I originally wrote this for Sport Boat. Here it is again with the original title and some edits/back and forth:
NIGHT RIDES: Develop Your Own Night Vision
Miami at Night
Even when I was very young I enjoyed being on the water at night. I absolutely love running at night and running great distance at night over the open ocean in small boats is something that to me is absolutely thrilling. I have been lucky enough to be involved in circumstances that allowed for this. I will always remember running in a 42 Fountain with 502 MPI’s on Bravos way south of the border and coming into San Diego just as the sun was coming up. Big Pacific seas in total darkness for hours, thrilling times.
Independence Day remains my favorite holiday. It stems from watching fireworks from our family’s cruiser on the lake. Since those early years, I have logged thousands of hours underway at night. In the hunt for drug and illegal-alien traffickers, I’ve run large vessels, including Coast Guard Cutters with suites of electronic navigation gear, as well as small, fast hulls with no navigation gear, in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. When I lived in Puerto Rico, we ran as often as we could to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands in our Donzi center console. Time on the other islands was precious to me, so leaving early and getting home late was the order of the weekend getaway. And that meant running at night, because night rides gave us much more island time.
Night boating can be fun, safe, and rewarding, but like anything else some tools and some training can help.
But first, a couple of basics that should be obvious, but too often are ignored:
• Don’t Drink and Boat: If you consume or intend to consume any alcohol or any other substances, leave the boat docked. Night operation brings a variety of stressors that are amplified by alcohol and drugs. There is an absolute zero tolerance for consumption of anything hat may alter your ability to function at less than your maximum ability.
• Don’t Navigate “Blindly:” If you’re unfamiliar with the area or with night operation, don’t go or limit your time underway. The most essential tool you need for night operation is the ability to develop your own night vision. Your eyes are your best aid in night operation. You must adjust to the dark and allow your eyes to be able to see at night. The only way to do this is to make your surroundings as dark as possible. You have to make sure your navigation lights are set properly and fitted with shields to prevent light from spilling back to you. All other lights should be off. I have seen boaters use “spot lighting” while underway. For your safety and the safety of other night boaters, do not use this method. Not only are you destroying your night vision but you also can destroy the other boat operators’ night vision. If you do see a light or have to look at a white light, try to look side to side and not directly at the light. We always have red-lens flashlights to illuminate charts or anything else we need to view while underway at night, because the red light does not kill your night vision. At night on the trailer or dock, set up all your navigation lights. Ideally you will have a forward mast light, sidelights, and a stern light. The forward mast light, with a 225-degree arc of visibility, should be a high centerline, at least 1 meter above the sidelights, forward of the operator and shielded so light does not spill into your eyes. Boats less than 12meters are allowed to have one all-around white light in lieu of the mast and sternlight. Ensure you can manage your cockpit lights, cabin lights, stereo lights, and instrument lights. While your gauge panel may not have a dimmer switch, your GPS display most certainly does and you need to know how range or depth perception can be compromised. The ability to see relevant objects at greater ranges and take early action to avoid collision can be compromised. The ability for the night vision tools to see is often based upon the availability of ambient light. Even with infrared capabilities, this type of equipment is best suited for well-trained personnel who are using them for specific purposes and usually in a very close engaging situation.
In general, slower is better at night. Keep in mind that we do have a speed limit on all waters. Rule No. 6 of the inland/international COLREGS tells us we must maintain safe speed for the given conditions. Regardless of what we might think, this is a speed limit. Rather than nailing down a prescriptive rule to where simple-minded government legislatures and the uninformed public feel comfortable, this rule allows everyone in the powerboat world to think and use their experience and skill to determine the safe speed for any condition, day or night. At night, safe speed for you may be clutch ahead and safe speed for others maybe minimum planning speed. This is for you to determine; weather conditions, other boats, background lights, and everything else must be taken in consideration when determining safe speed. You should never lose sight forward of your bow, and this includes coming on and off plane. If you do lose sight foreword you need to learn how to drive or set up your boat so you do not. Finally, before you head out check to be sure you have the correct navigational lights for your boat. Know how to read and manage your gauge panel and GPS and where to find the dimmer on your GPS. If you are prepared and knowledgeable about your boat and practice safety at all times, you will have a great time.
Oh, and one more thing: Don’t let next July 4 be your first night on the water. That’s one of the busiest boating nights of the year. Practice night operation on slow nights where there is little or no boat traffic. That will continue to build your knowledge, awareness, and confidence. Have fun and stay safe.