Boat Light Requirements: Which Do I Need?

Everybody wants to enjoy their time on the water, and safety regulations are in place to help achieve that. Just as important as having a life jacket for every passenger, your boat needs to be equipped with the proper lighting. Boat navigation lights are required between sunset and sunrise, and at any other times of reduced visibility. These lights can indicate the size of the boat, what it’s doing, and what direction it’s going. Boat lights are an essential way for vessels to communicate with one another.

General Rules

Boat navigation lights communicate through color, location, range of visibility, and arc of illumination. The basic rules for boats under 65.6 feet are as follows:
*All around lights. As the name implies, all around lights project a full circle of light. They are white and provide 360º of white light. They would be projected from the center of the boat and need to be visible for 2 miles.
*Masthead lights. These are also white. They shine from 112.5º on the port side of the boat through dead ahead to 112.5º on the starboard side. Therefore, the arc of illumination is 225º. Masthead lights must always be located above side lights. For boats less than 39.4 feet, visibility range is 2 miles; for those over 39.4 feet, it is 3 miles.
*Sidelights. Sidelights are red and green, and the color matters. Red lights are located portside, and green are starboard. The lights shine from dead ahead to 112.5º aft on either side of the vessel. On some boats, sidelights can be combined into one bicolor light. For boats less than 39.4 feet, the visible range should be 1 mile; for those over 39.4 feet, it is 2 miles.
*Stern lights. These are white lights that shine aft 135º (67.5º on each side). The visible range of illumination should be 2 miles.


For sailboats that are less than 7 meters long, the general boat navigation lights apply. If, however, regular marine lights cannot be used or installed practically, there is another option. Your sailboat must have an electric torch or lantern that emits a highly visible white light that you can deploy in time to prevent collisions.


Powerboats need to have a masthead light forward, sidelights and a stern light. Vessels less than 12 meters in length can have an all around white light and sidelights. Powerboats on the Great Lakes may carry an all around white light instead of a second masthead light and stern light combination. Sidelights may be combined into a single bicolor light fixed at the centerline of the boat.

You’re Responsible
As the boat operator, you need to know how to interpret the lights that you see, as well as display the boat lights you are required to have. Remember that boat lights are the sole responsibility of the owner/operator, nobody else. When you buy a boat, the lights that come with it may not meet legal requirements and it’s up to you to make sure that they do. It’s also important to remember that the rules around angles of visibility must be met when the boat is underway, and you may need to adjust your lights accordingly.