September 18, 2023 / by Danny Mavis

Illumination is just something we can’t do without when out and about, and the same can be said about being at sea as being on the road. Of course, there are laws and regulations you must abide by if you want to be able to reap the benefits of boating (at anchor or underway) between sunrise and sunset, but there’s so much more to having the right lights.

These are the type of accessories that can be of assistance with making your way through poorly lit conditions, letting other vessels know which way you’re headed, north or south, left or right just by looking at your lights. You’d also maintain the overall safety of everyone involved in the water traffic by showing where exactly you’re located and how big your vessel is so they have an idea about overtaking or avoiding hitting you.

As you can see, having the right set of boat navigation lights is crucial in avoiding accidents that can put people in serious danger and boats at risk of being severely damaged. Furthermore, they can be used for communications with others in the waters.

Before focusing on purchasing waterproof and durable accessories of the sort, that can stand up to the harsh conditions and threat of impact and corrosion, choosing from reliable retailers, let’s look into some basics. It’s handy to know a thing or two about the different lights there are, and the different types you’re going to need to set out on your water adventures, no matter whether they entail fishing or water sports, or mere water riding.

What Are the Different Lights on a Boat?

navigation light on a boat at night

The basics you can shop from are going to be the following designs, categorised into all-around lights, sidelights, masthead and stern, differing in colour as well as purpose and placement.

All-Around Lights

These are crucial as they’re the most notable of marine illumination accessories considering they’re all-around design, which would explain why they’re also known as the 360° lights. Their purpose is to provide illumination around the vessel creating an arc-like, i.e. circle-like result over the horizon.

They let others in the water see you from whichever side they come. Some options of these navigation lights for boats are white or yellow, as well as tri-colour designs and they’re great for use since they provide illumination that can be seen even as away as two nautical miles.


Here you have two essentials of sidelights for each side: the port sidelights which are red for the left, and the starboard lights which are green for the right. Depending on how much you’re willing to spend, and what you prefer with the installation, specifically the mounting, you can choose from single and bi-colour designs, and vertically and horizontally mounted designs. As far as visibility guidelines go, it depends on the size of the vessel. For smaller boats, the range should be about one mile of visibility, as opposed to at least two with bigger vessels.

Masthead and Stern Lights

The masthead are marine navigation lights that are placed above the sidelights, and they are white lights with an arc of illumination of 225° shining bright at the front of the vessel. As they need to cover the angle for both sidelights, there are some general rules for how much based on the size of the boat. With smaller boats, it’s two nautical miles, and with boats bigger than 12 metres of at least three nautical miles.

As you might guess by the name, stern lights are lights affixed to the stern. These too are white, and they have beams shining at an angle of 135°, 67.5° to be exact on each of the sides. Together with the masthead they create a visible full circle of 360° of illumination. As for the rules about visibility, it’s two nautical miles for both small and big vessels alike.

The Different Regulations

navigation light on a boat

Now that you have an idea of the types of marine lights involved in boating, it’s time to get to know a bit of the different rules based on the type of vessel. A boat that is no bigger than seven metres and travels at seven knots at most requires all-around white light, as well as sidelights, either separate or combined.

For vessels that are op up to 12 metres, travelling faster than seven knots, along with these there’s also the necessity to use masthead and stern lights too. For boats that are bigger than 12 metres, up to 20 metres, for example, the general requirements are same as those I just mentioned, with the exception that at 12 metre vessels the masthead should be placed one metre above the sidelights, as opposed to the 2.5 m above the gunwale with the bigger 20 metre vessel.

Vessels bigger than this, of say about 60 metres, may require more of the same type of light due to the size. Lights are required even when the vessel is at anchor, or not moving. The regulations differ between each of the states in Australia, so you should look for information on the state where you’re at to have the peace of mind you’re abiding by the rules.