Navigation Lights for Sailboats (And How To Read Them)

Navigation Lights for Sailboats (And How To Read Them) | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

Navigation lights on a sailboat can be confusing. If you understand the reason behind why they are the way they are however, they can make a lot more sense.

At their heart, sailboats are really just a power boat and as such must adhere to all power boat rules such as navigation lights. Other times however, a sailboat is classified in a special category. They have a set of additional lights they CAN show as an option, but are not always required to do so.

That’s about as clear as mud if you ask me and I contend that that is where the confusion about lighting a sailboat begins.

Just because you can show a light to identify yourself in times of low visibility, does not mean you have to and then we add in a little sibling rivalry between power and sail and things get downright adversarial when it comes to navigation and the night.


Table of contents

The USCG says You’re a Power Boat Whether You Like It or Not

Much to the consternation of many a sailor who has earned a commercial license to drive their sailboat, when you received your credential from the USCG it says you are a master of steam and power across the top with no mention of wind as a source of propulsion.

It is not until you read the back pages of your little red book that feels like a passport and looks like a US Sailing credential, that you will see the term “sail auxiliary”. That is because most of the time the U.S. Coast Guard knows that you are primarily reliant on your mechanical power to propel your vessel.

It's a sad thing, but the days of commercially viable sail boats are done and all but the most select few even have sails let alone use them as their primary power source. All sail boats by law are powerboats, but not all powerboats are sailboats.

Navigation Lights for a Power Boat

As a power boat, you are required to show certain lights and have been required to do so before power was even invented. 

In the days of man powered vessels like the viking ships who relied on oars while in close quarters to power their vessels, they needed to show other boats, friend or foe, where they were by showing lanterns in the dark to identify themselves. As you know, it is a time honored rule among all the nations of the world both past and present, that you must avoid a collision at all costs while at sea and even the viking knew that you should not run into things.

By lighting the front and back of your boat, you could warn other boats of your presence as well as identify which way you were heading. As such there is a very specific rule in the Code of Federal Regulations Number 46 (CFR46 by common name) that spells out with detail how many, the color, the luminosity or brightness, the angle of visibility and the location of all of the lights required for navigation on every single boat, seaplane, submarine and other nondescript vessel conceived by man to date that they must show while underway in reduced visibility.

And there is no flexibility in the rules.

As such a power boat, and by extension all sailboats, MUST, without question show one green light on the starboard bow and one red light on the port bow and one all around white light or lights while operating in reduced visibility. These lights should shine at all 360 degrees of visibility with the bow lights shining at an angle of dead ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the beam and the stern lights shining 225 degrees dead aft. A forward facing masthead light that is white in color shall shine forward to comply with the directive that all vessels must carry an all around white light. For more read here.

As you can see, there isn’t much wiggle room when it comes to lights that must be shown.

Sailboats get a little flexibility with lights

Sailboats however, are a little different when they are in fact sailboats, which is only when you are entirely reliant on the wind for power and in no way reliant on any mechanical or manual means of propulsion. And for good reason.

Back in the day when men were men and sailboats were wooden, fire was a major concern. Sails were coated with wax and other flammable substances and the wood on boats was saturated with oils and grease. Even the ropes were plant materials saturated with oils to keep them pliable and strong.

Add those highly flammable substances to a parching environment like the sea and you had what was essentially a giant floating tinderbox.

Then tell that giant floating tinderbox that they need to identify themselves to the world at large at night using oil lamps with flames because batteries and lights were not invented yet. It didn't take very long or very many ships burning to the water line for the Governments to say to the sailboats, you get to do things a little different.

As such, sailboats are given special dispensation when it comes to lights aloft. They don't have to show an all around white light in their rigging because no one wanted to set their rig on fire with oil lamps 60 feet up in their rig.

However, when a sailboat takes their sails down such as when they are powered or at anchor, they must resume the display of an all around white light or lights aloft. That became a real challenge with aluminum masts and the disappearance of rat lines on the shrouds because there was no easy way to climb the rig and check the bulbs up the mast on a regular basis. 

Red over Green Sailing Machine

I have no idea where the history of this particular light comes from, but if you ever take a deck exam with the USCG, you better remember this mnemonic. An all around red light over an all around green may be displayed on a vessel during times of reduced visibility to indicate that a vessel is operating under sail power alone. 

I won’t even speculate on how or why they came up with this particular light configuration, but if you want to use these lights as a sailing vessel, you can do so, but that means that you will need three all round lights at the top of your mast, an all around white, an all around red and an all around green, just in that order.

The red over green is to be displayed in addition to the running lights or the red and green bow lights with the 225 degree stern light. As always, when the motor comes on, so does the steaming light or the forward facing white light that is also usually about ¾ of the way up on your mast to complete the requirement of an all around white light that indicates a power vessel.

What is a “steaming light” and why are you mentioning it now?

Most sailboat electrical panels will have a switch that is labelled “steaming light” and it will only come on when your anchor light is off. This is probably the most confusing part of sailboat navigation lights so if you are confused about this, you're in good company as most people are. 

A “steaming” light is named thusly, going back to the days of steam powered sailboats where when they fired up their boilers and doused the sails, they became a power boat once again. There aren’t too many steam powered boats, let alone steam powered sailboats, but the name stuck and it is a vestige of a bygone era.

Either way, when you fire up your motor, you turn on your “steaming light” and that locks out the all around white light which is used for anchoring to minimize the number of switches on your panel and reduce the number of wires in your mast. The fewer wires, the less chance of something not working or becoming disconnected.

The steaming light and the anchor light both go up the mast, but you can’t use an all around white light while using the 225 degree stern light at the deck level because to other boaters you would look like you have two white lights from the stern and that would be confusing.

The anchor light is used exclusively for anchoring while the steaming light is used to indicate you are a power vessel while underway.

As to why I am mentioning it now in the article, is because this would have blown your mind if I started with this subject cause it can be really confusing stuff.

Aspect Recognition with Lights

Remember when I said earlier that lights can help you tell others which way you are heading as well as tell you which way other boats are heading? That is called the aspect of the vessel and the USCG tests you on this for your deck exam as well. 

Knowing that the bow lights go 22.5 degrees abaft the beam on both sides or 112.5 degrees on each side, and the stern light faces 225 degrees aft for a total of 360 degrees of visibility, you can tell a lot about where a boat is heading and who has the right of way.

One thing that's easy to remember is red means stop and if you see a vessel's red light, it means stop as you are the give way vessel and approaching the other vessel from his port side. Conversely it works with green as well as that means you are approaching from the other vessel's starboard side and you are the standon vessel.

If you see a red and green light equally low on the horizon, that means your heading dead on into another vessel's path and conversely if all you see is a white light low on the horizon, it means you are overtaking another vessel power or sail, we don’t care because it is an overtaking situation. However, any time you do see a white light aloft in addition to the red and green bow lights, you know you are encountering a power boat.

Then there are angular approaches as well, where you see white and red or white and green light low on the horizon. You know in that case you are seeing a portion of the bow lights and stern lights from the side approaches of a vessel. Based on which direction those lights are heading, you can deduce which way that boat is going in relation to your boat.

So put it all together and you see a green light and a white light low on the horizon with a red over green light aloft, you know that you are approaching a sailboat that is traveling to your port and that might make you the standon vessel. That is of course, if we didn’t concern ourselves with windward and leeward and port tacks and starboard tacks, but that is a discussion for another article. So stay tuned when we talk about sailing rules and the right of way. But for now, do good, have fun and sail far.

Navigation Lights for Sailboats (And How To Read Them)
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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Navigation Lights for Sailboats (And How To Read Them)

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