Fogged in? Fishing Before Dawn?

Posted: August 24, 2011

Here's how to stay safe when visibility is limited

By: Mike Baron, U.S. Coast Guard

In just minutes, fog, heavy rain and even snow can reduce visibility on the water to just a few yards, leaving boaters confused as to their position and what obstructions may be around them. At sunset, recognizable shoreline features disappear, often replaced by unfamiliar and confusing lights that leave many boaters disoriented and unsure how to get home safely. At night, depth perception and color recognition are impaired. Other boats may be operating without lights, in violation of federal law requiring navigation lights from sunset to sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility. Without lights, boats can be very difficult to see on the water.

Operating a boat when visibility is restricted increases the risk of hitting fixed objects in the water and colliding with other boats. That’s why it’s prudent to lessen your risk by taking preventive action that includes slowing to a safe speed, energizing your navigation lights and sounding the appropriate sound signals for your vessel type, as required by the Navigation Rules, available online through the Coast Guard Navigation Center at navcen.uscg.gov. It is also important to post responsible lookouts who will use all of their senses to determine what lies ahead in time to avoid an accident. A lookout should scan 360 degrees, as accidents at night can occur when a vessel is overtaken from behind.

In addition to navigation lights, the Navigation Rules require all ­vessels to carry sound-producing devices for use during meeting, crossing and overtaking situations. Sound signals are also required during periods of reduced visibility to make other boaters in the area aware of your relative position and the status of your vessel; for example, a power-driven vessel under way and making way is required to sound one prolonged blast at intervals not to exceed two minutes.

Is it easy to get lost or disoriented when visibility is limited? It is. Things look very different at night, which can be stressful for inexperienced boat operators. Expect the unexpected. Practice good risk assessment when deciding whether to boat in the dark. Make sure your required safety equipment is on board, including visual distress signals, and that everyone is wearing a life jacket. Take a boating course through your local Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons or state boating authority, and educate yourself on best practices for boating at night.