Night-time Boating

Navigation lights help other boaters see you — they’re not to help you see

The hazards of boating at night (with tips)

by Art Kilgour

The story read like a boating nightmare.

In August 2019, two cottage boats collided at 11:30 pm on Lake Joseph in Muskoka, killing two people and injuring an additional three. One craft was a waterski boat driven by Linda O’Leary, the wife of Canadian businessman and TV personality Kevin O’Leary. The other vessel was a pontoon boat with 11 people on board, driven by Richard Ru. Following the accident, both boats left the scene in order to get emergency help.

The tragedy resonated with boaters everywhere. It was a dark night on a busy lake. There was no moon in the sky to guide the drivers. The pontoon boat allegedly did not have its navigation lights on. Both drivers were charged by the OPP following an investigation, O’Leary with “careless operation of a vessel,” and Ru with “failing to exhibit a navigation light.”

(O’Leary was found not guilty after a trial in 2021. The evidence showed that the pontoon boat had indeed turned off its navigation lights while it sat stationary in the water.)

How to safely operate a boat at night

Here’s a consensus of advice from articles that appeared in boating publications following the Muskoka accident.

  1. Don’t drink and drive. This applies during the day of course, but it becomes crucial at night, when your vision is already compromised. It is as dangerous and illegal to boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs as it is to drive a vehicle on land while intoxicated.  Always boat sober!
  2. How fast? Your sense of speed and distance is compromised in low light. A safe speed is a LOT slower than daytime speed.
  3. Use your navigation lights. Navigation lights (two small red and green lights at the bow, a single white light at the stern) are the law after dark. They don’t help you see; rather, they help you to be seen!
  4. Have almost no light on board, especially near the driver. The driver’s pupils must be fully dilated in order to navigate in the dark. Boat headlights make things worse, not better, because they block  dilation. (They’re actually intended for docking, not navigation.)
  5. The moon and stars can help. A full moon in a clear sky helps a lot. It illuminates the general area without disturbing the driver’s night vision. Even a moonless night features some ambient light from the stars. However, don’t try to boat on a night with no moon and an overcast sky. It’s like driving a car in fog.
  6. What about the horizon? In familiar waters, we navigate largely by land-based clues — islands, shoreline, rocks, familiar trees, and the horizon. On a calm clear night with moonlight, the lake reflection distorts all this because you lose the line where lake meets land. What to do? Drive slowly!
  7. Rise up, above the windshield. The driver should get his/her head up above the windshield. Any lights in the boat cabin will reflect off the windshield and may destroy forward vision. It’s not a bad idea to have a second set of eyes (a lookout) outside the cockpit.
  8. All your usual safety gear. Of course, you should be carrying all the usual safety gear on your boat — that’s true at any time of the day. Everyone should be wearing their life jackets as well. Have a flashlight at the ready (or with the lookout person), not to see forward but to signal other boats in an emergency.
  9. If you do have a backlit navigation device on the dash, cover it with a towel and glance at it only briefly, otherwise it kills your night vision.
  10. Stargazing. One of the joys of night-time boating is stargazing, with a full view of the sky. But that’s for the guests. The driver should stay focussed on the water. And leave your navigation lights on.

Further information on night-time boating

Kayaks and canoes should also display lights when navigating after dusk