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Boating at Night
On the Water in the Moonlight

Boating After Dark


Last fall, late in the evening, I paddled out into the path of the hunters’ moon.  Suspended between two skies, my breath formed the only cloud.  I heard a flock of geese off to the west and watched as the perfect vees skimmed past the moon, above and below.  A go-fast boat ripped along the opposite shore with its banshee howl.  Like that boat, I’m about to break the mood…


In recent news we’ve read about night cruising craft crashing into islands, a barge, and each other, sometimes with very serious consequences.  I don’t know anything about the specific events in any of the news stories and I’m not drawing any conclusions at all.  However, they started me thinking about the lure of nighttime cruising and how boaters have to allow for the different conditions. 


Before you go


1)   Check your running lights.  For most boats in Ontario’s WaterWays you need an all around white light at the stern, port and starboard lights at the bow (red to port - left, green to starboard - right, each illuminating a112.5 degree arc from straight ahead to abaft of amidships).  There are different configurations for different boats, so check to see that you have what you need.  And make sure they’re working:

a.     Clean the lenses

b.     Check the bulb contacts.  A brush with emery paper can get rid of corrosion that dims bulbs before they stop working

c.      Carry spare bulbs

2)   Unless your craft has a working spotlight, it’s a good idea to carry a powerful flashlight.  Any working flashlight will get you past the regulations but a good one is a lot more useful.

3)   If you don’t know the water you’re heading out on, check your charts.  Look for islands, rocks, shallows – this is particularly important in places where water levels are low.  Recent receding waters have revealed a lot of new real estate. 


On the water


1)   Turn your lights on.

2)   Avoid looking at bright lights and don’t use your spotlight (or torch) unless you must.  Strong lights shut down your night vision and it can take a while for it to get going again.

3)   Slow down.  Yes, you can see surprisingly well on a clear night but some things you might not see unless you’re looking – floating debris, channel and hazard markers, other boats with no running lights, like canoes etc.  Besides, when you slow down you can get more of all that night cruising has to offer.

4)   Remember your perspective has changed.  At night it’s much more difficult to judge distances and recognize landmarks. 

5)   If you see running lights, take a moment to understand what you’re looking at.  In channels where there is commercial traffic or fishing, you can see a lot of different light configurations and you’ve got to know what each of them means.  However, in most of Ontario’s WaterWays, these will be most common.

a.     Single white light.  Could be a couple of different things: a boat at anchor, or a craft going the same direction you are.  It’d be good to know which one it is. 

b.     A white light and red.  This means another boat is crossing your path from right to left.  You have to give right of way.  Slow down or turn to let the boat pass ahead of you. 

c.      A white light and green.  This means another boat is crossing your path from left to right.  You have the right of way and it should give way to you.  Don’t count on it.  Many boaters don’t know the rules and not all who know the rules follow them. 

d.     Red, green and white light together.  Another boat is coming straight toward you.  Slow down and move to starboard to avoid collision. 

e.     A white light panning right to left, back and forth.  That’s me, in the canoe.

Whatever lights you see, keep your eye on the boat until you have safely passed it. 


Being out on the water at night is an extraordinary experience.  The air is often still, the loons sometimes sing, and even without the moon, it’s surprising how much you can see.  But you still have to be prepared and careful. 

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