and can be seen from 2 miles away.
  • A pair of red and green sidelights that are visible 112.5 degrees and can be seen at least one mile away.

Lights Required For Non-powered Vessels Underway:

A non-powered vessel includes sailing vessels and all other types of vessels that don’t have motors such as paddled, poled, or rowed.

boat lighting 3 a

Vessel length: Under 7 meters (23 FT.)
Lighting requirement:

  • You are required to display a white light that can be seen by other boats. White light could consist of a flashlight, torchlight, or lantern.
  • If you can, it is recommended that you have an onboard 360-degree white light all-around set on the horizon, with a distance of at least two miles.
boat lighting 3
boat lighting 4

Vessel length: Over 7 meters (23 FT.)  – NEED 3 IMAGES
Lighting requirement:

  • A white stern light located at the rear of the boat that is visible at 135 degrees and can be seen from 2 miles away.
  • A pair of red and green sidelights, that are visible 112.5 degrees and can be seen at least one mile away.
  • Alternatively, for sailboats of that are over 7 meters in length, they can display what is called a tricolor light
    A tricolor light can only be used while the vessel is underway using sails alone and never while underway by power. This light should also never be used at the same time that the regular sidelights are on. Either the tricolor light or sidelights can be displayed, but never both.

Lights Required For Vessels At Anchor (Less Than 50 Meters):

This rule applies if you are anchored away from a designated area such as a marina.

Vessel length: 12 meters to 20 meters (39.4 FT. to 65.6 FT.)
Lighting requirement:

  • White all-around light is required to be used so you are visible to other ships that could be in the area.
boat lighting 5

Due to variances in state boating laws/regulations, NASBLA does not provide state-specific information. You may contact your state boating office for the most accurate information. Contact information can be found here:

Understanding The Difference Between Port And Starboard Lights

While standing on the deck and facing the front of the ship, the left side is called the Port and the right side is called the Starboard. The port is always red, while the starboard is always green.

This information is crucial to understand if you ever find yourself trying to navigate the waters at night or while your visibility is limited. For example, if you are sailing towards another vessel, you will be able to tell if that vessel is heading towards you, or if it is heading away from you based on which side the green and red lights appear to you. 

If you see a red light coming towards you, that would mean the other boat is on your right, which means that boat would have the right of way. If you see a green light from an oncoming vessel than you would know that it’s on your left, which means you have the right of way.

When Should Navigation Lights Be Displayed On a Boat?

Navigation lights are required to be displayed in between sunset and sunrise, and anytime that visibility is restricted. For example, due to fog or rain.

Where Can You Buy Navigation Lights?

As discussed earlier, not all boats automatically come with the proper display of navigation lights. It is your responsibility to ensure that your boat has all of the proper equipment for your safety and the safety of others.

The prices for navigation lights will vary anywhere between $9.00 to $100.00 depending on what style and manufacturer you buy. You could even spend as much as $500.00 on some of the higher-end navigation lightings.  Be sure to shop around and take a look at what is available, to ensure that you are finding the best lights, at the best prices. 


      All-Round Light: White (32pt/ 360°)
      Masthead Light: White (20pt/ 225°)
      Sidelights: Red (10pt/ 112.5°) & Green (10pt/ 112.5°)
      Stern Light: White (12pt/ 135°)   

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