Navigation Lights: Hella and Aqua Signal Shine Brightest
Three of the four major light manufacturers serve up superlative lights—many lights even satisfied Coast Guard requirements at our engine-off test voltage. Still, a variation of the Golden Rule applies: Shine unto others as you would have them shine unto you.
Most boats, new or used, come with navigation lights installed—and that's about all that we care about them until one of them fails. Sometimes the failure is in the light itself, sometimes in the wiring leading to it. The fix is usually simple enough to perform mechanically or electrically, but there's an inconvenience factor that varies from minor to major, depending on where the failure occurs. If a light goes out on the bow pulpit or cabinside, it's no big deal. If it goes out at the top of the mast, it's a royal pain. After the first of these pains, you begin to pay more attention to how the lights are mounted and sealed against the elements, and how the wiring is led and protected from chafe and crimping. And you begin to consider the design, construction, and materials of the lights themselves.
The other occasional concern we have with these lights is how they actually perform. Again, most of the time we take them for granted—the waters are less crowded at night, tense crossing situations are relatively infrequent, and there's usually plenty of time to study a developing situation and make a course change if necessary. In times like that, you might feel that you have your lights on just to obey the law, nothing more.
However, when you find yourself negotiating a busy harbor or channel at night, or the visibility isn't what it could be, or you're traveling along a shore twinkling with houselights and floodlights and car headlights and all sorts of other distractions, you instantly appreciate running lights that are clear and bright and that stand out against the background—and you wonder just how visible yours are to others.
There are minimal visibility requirements set by the US Coast Guard—see the sidebar on pages 8-9 for the basics. But note that there's no rule prohibiting a boat from carrying bigger, better lights than those that satisfy the minimum, as long as they don't shine so brightly or cause so much glare that they interfere with the helmsman's vision.
Obviously, navigation lights exist to help prevent collisions. As such, they're important pieces of safety gear. If you suspect the ones aboard your boat are feeble, either in form or function, consider replacing them. It's to help with your decisions on that score that we've done this evaluation.
The point of navigation lights underway is to show a 360-degree circle of light at all times, including red and green sidelights, each visible through 112.5 degrees, and a stern light, visible through 135 degrees to complete the circle. On boats under 20 meters, sidelights can be combined in one unit (a bi-color light).
Powerboats underway are required to show sidelights and 360 degrees of white light. The usual configuration is sidelights, a sternlight, and a masthead light. If the boat is under 12 meters in length, an all-round white light can be substituted. The all-round white light also serves as an anchor light, required from sunset to sunrise in areas that are not designated anchorages.
On a sailboat under 20 meters, all three lights can be combined in a tri-color light at the masthead, but only when sailing; under power, a sailboat must show a 360-degree circle of white light, either in an all-around light at the masthead, or in a combination of stern light plus a 225-degree masthead light. (The masthead light is confusingly named, since it's rarely located at the top of the mast. Usually it's about three-quarters of the way up. On powerboats it's usually mounted on a short pole.)
We're referring here to boats between 7 and 20 meters in length. There are variations on the rules outside that range, but we don't have enough paper to cover them all.
What Was Tested
The last time we tested navigation lights was in 1993—the results were published in the July 1 issue of that year. We evaluated 70 lights then, and as it turns out we looked at 70 lights this time around, too, although there were some variations—missing were lights from Wilcox-Crittenden, which no longer makes them, and Forespar's ML2 combination masthead/deck light, recommended in '93 and still on the market (which we forgot). Otherwise we collected all the lights in the major catalogs and chandleries, including individual and bi-color sidelights, tri-color lights, sternlights, masthead lights, and all-round white lights. The lights were represented by four manufacturers—Aqua Signal, Attwood, Hella Marine, and Perko.
How We Tested
Our evaluations were simple: All the lights were mounted on pine planks and properly bedded and sealed. On a chilly October night with virtually unlimited visibility, we took the planks to a local beach parking lot with little ambient light around, and set them on sawhorses. With our observer (the keenest-eyed among us) anchored offshore at one nautical mile, we powered each light individually, and the observer called in his impressions via cell phone.
