Light in a pinch

Work by the light of headlamps

Routes from Florida to the Bahamas are as short as 50 miles, but they all involve crossing the Gulf Stream and hopefully arriving during daylight hours and early enough to clear Customs. For most sailors, this means an evening or night departure with an overnight sail, which is what we were doing when voyaging from Palm Beach to West End, Grand Bahama. Unfortunately, one of our steering cable ends broke off in the middle of the Stream, with a stiff wind blowing and a lumpy sea — in the pitch dark.

Work by the light of headlamps
Dave McCampbell and a voyaging friend work by the light of headlamps to fix one of his cat’s auxiliary drives.

I had a sick feeling while hanging upside down below the steering box, peering at the loose cable end by the dim light of a flashlight. Then I noticed that the steering chain the cable was attached to had come off the sprocket of the wheel! Major surgery on our steering system would be required in order to be able to get going again. Luckily, our catamaran was able to sort of heave-to by going to a triple-reefed main and a rolled-up jib, holding us at a slight angle to the seas.

Our custom cat had an unusual steering box attached to the cabin bulkhead that required removal of the wheel, then backing out lots of screws, just to see what was going on. Needless to say, this would be a time-consuming job requiring plenty of light to see what I was doing. At first, I started out with a small flashlight held in my mouth, which is often useful for small jobs but not for long-term work. I tried various headlamps that slipped off my head as I hung upside down. In the end, the best technique was for my wife to hold a more powerful flashlight pointed at where I was working on the many difficult-to-remove screws.

After much struggle, everything was put back together only to discover that I had somehow crossed the cables when reattaching them to the steering sprocket chain! Turning the wheel right made the boat go to port. I tried steering the boat like that for a while but decided that it just wouldn’t work, so I had to take everything apart all over again. Once fixed, we almost made it to West End before one of my jury-rigged repairs broke again, necessitating an interesting entrance to the harbor, steering from the stern with lines leading to each rudder while my wife ran the throttle and shouted directions since I couldn’t see anything. But, at least the sun was up!

Let there be light
Unfortunately, tales like this one are a staple of many cruisers’ get-togethers, and a lot of these “adventures” seem to happen at o’dark-thirty. This is why emergency lights and onboard lighting are so critical on any boat. Having owned, lived aboard and cruised a wide variety of cruising sailboats for more than 40 years, I have a lot of unfortunate experience with both emergency repairs and emergency lighting. These episodes have taught me some basic truths.

First, quantity is more important than quality with flashlights. It is easy to spend a fortune on macho-looking, so-called “tactical” lights that have eye-piercing outputs, water resistance equivalent to a submarine and the ability to fight off pirates when needed. But if you drop one over the side or it dies in the midst of a repair, it does no good. Flashlights have so many uses that I reach for one multiple times each day. I prefer having three or more of the exact same light all stored together near my chart table where I can put my hand on them even in the pitch dark. If one is lost or dies for some reason, I reach for the next. If the batteries go on one, I reach for another.

Second, I like to scatter similar flashlights all around the boat. There should certainly be one near each sleeping position and several near the main navigation/boat operation areas — you almost can’t have too many. To keep things much simpler and more redundant, I buy lights in batches when I find the right ones. It is important to limit the number of battery sizes required. At the moment, I am in the process of trying to eliminate the need for AAA-sized battery lights on board, though in recent years many of the smaller LED flashlights utilize them. I have found that putting three, small AAA batteries the correct way into some tiny battery carrier, then inserting that into the light, can be tricky in the dark on a moving boat. Plus, the smaller batteries seem more prone to early failure for some reason. I just had a large batch of them start leaking well before their expiration date. Always store batteries in plastic containers and segregated as much as possible so one leaking battery doesn’t make a mess of a whole batch. Each spring when the boat is commissioned, I try to rotate the oldest batch of batteries off the boat for use at home, replacing them with a fresh batch. Write the year on every batch.

I recently found some inexpensive Rayovac plastic LED lights that each take two AA batteries —they also have some other characteristics I like. I have found that AA-sized batteries are the most easily found anywhere in the world. In a pinch, it is useful to be able to switch batteries between lights.


