On the water Bright Is Right –
make sure you can be seen
A common factor in many boating incidents is a “failure to keep a proper lookout”. This might seem simple enough – but from the perspective of a skipper, there are two main factors involved: (1) the operator’s efforts in keeping a lookout; and (2) the visibility of the other vessel, person or object involved in the incident.
It’s a team effort – see and be seen
Imagine you are travelling at a very sensible 10 knots across at wide dark waterway at night. An unlit vessel is in your path. Even if you are staring intently into the gloom and manage to make out the unlit vessel when it is five metres in front of you, there will be only about one second for you to react, for your vessel’s controls to react and for your vessel to actually answer those controls – in short, you will collide regardless of all your efforts. As a number of recent incidents involving high speed vessels and smaller unlit vessels have shown, a lack of proper lighting can have tragic consequences.
While you can’t control the visibility of other vessels, you can certainly control the visibility of your own vessel. If every vessel operator ensures that their vessels are properly visible in all conditions, it will go a very long way to preventing collisions and accidents.
Bats get around in the dark perfectly well, using their echo-location (basically a form of radar). However, that doesn’t mean you can afford to navigate your boat on the water at night or in poor visibility without the proper lighting – you certainly cannot assume that other vessels will all have radar, and even if they did, their radars might not always see your vessel. Your visibility on radar depends on how the radar is set up, the profile and construction material of your vessel, environmental conditions and the presence of other vessels and structures in the area.
Fibreglass and timber vessels are almost invisible on radar, and a properly positioned radar reflector will certainly help larger vessels (which are more likely to have radar) see your vessel whatever its material. Radar reflectors consist of highly reflective material that is placed well above the water where it has the best chance of creating an echo to be picked up on another vessel’s radar. However, don’t rely on this as your primary means of being seen; instead think of it as a valuable safety back-up.
Night and day; rain and shine
Whatever the conditions, it is vital that your vessel is properly seen. At night or during poor visibility, make sure you use the correct lights. Above all, make sure your lights are correctly positioned and functioning, and are not obscured at all by super structures, engines etc.
Always test your lights before setting off and fix any that aren’t working. Having even just one light out could lead to dangerous confusion for other skippers. For example, if your port sidelight (red) was not working, another skipper might think that you are crossing their path from left to right at a good safe distance, when, in fact, you are driving straight at them at close range! When anchoring for the night, don’t forget to always display an all-round white light.
Even during broad daylight, visibility can still be an issue. Be especially careful with large ferries and ships – being too close to their bow means their crew will not be able to see you – so keep well clear. People in canoes and kayaks should be particularly careful. Attaching a high visibility flag, wearing highly visible clothing, using LED lighting and staying in a group will help you be seen.
During an emergency, it is vital to be seen quickly. In such situations, you must choose the right safety gear to be seen. For example, orange smoke flares and V-sheets are of little use at night, while the red hand flare will attract attention night or day. And make sure you use it when rescuers are close enough to see it.