Navigation Light Rules


Navigation Light Rules graphic comparing sailboats, boats at anchor and powerboats

By Tom Burden, Last updated: 4/17/2019

Recreational boats operating at night are required to display navigation lights between sunset and sunrise. Recent changes to the Inland Navigation Rules make them nearly identical to the International Rules, so we will describe the International Rules to simplify the choices.

Light Definitions and Basic Rules

  • Port sidelights are red, starboard sidelights are green and both shine from dead ahead to 112.5° aft on either side.
  • Stern lights are white and shine aft and 67.5° forward on each side. (Thus, the sidelights and stern light create a full circle of light.)
  • All-round lights are white and shine through 360°.
  • Masthead lights are white and shine from 112.5° on the port side through dead ahead to 112.5° on the starboard side for a total of 225° forward. They must be above the sidelights.
  • Sailboats under power are considered powerboats.
  • Sailboats with sails up during the day, but are also under power, must fly a black "steaming cone," with its point downward, where it can be seen. When under power they must follow the rules of the road for powerboats.

Chuck Hawley discusses options for navigation lights on your boat and what lights you can combine.

Navigation Lights Requirements Depending on Vessel Size

Navigation lights requirements vary depending on the length of the boat. Larger boats are required to use lights with a higher visibility range and cannot combine sidelights into a single bi-color light. Find the size range that your boat falls under in the list below for light requirements for your boat.

Less Than 16' Canoes and Kayaks

  • Under Power: Sidelights, stern light and masthead light are required. Sailboats operating under engine power are considered power driven and must follow the "Under Power" rules. During the day, motorsailing vessels are required to fly a motoring cone. You may substitute a single bi-color light for sidelights and combine the masthead and stern light into a single "all-round" light.
  • Under Sail: Sidelights and stern light. You may substitute a tricolor masthead light for seperate sidelights and stern light.
  • Rowing: Same as "Under Sail"
  • At Anchor: All-round light with minimum visibilty range of 2nm at night or black anchor ball during the day when anchored outside a designated anchorage.
  • Minimum Visibilty Range: Sidelights must be visible for at least 1nm. All other lights must be visible for at least 2nm.

Vessels 16' to 26' (Less Than 8m)

  • Under Power: Sidelights, stern light and masthead light are required. Sailboats operating under engine power are considered power driven and must follow the "Under Power" rules. During the day, motorsailing vessels are required to fly a motoring cone. You may substitute a single bi-color light for sidelights and combine the masthead and stern light into a single "all-round" light.
  • Under Sail: Sidelights and stern light. You may substitute a tricolor masthead light for seperate sidelights and stern light.
  • Rowing: Same as "Under Sail"
  • At Anchor: All-round light with minimum visibilty range of 2nm at night or black anchor ball during the day when anchored outside a designated anchorage.
  • Minimum Visibilty Range: Sidelights must be visible for at least 1nm. All other lights must be visible for at least 2nm.

Vessels 26' to 40' (Less Than 12m)

  • Under Power: Sidelights, stern light and masthead light are required. Sailboats operating under engine power are considered power driven and must follow the "Under Power" rules. During the day, motorsailing vessels are required to fly a motoring cone. You may substitute a single bi-color light for sidelights and combine the masthead and stern light into a single "all-round" light.
  • Under Sail: Sidelights and stern light. You may substitute a tricolor masthead light for seperate sidelights and stern light.
  • Rowing: Same as "Under Sail"
  • At Anchor: All-round light with minimum visibilty range of 2nm at night or black anchor ball during the day when anchored outside a designated anchorage.
  • Minimum Visibilty Range: Sidelights must be visible for at least 1nm. All other lights must be visible for at least 2nm.

Vessels 40' to 65' (Less Than 20m)

  • Under Power: Sidelights, stern light and masthead light are required. Sailboats operating under engine power are considered power driven and must follow the "Under Power" rules. During the day, motorsailing vessels are required to fly a motoring cone. You may substitute a single bi-color light for sidelights.
  • Under Sail: Sidelights and stern light. You may substitute a tricolor masthead light for seperate sidelights and stern light.
  • Rowing: Same as "Under Sail"
  • At Anchor: All-round light with minimum visibilty range of 2nm at night or black anchor ball during the day when anchored outside a designated anchorage.
  • Minimum Visibilty Range: Masthead must be visible for at least 3nm. All other lights must be visible for 2nm
  • A copy of the Navigation Rules and Regulations must be kept on board at all times and is available in our books selection.

Vessels 65' to 165' (Less Than 50m)

  • Under Power: Sidelights, stern light and masthead light are required. Sailboats operating under engine power are considered power driven and must follow the "Under Power" rules. During the day, motorsailing vessels are required to fly a motoring cone.
  • Under Sail: Sidelights and stern light. You may substitute a tricolor masthead light for seperate sidelights and stern light.
  • Rowing: Same as "Under Sail"
  • At Anchor: All-round light with minimum visibilty range of 2nm at night or black anchor ball during the day when anchored outside a designated anchorage.
  • Minimum Visibilty Range: Masthead light must be visible for 5nm. All other lights must be visible for 2nm
  • A copy of the Navigation Rules and Regulations must be kept on board at all times and is available in our books selection.

Planning on Installing New Navigation Lights?

If your next weekend project is repairing broken navigation lights or upgrading to LEDs, watch this video first. Chuck Hawley points out some common mistakes boat owners make when installing navigation lights that will make your lights less visible and in some cases not compliant with USCG regulations.


Replacing Damaged Lights

Pole lights are often damaged if they are improperly used as a handle when getting in the boat. Chuck Hawley discusses some options for replacement with mounting options to fit any boat.


Portable Navigation Lights for Dinghies, Canoes and Kayaks

While smaller crafts are allowed to use a flashlight or spotlight for collision avoidance, an inexpensive, portable bi-color light will keep you safer on the water. Chuck Hawley discusses some options.