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What color lights do you need on a boat at night?


Proper lighting is crucial for safe nighttime navigation on boats. The color, placement, range and arc of visibility of lights on boats are regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules. These rules help prevent collisions by improving other boats’ ability to determine your boat’s position, heading and intent.

What are the navigation light requirements for recreational boats?

The U.S. Coast Guard requires recreational boats under 20 meters (65.6 feet) to display navigation lights between sunset and sunrise as well as during periods of reduced visibility. Here are the basic navigation light requirements for recreational boats:

  • Red and green sidelights visible from a minimum of 2 miles away – the red light is on the port (left) side and the green light is on the starboard (right) side.
  • An all-round white light visible from a minimum of 2 miles away – this can be the boat’s masthead light or mounted on the stern.
  • An all-round white light visible from a minimum of 1 mile away – this is the sternlight and required on power-driven vessels.

These lights help other boats determine your position and heading at night. Power-driven and sailing vessels have slightly different requirements – for example, sailboats also need a second masthead light when under sail.

What are the rules for light placement on boats?

In addition to having the proper colored lights, placement and angles are also regulated. Here are some key rules:

  • Sidelights must be visible from straight ahead to 112.5 degrees to the side.
  • Sidelights should be placed at or near the maximum beam width of the vessel.
  • The masthead light should be at least 1 meter higher than the sidelights.
  • The sternlight should be placed as near as possible to the stern and positioned to show the vessel’s wake.

Correct placement ensures other boats can properly interpret your orientation and direction of travel.

When are all-round white lights required?

All boats must display all-round white lights as follows:

  • A masthead light that shines forward and to both sides, with a minimum visibility of 2 miles.
  • A sternlight shining aft with a minimum visibility of 2 miles on boats less than 50 meters long or 3 miles on boats 50 meters or longer.

The masthead light helps other boats determine your presence and approximate direction of travel. The sternlight shows your direction and helps prevent collisions in crossing or overtaking situations.

What about anchor lights?

When anchored between sunset and sunrise, boats are required to display a third all-round white light that is visible for 360 degrees with a minimum visibility of 2 miles. This anchor light alerts other boats to your anchored status.

When are high-intensity flashing white lights required?

Boats 12 meters or longer must have a high-intensity (over 100 candelas) flashing white light visible from 2 miles away. This helps attract attention and improves visibility of large vessels that may be hard to see at night.

The light should flash at regular intervals between 60-120 times per minute. Areas of reduced visibility, strong currents and channels with heavy traffic are all times that this light should be used.

What about sailing vessels and boats under oars?

Sailboats and non-motorized boats have some additional lighting requirements:

  • When under sail at night, a second masthead light is required placed in line with the stern and forward masthead light.
  • Non-motorized boats like canoes, kayaks and rowboats are only required to have a white light ready to be shone to avoid collisions, but don’t have to actually show the light unless necessary.

These requirements help discern sailboats at night and prevent collisions with small non-motorized boats that may be hard to see.

What are recommended extras?

In addition to the navigation lights required by the Coast Guard, many boats also have:

  • Steaming lights – Brighter forward-facing white lights when underway.
  • All-round red/green/yellow lights – Improves visibility when anchored in busy areas.
  • Spotlights – Helps identify objects and navigate tricky areas.

These extras can further reduce the risk of collisions, groundings and improve safety. Just be sure not to shine spotlights directly at other boats.

What about interior and deck lights?

Interior lights like cabin and cockpit lights should be turned off or minimized when underway at night. Bright interior lighting reduces night vision and makes it harder to see outside. Use red light bulbs in areas that need light.

Deck lights should be off or dimmed unless needed for safety when performing tasks or walking on deck. Like interior lights, bright deck lights make it harder for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.

What about high-speed or enforcement boats?

Certain vessels are exempted from standard navigation lighting requirements:

  • Public safety boats can show a rotating blue light instead of navigation lights when engaged in law enforcement or public safety activities.
  • High-speed powerboats can apply for exemptions if lights are impractical.

However, even exempt boats will still show white masthead/stern lights when not actively engaged in their duties.

What are penalties for improper lights?

Having proper navigational lighting is legally required, not optional. Boats violating lighting requirements can be fined $5,000 civil penalty by the Coast Guard. Plus, improper lighting could endanger your own and others’ lives and property if it leads to a collision.


Proper night boating lighting improves safety and prevents collisions by enhancing other boats’ ability to determine your position, heading and intent. Red and green sidelights, all-round white masthead/stern lights and anchor lights are all required at night. Sailboats, powerboats, motorboats and human-powered boats all have specific lighting regulations. Following the Coast Guard navigational lighting rules is a legal requirement and essential for safe nighttime navigation.

Light Color Visibility Range Purpose
Red 2+ miles Port sidelight – indicates left side of vessel
Green 2+ miles Starboard sidelight – indicates right side of vessel
White 2+ miles Masthead light – indicates presence and direction
White 2+ miles Sternlight – indicates direction
White 2+ miles Anchor light – indicates anchored status
Flashing White 2+ miles Improves visibility on large vessels

This covers the essential nighttime navigation light requirements for recreational boats in the United States. Always check your specific state boating regulations as lighting standards may vary in some local jurisdictions or conditions. Proper lighting is a vital safety requirement, so make sure your boat has all the necessary colored lights installed and mounted in the correct locations before heading out after dark.