Skip to main content


Mike’s Rules Redux

Mike’s Rules Redux

Last month we looked at steering rules and signals for vessels in sight of one another. This month it’s lights, day shapes and sound signals, emphasizing Inland Rules but not including the WesternRivers or Great Lakes. Interestingly, the Inland Rules do not apply to some harbors — for example, Block Island, R.I., and the lower Florida Keys, which fall under the International Rules. Examine your charts and read the Coast Guard Navigation Rules for details and descriptions of COLREGS demarcations.

1. The idea behind running lights — properly called navigation lights — is to help other vessels readily determine the orientation of your boat relative to them. All vessels of a given size must show running lights from sunset to sunrise in all weather conditions. When running lights are required, no lights that might cause confusion or be mistaken for lights in the Rules can be displayed. You can’t use any lights that might interfere with the visibility or character of running lights or with maintaining a proper lookout. Day shapes, when required, are displayed from sunrise to sunset — duh.

2. Coming up on a powerboat from astern, you see her stern light. Drawing farther ahead as you pass (the situation and sound signals permitting), the 135-degree stern light will no longer be visible; the masthead, or “steaming,” light and a red or green side light will come into view when you are 22.5 degrees abaft her beam. With these navigation lights, you can readily determine your position relative to her. You’ll know she’s under power because all vessels under power must show a white light. Boats smaller than 23 feet can get away with a single all-around white light, but she must show a steaming light when under power.

3. A vessel larger than 164 feet that’s under way exhibits a range light — a second masthead light abaft and above her masthead light — as well as stern and side lights. As long as masthead lights can be seen through an uninterrupted arc of 225 degrees (forward to 22.5 degrees abaft the beam) they don’t have to be at the top of a mast.

4. Powerboats must keep out of the way of (in order of priority): A) a vessel not under command, showing by day two black balls in a vertical line and by night two vertically aligned all-around red lights (“red over red, the captain is dead”); B) a vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver — usually a workboat — showing by day two vertically aligned black balls with a black diamond shape between and by night two vertically aligned all-around red lights with an all-around white light between (“two reds and a white means working tonight”); C) a vessel engaged in fishing, showing by day two black cones point-to-point (or a basket if smaller than 65 feet) and by night an all-around red over all-around white, though trawlers show all-around green over white (“red or green over white means fishing tonight”); and D) sailing vessels, showing side and stern lights. By the way, recreational fishing and trolling boats are treated as powerboats, not fishing vessels.

5. Vessels constrained by their draft to a channel show by day a vertical black cylinder and by night three vertically aligned all-around red lights (“rudder rubbing rocks”). All but vessels not under command stay out of her way.

6. Sailboats under way must keep out of the way of (in order of priority): A) vessels not under command, B) vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver, C) vessels engaged in commercial fishing.

7. Fishing vessels under way must keep out of the way of (in order of importance): A) vessels not under command, B) vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver.

8. While under way and making way, all vessels show side and stern lights. (Special rules may also apply depending on the size of the boat.)

9. Sound signals include a prolonged blast (four to six seconds) when in an area where another vessel may not see you coming, such as when leaving a dock or nearing a bend. In restricted visibility, power-driven vessels sound a prolonged blast at least every two minutes. Vessels under sail or with other restrictions in ability to maneuver sound Morse “D” (one prolonged followed by two short blasts) every two minutes or less. There’s more, of course, so RTM (read the manual).