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Identifying vessels at night

Recognising these lights on other vessels will help you stay safe on the water at night or in restricted visibility.

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Recognising lights on other vessels

To stay safe on the water at night or at times of restricted visibility, you need to be able to recognise lights on other vessels. These lights help prevent collisions.

A vessel's navigation lights tell you:

  • whether it's at anchor or underway
  • the direction it's travelling
  • the vessel type and size.

Keep a lookout for lights that may not be bright, such as those on smaller vessels. These vessels may only display a single white light or a torch light.

A single white light can also mean a vessel is at anchor, or travelling away from you. If you see a white light, be aware that something is ahead of you and prepare to take appropriate action.

If you see a lot of lights, or lights up high, it's probably a large vessel, such as a ship or commercial fishing boat. Keep well clear.

These are some examples of navigation lights you may see.

Vessel at anchor

All round white light.

Illustration of the lights on a powered vessel at night.
Any vessel up to 50m long at anchor.

Small vessel underway

All round white light or torch light.

Illustration of the lights on a small vessel underway.
Any vessel up to 7m long. It may be going in any direction – towards you, away from you, crossing left or right – or it may be at anchor.

Vessel travelling towards you

Green light to your port (left) and red light to your starboard (right).

Illustration of the lights on a sailing vessel coming towards you.
Sailing boat coming towards you.

Powerboats and sailing boats using their engine also display a masthead light.

Illustration of the lights on a powered vessel using their engine
Powerboat or sailing boat using its engine up to 50m long coming towards you.

Vessel travelling away from you

All round white light or white sternlight.

Illustration of the lights on a sailing boat travelling away from you.
Sailing boat travelling away from you.
Powered vessel travelling away from you at night.
Powerboat or sailing boat using its engine up to 50m long travelling away from you.

Vessel crossing your path

If a vessel is crossing your path, the colour of its sidelight shows you which direction it's travelling:

  • red sidelight – crossing your path from your starboard (right) side to your port (left) side
  • green sidelight – crossing your path from your port (left) side to your starboard (right) side.
Illustration of the lights on a sailing boat seen from port side.
Sailing boat seen from port (left) side.
Illustration of the lights on a sailing boat seen from starboard side.
Sailing boat seen from starboard (right) side.

A powerboat or sailing boat using its engine also displays a masthead light.

Illustration of a powerboat or sailing boat using its engine up to 50m long crossing your path.
Powerboat or sailing boat using its engine up to 50m long crossing your path.

Ships or other large vessels over 50m long display 2 masthead lights.

Illustration of the lights on a ship over 50m long crossing your path.
Ship over 50m long crossing your path.

Dredge

A dredge's top 3 lights show that it’s restricted in its manoeuvrability.

Its sidelights show you the safe side to pass:

  • green – safe side to pass.
  • red – obstruction this side (do not pass).
Illustration of the lights on a dredge.
Dredge at night.

Vehicular ferry

Displays 2 red lights at either end and a green light above the red light in the direction of travel. Also displays an all round orange flashing light.

Illustration of the lights on a vehicular ferry.
Vehicular ferry at night.

High-speed ferry on Sydney Harbour

Displays the normal lights for a powerboat underway, plus an all round flashing yellow light when travelling at speed.

Illustration of the lights on high speed ferry at night.
High-speed ferry on Sydney Harbour.

Commercial fishing vessel

Displays special lights when its activity – such as trawling – restricts its manoeuvrability.

Illustration of the lights on a fishing vessel at trawl.
Commercial fishing vessel travelling towards you.
The green over white lights show it is trawling.
Illustration of the lights on a fishing vessel at net.
Commercial fishing vessel travelling towards you.
The red over white lights show it is fishing (other than trawling).
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