I have tried rechargeable batteries on board, but they have been a failure for several reasons. First, despite whatever capacity they claim, I have found that after a few uses they never perform as well as fresh alkaline cells. Second, recharging can be slow and inefficient on board without a ready source of shore power, and I find rechargeables inevitably lose their charge faster than you would like, making it hard to have enough charged ones on hand. Keep in mind that if your repair has to do with the electrical system, recharging batteries might not be an option. Third, rechargeables are highly variable, with some dying an early death and others never working well from the start. With alkalines, I can easily carry a large stash, providing instant backup well beyond any possible need. They are very consistent in quality. Today’s LED flashlights run a very long time on a couple of AA alkaline batteries.

Third, for general use on board, I prefer plastic lights. They are lighter, provide some water resistance and won’t cause possible short circuits if dropped on the ship’s 12-volt batteries. I won’t go into the gory details, but I know from experience that the big tactical aluminum-bodied flashlights can cause a dead short circuit if dropped onto a battery by accident. For general purpose flashlights, I like small ones that I can easily hold in my mouth. Yes, headlamps are great, and I do use them, but the first light you grab is often the one you have to use when fixing something, and the ability to hold the light in your mouth can be invaluable.

With regard to headlamps, quality is important, but quantity is key. Have several headlamps available because one will undoubtedly die at the critical moment in a repair. Again, if the lights are identical and use the same batteries, it will make life easier. Frankly, I have found most ordinary hardware store headlamps are OK for many purposes, but the best ones add durability, water resistance and superior run times.

One of the most important things to look for in a headlamp is how well it stays on your head. I find that many elastic straps give up the ghost after a while on board, and many others never have enough grip in the first place to stay on properly, possibly while hanging upside down to look at something. Sometimes it is possible to get the headlamp to stay in place by wearing a tight-fitting baseball cap, putting the headlamp over the cap. The bill of the cap helps to keep the lamp from sliding down and also shields your eyes from some of the glare.

The fourth main issue is that many headlamps and flashlights feature brightness instead of longevity. You often don’t want the brightest light around, and instead are much better off with a lower level of illumination. For example, I keep an old cheapo non-LED, 2-AA flashlight next to the steering station for use in reading charts or instrument panels when on night watch. I only want the bare minimum of light to do that, so I don’t ruin my night vision, and many modern LED lamps just put out way too much light. Another time I want a little light, but not much, is when working on deck at night. I might need a teeny bit of light to make sure something is tied down properly, but I don’t want a blazing light reflecting off the white decks and blinding me.

Many headlamps have multiple brightness settings. You will find that the lowest setting is often plenty, if not too much. Obviously, the lower the light output, the longer the batteries will last, too. One small problem with LED lights is that they just cut off completely once the batteries reach some low-voltage threshold. For this reason, it is important to change batteries more often than you might with older incandescent flashlights. It is wasteful, but rather than running batteries to the bitter end, it is important with LED flashlights to change them out at the first sign of diminished output.


All or nothing
It is a rare occurrence, but I have had to completely shut down the boat’s main electrical system in order to troubleshoot a problem. Of course, it happened at night, well off the coast of Honduras while motoring through a long calm. The first sign of trouble was the smell of something electrical burning —never a good smell on a boat! My first thought was a short somewhere, so I quickly shut down the engine and turned off the main battery switch. We soon realized that the smell wasn’t going away, and I could see smoke, which led me to the problem — one of the main batteries was red hot and smoking. I had to disconnect the battery cables in the pitch black, and the battery still remained super hot. I concluded the battery (a newish one too) had an internal short. I was eventually able to wrangle the battery up to the cockpit where it could cool off, but then had to reconfigure the battery cables in order to make the bank 12 volts, and therefore able to accept a charge from the engine. A lot of work in the dark.

This is a scenario where placing a standalone LED bulkhead light could prove to be very useful. I have purchased some inexpensive ones from discount stores, and they work well. Just push a button and you have area illumination not tied to the boat’s main electrical system. Magic! I have one of these mounted just inside the companionway and near the main battery switch. When I have to shut everything off, I know I have light if I need it.

Another thing this scenario has pointed out to me is that there was a certain wisdom in the old battery setup many boats used to have: two equal battery banks with a 1, 2, Both switch. With that type of arrangement, it was easy to shut down half the system and then proceed using the other half of the system. Today, a lot of cruising boats have setups with a dedicated starting battery and a main battery bank. That’s what I use today, along with an On/Off battery switch. The starting and main batteries are isolated, but the starting battery is trickle charged from the main battery bank when the engine is running.