We had noted that the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC), in their specs for the Intensity/Nominal Voltage Test for nav lights, says that the test fixture "shall be tested for its ability to meet minimum required luminous intensity… when operated at its intended nominal system voltage. This shall be a single reading at a point selected by the fixture manufacturer."
That leaves the manufacturers quite a bit of wiggle room to balance bulb characteristics against input voltages in order to achieve their visibility requirements.
We decided to see how the lights would do in less forgiving circumstances. For power we used a truck-mounted 4-D deep-cycle marine battery monitored throughout the test at 12.4 volts—a standing voltage that would approximate power to the lights with the boat's engine off and the supply battery in reasonably good shape, but with one or two other power demands being made on it at the same time—nav instruments and an interior light or two.
Obviously, with the engine running and an alternator output of 13 volts or more, the lights will shine brighter—so the ratings in our chart should be seen as pessimistic across the board.
After looking at all 70 lights and communicating his ratings at 1 nm, the observer moved out to 2 nm and the whole procedure was repeated. The planks were adjusted as necessary to give the observer the full proper view of each type of light. Occasionally it appeared to the testers on shore that the powered light was mounted close enough to its neighbor that it was picking up an extra reflection. In those cases they inserted a brown clipboard between the lights. It didn't seem to make much difference.
After the visibility tests, all the lights were sprayed forcefully with a gardenhose and left to sit for two weeks. Then they were sprayed again and checked for continued function. All lights functioned fine after both inundations.
Finally, we studied the lights for quality of construction, mounting methods, and ease of maintenance. Comments on these topics are included in the main chart (see bottom).
We didn't measure each lens for its required cuto-off angle (e.g. 112.5°), reasoning that even if we were persnickety enough to find lights that were a degree or two off either way, such minor anomalies would be of little consequence on the water.
What We Found
The chart provides specifics about the lights and our visibility tests. In general, we found that lights met the minimum visibility requirements at 1 mile, with the exception of two red sidelights—the Aqua Signal 22300-1 and the Attwood 3150R7.
Twenty-two lights, nine of which were rated at 2 nautical miles, were invisible at that distance and at our unforgiving voltage. Again, all lights must meet their Coast Guard requirements when powered at the test voltages allowed their manufacturers.
We should note that Hella Marine's Model 62149 red sidelight, a 3-nm light, is rated to burn a 29-watt bulb at 13 volts, so it was unfairly underpowered in the test. Maybe it's just for powerboats.
The fit and finish of the lights varied quite a bit, and those variations are often reflected in the price. Only one light, Perko's Model 170BMD masthead/decklight combination arrived with an obvious flaw—a 4-mm separation in one side of the plastic housing.
A few lights were quite a bit brighter and more visible than the rest of the pack. Only five lights rated good at 2 nm: Aqua Signal's 40100-1 bi-color light and 40400-1 masthead; Hella Marine's 62208 stern light, 62206 masthead, and 6225 tri-color. (This tricolor was actually the most visible of all the lights in the test, scoring "excellent" at 1 nm and "good" at 2 nm.)
Some sidelights that were rated for only one nautical mile were still visible at two, even if they were only dimly seen at both distances. Those two achievements—overall brightness and staying power, were, to our minds, the top rating criteria.
See the big chart for further comments. See the recommendations box on page 5 for our picks by light type.
Navigation lights are easy to take for granted, but like so many other bits of safety and navigation gear on a boat, there may eventually come a time when they really need to shine.
Contacts— Attwood, 1016 N. Monroe St., Lowell, MI 49331; 616/897-9241. Hella Marine, 201 Kelly Dr., Peachtree City, GA 30269; 877/224-3552; www.hellana.com. Aqua Signal, 1125 Alexander Court, Cary IL, 60013; 847/639-6412. Perko, Inc., 16490 NW 13th Ave., Miami, FL 33169; 305/621-7525; www.perko.com/.