Flashlight no substitute for proper nav lights

From Ocean Navigator #62
July/August 1994
A near collision with an unlighted sailing vessel while underway in the Florida Keys reinforced in my mind the importance of proper use of vessel navigation lights.

Sailing friends have frequently complained to me about the burdensome navigation light requirements in the Rules of the Road, since navigation lights can contribute to substantial battery drain. They insist that a sharp lookout will allow adequate time to utilize a flashlight to identify one’s position.

On a recent March evening, while sailing generally north in the Gulf Stream, our vessel was making good about eight knots. There had been light commercial traffic which was easily identified visually due to the extremely clear evening skies coupled with a full moon. The commercial traffic was plotted on radar and passing information exchanged by VHF. At approximately 2000 hours, I noticed a "ghost-like" appearance of a sail illuminated by a flashlight on the port side of our vessel. My immediate assumption was that we were encountering a small sailing vessel which would be passing us along our port side, and thus my first inclination was to turn to starboard for additional clearance. No navigation lights were visible on the vessel, and so it was very difficult to determine its heading. The requirements of Rule 12 of the Rules of the Road were obvious in my mind in that our vessel had the wind on the port side and the other vessel was clearly to windward. Therefore, since I could not determine whether the other vessel had the wind on its port or starboard side, I knew our obligation was to keep out of the way. But without navigation lights and with the vessel only having identified its position seconds before, what maneuver would be the safest?

The captain, being on deck, told me to hold course while she ran forward to the bow for a closer examination of the other sailing vessel. She immediately notified me that the vessel was crossing our bow, and she took control of the helm for an immediate turn to port, allowing the other vessel to clear our bow. As the other sailing vessel passed our starboard side we saw it was approximately 40 to 46 feet in length! When we hailed this vessel and questioned her crew as to boat’s lack of lighting, the crew replied that they were trying to conserve electrical power.

As a voyaging sailor, I certainly understand the need for conservation of power while under sail, but the use of a flashlight to identify a sailing vessel is certainly no substitute for proper navigation lights, which assist other vessels to make proper judgments regarding course changes to avoid collisions.

I recognize there is an exemption covered in Rule 25 for sailing vessels less than seven meters. This exemption is understandable for a small boat, but clearly does not apply to a 40-foot vessel! Were it not for the careful lookout we had been maintaining in unusually clear weather, a collision could have occurred since the other sailing vessel was not previously visible to us by sight or by radar until the last minute flashlight signal.

John Laurie is a judge, sailor, and navigation instructor who lives in Chicago.

By Ocean Navigator