Boating in the dark is tough and even if you’ve never gone cruising at night before, you can guess why: you can’t see much of anything. And that includes the stuff you’re about to hit. That's probably why the vast majority of us keep our time on the water limited to the daylight hours. But if you go boating long enough, eventually you’ll find yourself staring into the inky blackness of a night sky. Maybe mechanical difficulties postponed your return to the dock. It could be that you were tempted by tales of a hot bite (read Striped Bass Fishing at Night to pick up some pointers). Or perhaps you absolutely, positively have to reach the next harbor before sunrise. Whatever the reason may be, these 10 tips for boating at night will help you get through the darkness.

boating at night

Boating at night has some obvious hazards. The trawler seen here ran aground on the beach in Atlantic City, long after the sun went down. Photo courtesy of the United States Coast Guard.

1. Gear up, even if you don’t really plan to be out after dark. Every boat should have an emergency flashlight aboard. A bag of glow-sticks is also helpful; if you find yourself out after dark have each crewmember crack one and put it in a pocket or on a lanyard, so if someone falls overboard they can be easily spotted. And consider getting some night-vision gear. Sure, this stuff used to be the domain of Navy Seals and millionaires, but that’s no longer the case. For a couple thousand dollars you can pick up a forward looking infra-red night vision scope (See the FLIR Ocean Scout review at the end of this article for more info) and for a few thousand more, larger boats can be outfitted with fixed-mount night vision cameras that pipe their imagery to your MFD display.

2. Turn down the ambient light. Dim everything you can as much as you can, from the chartplotter to the courtesy lights. Any and all light on your boat reduces your ability to see beyond the bow, because your eyes automatically adjust to the amount of light available to them. When your eyes detect a level of brightness above that of the surroundings they may adjust to “mesopic” vision, used for intermediate light levels, where neither the rods nor the cones in your eyes function at peak efficiency—what we commonly call “killing your night vision”.

3. Slow down. Yes, we know this one’s pretty obvious, but if you’ve ever been on the water at night you’ve probably seen some nut-ball roaring across the water at highway speeds. On a night with full moonlight in open, un-congested waters you may (or may not) have enough visibility to feel safe just barely breaking a plane, but when it’s really dark out, pre-planing speeds are in order.

4. Post a look-out (who isn’t driving). The captain has concerns that go beyond watching ahead. You have to monitor the gauges, adjust the throttle, and check the chartplotter. In broad daylight you can afford to glance away now and again to take care of these tasks, but at night there must always—always—be a pair of eyes directed to the horizon and nothing else.

5. Use the chartplotter as little as possible. Even in fully dimmed modes, looking at a chartplotter will temporarily diminish your night vision. Glance at it sparingly, and instead use your compass to hold a proper, if less than ideal, heading.

6. Keep a towel handy. You can use it to drape over any light-giving item that you can’t afford to completely black out, like that chartplotter, gauges, or the VHF display. Then, when you need to look at these items, all you have to do is pull the towel away.

7. Don’t believe your own eyes when they tell you the chartplotter is wrong. Things get deceiving on the water after dark, especially when looking for lighted landmarks. A close bell buoy may appear bigger and brighter than a distant lighthouse and can easily draw you off course, for example. If your chartplotter tells you one thing and your eyes tell you another, second-guess yourself—and slow down even more, if possible, until you figure out who's right.

lights at night

Multiple lights on the horizon make it difficult to figure out what's where - can you pick out the lighthouse, or the markers? When in doubt, trust your electronics.

8. Leave the “headlights” and the spotlight turned off. Sure, it’s comforting to be able to see clearly for a few dozen feet. But that’s about all those lights can do for you, and between the glare and the effect on your night-vision, you won’t be able to see one bit beyond that. Headlights on boats are really called docking lights, and that’s exactly what they’re good for. Spotlights should only be turned on and panned for a moment or two, to locate reflective markers or other objects you’re specifically trying to find.

9. Try to avoid looking at or getting close to boats with their docking lights or spotlights on. First off, since they’re leaving those lights on you know they’re probably inexperienced at night cruising and likely are out of their depth. Secondly, if a wave or panning causes one of those lights to suddenly point directly at you, you’ll lose all semblance of night vision and find yourself temporarily blinded.

10. Don’t tilt your head back and gaze at the stars for more than a moment or two. This may well be tempting on a clear, calm night, because the stars seem 100 times brighter than they do on land. Without all the usual light pollution, stargazing from a boat can be incredible. But if the boat’s in motion, staring at the heavens for more than a few seconds can give you vertigo. Worse still, once vertigo hits seasickness often follows—even for experienced mariners.