With all of its risks and rewards, boating during the day can be complicated enough, so it follows that boating at night is an even more complex task, as the darkness adds to all the factors present in brighter hours. Anchor lights, the lights that are visible when a boat is anchored at night, are a key factor in making nighttime boating both easier and safer.
If you only take your boat to a designated mooring and never plan on anchoring, then it is not necessary for you to use an anchor light. However, unexpected things always happen on the ocean, so no matter what your plan is, it is best to be prepared for nearly any possible situation.
The term “anchor light” refers only to the state the boat is in when it is being used, and has nothing to do with the physical anchor itself. If you have spent some time on the water, you have undoubtedly seen at least one — many of them look like a light on a stick, to put it plainly. On sailboats, anchor lights are placed at the top of the mast, while anchor lights on a motorboat are placed near the bow or stern. Lights for this purpose are increasingly in the form of LED lights, which have less of a drain on the battery. If you are concerned about battery drain, another option is to purchase lights that are charged with solar energy so you can power them up during the day and turn them on at night. Make sure that the charge will last through the night, though!
As with anything that involves the safety of boaters, there are regulations surrounding what types of anchor lights are to be used and how they are to be used.
The types and numbers of anchor lights that you must display vary depending on the type of boat that you have. Anchor lights must be all-around white lights, which means that the bulb cannot at any point be restricted. This means that the key to placing an anchor light is to put it where it is visible for 360 degrees. Anchor lights must be placed higher than any other navigational lights, which is the reason that many are placed on a steel pole.
Vessels under 50 meters must display one white all-around anchor light on the highest point of the boat, which must be visible for two miles when visibility is clear. If your vessel is over 100 meters, you must display the light on the masthead or other highest point, in addition to other lights that illuminate your decks so that the shape and size of your boat can be clearly discerned.
Sailboats with masthead anchor lights may also want to consider an additional cockpit light as a safety measure, as boats that are low to the water may on occasion not have a line of visibility to the masthead and as a result could come into contact with your boat.
Sometimes having an anchor light turned on many seem like an unnecessary waste of power, or if you are in a designated anchorage even perhaps silly. Think of it instead as a liability issue — if anyone crashes into your boat during the night, whether it is a dinghy or a supertanker, you are at fault if you do not have an anchor light. Boats are expensive enough to begin with; you do not want to risk having to pay for damages if someone else caused them.
In some specially designated anchorages, it is not necessary to have an anchor light. These anchorages have been determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security and are not just anchorages maintained by a particular town or club, so never assume that an anchorage will not require you to have an anchor light.
Whether or not the anchorage you are using requires you to have an anchor light, it is always better to be safe, particularly in an environment as untamed as the ocean. No matter what size or type of boat you have, you should always have an anchor light to use if necessary. As with many other components of your boat, regularly check to make sure the anchor light is approved by the Coast Guard, so you can be sure you are getting the best product.