This battery system works perfectly most of the time, but in an emergency I shut down almost the entire electrical system when the main switch is turned to Off (I have separate fused circuits for the automatic bilge pumps, the solar panels and the electronics so they don’t get turned off).

In any case, turning that main switch off would mean no lights on the boat. However, I also carry a variety of made-up battery cables in different lengths in order to be able to cobble together a working battery system if one battery or one part of the system fails. I might want to use these cables to re-route the charging current from the alternator directly to the starter battery, or I might use a cable to supply power to the lights from the starter battery. You may already have this capability via various switches, but I have used the emergency cables so many times I consider them invaluable. One scenario I have encountered is one of the main battery switches failing, requiring a bypass. I purchase inexpensive cables with the ends I need from auto parts or discount stores — they are not for long-term use, but instead for emergency operations. Having a couple as long as six feet is good, and having them color-coded red and black is handy.


Nowhere to run
Another very common lighting problem is to have one or more running lights go out at night. It is not a huge problem offshore as long as you keep a reasonable watch, but it can be dangerous in areas with traffic. If you lose your red and/or green lights down low, you can probably get by with a masthead tricolor or even just an all-around white anchor light at the top of the mast. In fact, the anchor light is visible at greater ranges than most red/green lights and will make it appear to other vessels like they are overtaking you, which is likely to encourage them to avoid you. A good workable substitute for the red/green lights is a set of battery-powered, portable dinghy running lights. Unfortunately, I have found that most of these quickly fail from corrosion, but they are a worthwhile backup. One of the most effective ways to alert other traffic to your location is to shine a light on your sails, and/or shine a flashlight or medium-powered spotlight in the direction of a large ship. Try to avoid shining spotlights at the bridge of other vessels.

Earlier, I noted that quantity was more important than quality with flashlights, but it is important to have at least one light that will work underwater. This is where one of the tactical-type lights can work well, especially if it has a lanyard for looping around your wrist. I also like to have a way to run a light line from the light to my body, in case I should drop the light. Some waterproof headlamps can work but I have found it hard to swim with the light on my head while also using a snorkel and directing the light where I need it. More than once I have had to dive down at night to check out something under the boat. While it is not a pleasant experience, a good light can make all the difference. The waterproof, sturdy light with the lanyard might also be the one to grab when going forward at night in a storm to fix something, or when hanging over the side of the boat to make a repair. I keep one that uses multiple D-cell batteries clipped to a bulkhead below the chart table and next to the companionway where it can serve all of these functions. This big light has a focusing beam that is also effective as a spotlight when looking for buoys, etc.

One gizmo I have found invaluable for buoy searching is a laser pointer. Obviously, never point one at other boats or aircraft! The focused, narrow beam can often pick up a reflectorized buoy long before any light.

In the past, I used to always have a rechargeable main spotlight, but they suffered from the same problems rechargeable batteries do (as noted above). Premature death of the rechargeable light is common, and they often use proprietary batteries. I still use a plug-in, powerful spotlight on occasion. There are times when you just need lots of light and lots of power. However, with today’s quality LED flashlights with focusing beams, I find the spotlight is less useful.


Plain old candles make fantastic alternative emergency lighting. The short, fat ones work the best because they are easy to set up in an old jelly jar or something to prevent hot wax from dripping all over. Candles seem to last forever on board, making a good lighting backup. To light them, and our stove, I keep many long-nosed butane fire starters on board, as well as boxes of plain old kitchen matches.

It sounds dangerous having an open flame like you do with lamps or candles, but boats were using these lighting methods for hundreds of years before electricity, and a good dose of water solves most potential flare-ups. I personally have had several electrical short circuits that were starting fires on board but have never had a candle or lantern fire.

The advent of inexpensive and reliable LED lamps has made a huge difference in reliability and variety. This is one piece of equipment where “marine grade” is not always needed and not always the best. There are some great brands of tactical and camping lights that provide excellent performance too, but my mantra is “more is better”! n

John Kettlewell is the executive director of Sail Martha’s Vineyard, a nonprofit that teaches sailing to more than 600 young people every year on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

By Ocean Navigator