The Complete Guide to Marine Navigation Lights

See and be seen. This is not an ad, but a general guide for using boat navigation lights. Something that every vessel in Australian waters is required by law to have. They’re used at night and in times of low visibility to ensure safety, and prevent marine collisions. Positioned properly, navigation lights inform boaters of the presence of other vessels in the vicinity, give an approximate indication of the direction of the vessel, and also inform about the type and size.

Other boats, ships, yachts and any other watercraft can be easily distinguishable, as you will be to them.

Lights Used in Navigation

marine navigation lights

There are 4 types of marine navigation lights: sidelights, a masthead light, stern light and all-round light. Lights shine in one of three colours – red, green and white. They differ as to where they are positioned on the vessel, the type and size of the vessel, and whether that vessel is anchored, underway or involved in some kind of activity (example, a fishing boat that is trawling). International and Australian rules dictate where each light is placed, its orientation, and how visible it needs to be.


Port sidelights are red. They are placed on the port (left) side of the beam, and need to be visible at an angle of 112.5 degrees. Starboard sidelights are green. They are placed at the starboard (right) side of the vessel and cover the same spread as portlights. In boats that are less than 12 metres in length, sidelights need to be seen from a distance of 1 nautical mile. In larger boats, this is 2 nautical miles. Sidelights may be combined in a single bi-colour light, and this is the practice in smaller craft.

Masthead Lights

These are positioned higher up than sidelights and project a white light towards the front of the vessel. The beam covers the spread of both port and starboard sidelights, or 225 degrees. For smaller boats, this needs to be visible up to 2, and in vessels over 12 metres up to 5 nautical miles.

Stern Lights

This light is found at the stern (rear) of the vessel. It shines white at an angle of 135 degrees. Thus, the combination of sidelights, masthead and stern lights create a full circle. A stern light needs to be visible for up to 2 miles on all vessels.

All round Lights

An all-round light shines white, covers 360 degrees and is visible from 2 nautical miles.

Lighting in Power Boats

This is a vast portion of boats in Australian waters. When these craft are underway, they need to exhibit separate or combined sidelights, a stern light and a masthead light positioned at least 1 metre above the sidelights. Boats under 7 metres must have an all-round light, and sidelights where possible. When anchored, powerboats need to shine a 360-degree all-round white light. The same applies to sailboats.

Lighting in Sail Boats

Sailboats under 20 metres can have separate sidelights and stern light, or a combination (tri-colour) light set atop the mast. Large sailboats must have separate sidelights and a stern light. These are also allowed to have combination (red and green) lanterns at the mast, but with fitted sidelights.

Choosing the Right Type of Lights

lights navigation for marine

Type of Vessel

Which type of marine navigation lights you choose will ultimately depend on the type of boat. The distinction is clearly set out between power and sailboats.

Vessel Size

Watercraft under 7 metres are not legally bound to have the full array of sidelights, stern and masthead lights. Instead, they can use an all-round 360-degree light, and small vessels like kayaks or canoes can pass with a simple torch. But larger vessels are bound by international law to use the correct lighting when underway or when anchored. Larger vessels, those over 60 metres, can have several masthead lights to inform others of the size of the vessel, something that may not be easily discerned in darkness, and the vessel mistaken for something smaller.


leds navigation for marine

This is the single most important factor when safety is concerned. Correct placement of lights, and with the light spread at the correct angles, will allow for greater visibility. Though this may not always be possible (especially with issues around masthead lights), the general guidelines are there for a reason.

Bulbs vs LEDs

Though sidelights and all-round lights in traditional (festoon) bulbs are still available for smaller craft, there’s the tendency for going with LEDs. The advantages here are that LED lighting is directional and can be better adjusted for the right orientation. In addition, colour temperatures ranging from warm (reds) to moderate (whites) are easier to calibrate in LEDs. This can reduce glare, a typical issue with traditional incandescent bulbs. Also, consider the power requirements from a full lighting setup. Here too, LEDs fare better, with higher efficiency.

Quality and price

Quality housings, lenses and mounts ensure that your lights will work as they should. Sealed electronics and wiring, as well as high impact resistance, means no damage from sea spray or crashing waves. Prices vary according to designs. Bi-colour sidelights, for example, will be dearer than individual port and starboard lights as they save space and power without sacrificing functionality. Also, safety features that prevent things like electrical surges and reverse polarity up prices. LEDs tend to be slightly more expensive than incandescent bulbs, but should last longer and drain less power.