Out After Dark? A Guide To Boating At Night

May 30, 2012

Even with endlessly long summer days, sooner or later you may want to stretch your boating fun past sunset and into the evening. And while there are some things you need to consider before you take this step, you are missing out on half the fun if you only hit the water under blue skies. Here’s what you need to know to be safe when the sun goes down.


Cruising under the moonlight can make you feel like you’ve got the place to yourself. More than likely, you don’t. You’ll need to be on the lookout for the running lights of other vessels, aids to navigation in the water, and 100 others things that inevitably pop up out of nowhere at night. Since your reaction time will be slower, and your eyes will be working overtime to distinguish all kinds of different shapes, ease up on the throttle. By the way, that creature you see in the water is more than likely not a mermaid: If you’re cruising the Intracoastal Waterway down South…it’s probably a manatee.


You may be tempted to shut off your running lights sometimes…especially if you’re drifting (or at anchor). This is a big mistake if you’re anywhere near the channel. Many times you will justify going incognito because there’s a decent moon, and once your eyes adjust, you can see just fine. But it’s critically important that you leave your lights on when you’re out on the water. They are not for you, after all. They’re for the other boaters to be able to spot you from a distance. The more reaction time, the better.


Even with the required running lights, your eyes can still play tricks on you. Boats running in your line of sight can confuse your senses at times and convince you that you’re seeing something you’re not. For that reason, always try to maintain a fairly consistent track at night. Doing donuts, figure eights, and zigzagging across the water is asking for trouble. Plus, any passengers onboard may not be ready for abrupt maneuvers and could be tossed overboard. Since they will they be tougher to spot in dark water, you risk striking them with the boat or propeller.


Music and boating go together like peanut butter and jelly during the day. But after hours, it’s more like peanut butter and anchovies. In other words, it’s really bad form to blast your tunes above background level. Sound carries extremely well over water, and even a moderate volume can be an annoyance to folks who have already packed it in for the night. Keep your tunes at a level where you can have a normal conversation. You can cut loose again the next day when you break out the watersports gear.


It is a real bummer to run out of gas any time and any place. But when you’re out on the water at night, it’s an entirely new level of trouble. Being in a position where you can’t avoid other objects and get yourself home is bad enough, but it is a long, difficult process for someone else to have to find your position in the dark, down some off-the-beaten-path canal. Make sure you top the tank off before the sun goes down, while the fuel stations are still open and easy to see.


There is something really thrilling about sliding into the water at night. Note the word “sliding.” Diving into dark water at night is a really bad idea. Because no matter what that depth finder says, you never know what submerged tree, Pinto fender or ridiculously tall rock lurks beneath the surface. And since you’re going into the water at night, don’t take a chance that your head will be the first hard object that makes contact. Whatever you do, just go gentle into that good night (swim).

KEEP YOUR WITS           

You already know that your reaction time will be diminished because of the darkness. You’ll add to those effects exponentially with every cocktail. And if that wasn’t bad enough, reduced inhibitions will increase the hey-watch-this instinct that can turn a fun cruise under the stars into an evening that is best avoided. Stay off the booze. It’s your responsibility as captain.