Coast Guard warns vessel operators to use proper navigation lights

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a safety alert warning operators that they should not use unapproved navigation lights. 

Inspected commercial vessels must be outfitted with navigation lights that meet or exceed certification requirements, the Coast Guard said in the November 2015 safety alert. Using lights that don’t provide the proper chromaticity, luminous intensity or cut-off angles can potentially lead to accidents. The agency said vessel owners typically buy unapproved lights because they’re less expensive.

The referenced requirements are Underwriters Laboratories standard UL 1104, outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. Illinois-based Underwriters Laboratories is an independent science safety company. 

Those buying unapproved navigation lights for either commercial or recreational vessels should know that replacement lighting may not be right for their use because the manufacturer didn’t meet certification requirements, the Coast Guard said.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs), rope lighting, underwater lighting and other decorative lighting may violate provisions of the International Maritime Organization’s nautical rules. Requirements for lights are prescribed in Rules 20, 21, 22 and Annex I of Rules of the Road under the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

Lighting requirements are also found in the Coast Guard’s Inland Navigation Rules, 33 CFR Subchapter E.

“I see lots of LED products at international shows, and many of them don’t have any certification or standards listed,” Duncan Stirling, marketing manager at lighting specialists Hella Marine in New Zealand, said in December. Hella has an office in Peachtree City, Ga. 

“These lights are usually the cheaper, non-branded versions,” he said. “Many customers don’t understand the limitations of LED replacements, which can dim because of light degradation over time, jeopardizing a vessel’s visibility.”

“More needs to be done to educate navigators about lighting requirements and risks from unapproved products before someone is seriously injured or killed,” Stirling said.

In the alert, the Coast Guard said light specifications vary depending on the type of vessel. But regardless of the source, whether it’s incandescent filament or LED, lights on uninspected commercial and recreational vessels must meet American Boat & Yacht Council standard A-16, according to specifications in 33 CFR 183.810 and 46 CFR 25.10-3. 

Boaters should be cautious about installing decorative lighting underwater, on the vessel’s rubrail or just above the waterline, according to the safety alert. Care must be taken so that these lights aren’t mistaken for navigation lamps, don’t impair the visibility or character of approved lights and don’t interfere with the operator’s lookout. 

“Blue underwater LED lights can appear to be flashing if there is any wave action,” the Coast Guard said, “giving the appearance of a flashing blue light only authorized to be used by law enforcement vessels.”

In an incident in Charleston Harbor, S.C., a Coast Guard response vessel on Dec. 5, 2009 struck the starboard side of the tour boat Thriller, which had Christmas lights wrapped around its hull. On Dec. 18, 2009, based on initial findings about that collision, the Coast Guard issued safety alert 09-09, reminding owners not to display holiday lights unless they’re in a boat parade or the vessel is secured at dock.

By Professional Mariner Staff