How to identify boats at night

If you’re boating at night or when visibility is poor, you’ll need to be able to correctly identify navigation lights on other vessels. Navigation lights are used to display different messages to other people on the water, which helps to keep you safe.


Here’s a basic overview of how to understand navigation lights.


When do I need navigations lights?

Boats must operate navigation lights between sunset and sunrise, and during the day when visibility is limited. Navigation lights tell other people on the water:

  • The direction that your boat is traveling.
  • It’s size.
  • The angle your boat is approaching from.
  • Whether the boat is anchored or underway.


A vessel is considered underway when it is not anchored, moored to shore or aground. When installing navigation lights, make sure they’re fitted by an authorised person, or the manufacturer. That way they will be in good working order, and in the correct position.


What lights do I need?

Powered vessels underway

  • Vessels under seven metres (traveling under seven knots): Require a lantern or torch with a white light. The light must be on hand, ready to be displayed in enough time to stop a collision. Sidelights (separate or combined) are also recommended.
  • Vessels under 12 metres: Must have separate or combined sidelights, a stern light and a masthead light. Alternatively, they should have separate or combined sidelights and an all-round white light. The masthead light or the white all-round white light needs to be located at least one metre over the sidelights.
  • Vessels between 12 and 20 metres: Need to have either a masthead light, separate sidelights and a stern light or a masthead light, combined sidelights and a stern light. The masthead light needs to be at least 2.5 metres over the gunwale. Combined sidelights need to be at least one metre under the masthead light.


Non-powered vessels underway

  • Vessels under seven metres: Are required to have a combined lantern located at the top of the mast (or close to it). Alternatively, separate sidelights and a stern light are permitted. Or, a lighted lantern or torch with a white light, which must be displayed in enough time so stop a collision. (These rules apply to paddle crafts too.)
  • Vessels seven to 20 metres: Need to have a combined lantern located near or at the top of the mast, incorporating a stern light and sidelights. Alternatively, a stern light and separate sidelights are permitted.
  • Vessels over 20 metres: Must have a stern light and side lights, with the option of carrying red and green all-round lights. A combined lantern is not permitted on this kind of vessel.


Anchored vessels

Any vessel at anchor, which is under 50 metres in length, must display an all-round white light in a position where it can be easily recognised. Anchor lights need to be visible between sunset and sunrise. If you are anchored or in a high-traffic area, be sure to keep close watch and display additional lights for extra visibility.


What do additional lights mean?

If you see a vessel with additional lights to the combinations listed above, it means the vessel is engaging in some other kind of activity, like dredging or fishing. It could also mean the vessel is not under command.


As a general rule, avoid any vessel displaying additional lights, especially if you’re operating a small power boat. For more detailed information on navigation lights, download this Safety Equipment and Marine Lights PDF by the WA Department of Transport here.


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sailboat on body of water