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Federal Requirements and Safety Tips for Recreational Boaters

Equipment Requirements 

Navigation Rules

Rules require vessels to display lights and shapes under certain conditions.
 

Navigation Lights

Recreational vessels are required to display navigation lights between sunset and sunrise and other periods of reduced visibility (fog, rain, haze etc.). The U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules, International-Inland encompasses lighting requirements for every description of water craft. The information provided here is intended for power-driven sailing vessels less than 20 meters.

Power-driven Vessels

Power-driven vessels of less than 20 meters, shall exhibit navigation lights as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 
Sail w/lights (power under 20m) graphic.  Boat w/lights (power under 20m) graphic. 

 

Vessels of less than 12 meters in length, may show the lights in either Figure 1 or Figure 2.

Power-driven vessels of less than 7 meters whose maximum speed cannot exceed 7 knots may exhibit an all-around white light, and if practicable sidelights instead of the lights prescribed above, in International Waters only.

Figure 2 
Boat w/lights (tall) (under 12m) graphic.  Boat w/lights (squat) (under 12m) graphic. 

 

The masthead or all around white light on power vessels less than 12 meters in length must be at least 1 meter above the red and green side lights.
 

Sailing Vessels and Vessels Under Oars Sailing vessels less than 20 meters may exhibit the navigation lights shown in Figures 3 or 4.

Figure 3 
Sailboat w/lights (sails under 20m) (hull lights) graphic A.  Sailboat w/lights (sails under 20m) (hull lights) graphic B. 
A  B 

 
 

Figure 4 
Sailboat w/lights (sails under 20m) (hull and top lights) graphic A.  Sailboat w/lights (sails under 20m) (hull and top lights) graphic B. 
A  B 

 
 

Figure 5 
Sailboat with combination lantern. 

 
 

Another option for sailboats is to use a single combination lantern at the top of the mast as shown in Figure 5.

Sailing vessels less than 7 meters may carry an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light to be displayed in sufficient time to prevent collision (see Figure 6A). If practicable, the lights prescribed for sailing vessels less than 20 meters should be displayed.

Vessels under oars may display the lights prescribe for sailing vessels, but if not, must have ready at hand an electric or lighted lantern showing a white light be displayed in sufficient time to prevent collision (see Figure 6B).
 

Figure 6 
Flashlight on small sailboat.  Flashlight on small rowboat. 
A  B 

 
 

Shapes and Lights

To alert other vessels of conditions which may be hazardous, there are requirements to display lights at night and shapes during the day.

Anchored Vessels

At night, power-driven vessels and sailing vessels at anchor must display anchor lights. An anchor light for a vessel less than 50 meters in length is an all-around white light visible for 2 miles exhibited where it can best be seen (see Figure 7). During the day, vessels at anchor shall exhibit forward where best seen, a ball shape (see Figure 8).
 

Figure 7 
Small boat, anchor light graphic.  Sail boat, anchor light graphic. 
A  B 

 
 

Figure 8 
Small boat, anchor ball graphic.  Sail boat, anchor ball graphic. 
A  B 

 
 

Vessels less than 7 meters are not required to display anchor lights or dayshapes unless anchored in or near a narrow channel, fairway or anchorage, or where other vessels normally navigate.

Anchor lights are not required on vessels less than 20 meters, anchored in special anchorages in Inland Waters designated by the Secretary of Transportation.
 

Sailing Vessels Under Power

During the day, vessels under sail also being propelled by machinery, must exhibit forward, where best seen, a conical shape with the apex pointing down (See Figure 9). Vessels less than 12 meters are not required to exhibit the dayshape in inland waters.
 

Figure 9 
Sail/dayshape ball graphic.  Sail/dayshape lights graphic. 
A  B 

 
 

At night, sailing vessels operating under machinery or under sail and machinery are considered power-driven and must display the lights prescribed for a power-driven vessel.
 

Restricted Maneuverability

The Navigation Rules require vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver to display appropriate day shapes or lights. To meet this requirement, recreational vessels engaged in diving activities may exhibit a rigid replica of the international code flag "A" not less than one meter in height or at night display the navigation lights shown in Figure 10. This requirement does not affect the use of a red and white divers flag which may be required by State or local law to mark a diver's location. The "A" flag is a navigation signal indicating the vessel's restricted maneuverability and does not pertain to the diver.
 

Figure 10 
Small boat with restricted maneuverability - daytime graphic.  Small boat with restricted maneuverability - night graphic. 

 

Coast Guard Separator Bar 

Courtesy Exam LogoFor the CME, all vessels 16 feet or greater must have operable navigation lights and an all around anchor light at the time of the examination. Sailboats capable of both power and sail must be able to display navigation lights for both systems.

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