Chandlery October 2017 Issue

Converting an Anchor Light to an LED Tricolor Light

Low-amp mastlight bulb converts anchor light to a tri-color.

The cost of masthead tricolor navigation lights, a safety improvement many sailors add to their boats, involves expense beyond the fixture itself such as a switch on the DC panel, additional wire to snake from the panel to the masthead, through-deck fitting, and labor.

Additionally, you may need to move the existing anchor light fixture to provide the tri-color a good unobstructed view. Our past test (See “Practical Sailor Tracks Down the Best Marine LED,” February 2010 online) offers several recommended tri-color options, but what if you could convert your existing clear anchor light into a tri-color fixture using a tri-color LED bulb?

stand-alone bulbs
1. The bulb meets requirements for stand-alone bulbs for nav lights, but to confirm your housing-plus-bulb meets standards for luminosity and color temperature would require testing. 2. The Hella housing created no significant color shift compared to the bulb alone, which the manufacturer has had independently tested for conformity. The white LEDs for the anchor light are intermingled with the colored ones. 3. Three screws in the base allow you to align the light with your bow.

Marinebeam offers just such a bulb, in their LED tri-color and anchor light combination bulb ($87), which we installed into the housing for a standard Hella anchor light (# 598458), specified for boats under 12 meters. We confirmed the bulbs claimed visibility, looked for interference with our VHF radio (none found), tried it for a week, and came out impressed—but with two installation recommendations.

The bulb is available in two bayonet styles designed to drop into many existing fixtures. Once you have access to the masthead, the bulb replacement can be done in minutes, however you might have to relocate the housing for all the sectors to be visible.

The bulb is controlled at the DC panel switch. By pulsing the on-off switch one, two, or three times as you turn it on, it becomes an anchor light, tri-color light, or an SOS strobe. The bulb also has a built in light sensor that turns off the anchor light function from dusk to dawn. Unfortunately it is hard to check what mode the light is in from deck, but Marinebeam is developing an indicator for the panel switch.

Prior to fastening your new new tricolor in place, PS recommends you double check two things.

• Look for objects like thick antennae or a wind instrument pole that may obstruct the bulb and require your anchor light or the object be moved to minimize obstruction.

• If your masthead base is wider than your fixture, consider raising the fixture so that the light is visible from your sailboat deck.

The main concern we have with this hybrid approach to mast light is that the new light and fixture do not comply with any nav light standards. The existing standards only apply to fixtures and lights that have been tested together as one unit. Because we’ve introduced a new light to a lens designed for a different bulb, we have no objective measure of the luminosity—other than to check ourselves. Marinebeam points out that recreational boats in the U.S. are not technically bound to luminosity standards, but it is comforting to know that our lights are up to snuff.

The manufacturer states that the bulb itself meets all of the COLREG requirements as a stand-alone bulb. This includes COLREG specs for color coordinates, sector angle, intensity, vertical angle (for sailboats). Testing was carried out by Ensta Bretagne (Britanny) in France, the official test lab for Bureau Veritas for navigational lighting. The bulb meets the EN EMC (electromagnetic compatibility) norms EN55022, EN61547, and EN60945, as well as CE EMC directives for radiated and conducted emissions.

Remember, only use a tri-color while sailing with your other navigation lights turned off. When you are displaying a steaming light while under engine power, you should show the conventional port-starboard-stern running lights (not those mounted on the masthead), and only one set of nav lights can be on at a time.

Comments (5)

I had to deal with a light like the one you show, that had finally died in all the sunlight up there, and I decided to go with a proper tri-light, for several reasons. First of all, the existing light was small and it sat down right on the surface of the plate where it was mounted on top of the mast. It was difficult to see it from a boat that was less than about 100 feet away from the boat. You might see the loom of the light if it was really dark and no moon was up. In addition, I had a TV antenna, a wind instrument, a VHF antenna, and a Windex up there, surrounding the light, so from many angles it would not be possible to see the light at all, at any distance.

A proper Tri-light that sticks up above the top of the mast ensures that both the nav light and the anchor light will be seen, which is the name of the game. I do not understand how boat-builders get away with installing those small lights. The real problem is that decent lights are MUCH more expensive. So expensive, really, that the cost forces people to buy the cheap ones and sacrifice safety.

Posted by: rxc | October 22, 2017 4:33 PM    Report this comment

Further to the alignment issue. It is not trivial to get the tricolor properly aligned. I have had the mast out twice and am still off by a couple of degrees. Very difficult to do accurately while the mast is out of the boat.

Also, beware of LED tricolor impact on your VHF. When I turn mine on I loose AIS receive from the masthead VHF antenna, be sure to test this if your AIS shares the masthead antenna.

Posted by: Mike Cunningham | October 22, 2017 1:45 PM    Report this comment

Further to the alignment issue. It is not trivial to get the tricolor properly aligned. I have had the mast out twice and am still off by a couple of degrees. Very difficult to do accurately while the mast is out of the boat.

Also, beware of LED tricolor impact on your VHF. When I turn mine on I loose AIS receive from the masthead VHF antenna, be sure to test this if your AIS shares the masthead antenna.

Posted by: Mike Cunningham | October 22, 2017 1:45 PM    Report this comment

October 10 coming down the Chesapeake we saw a strange set of lights off Cove Point at about 1:00 in the morning. It looked like two boats closely following each other. Turns out it was a schooner under power with the standard navigation lights turned on including a masthead white all round light on the foremast and and a masthead tri color light on the mainmast aft of it as well. The masthead tri color is only permitted on a vessel under sail, not under power. (Inland rule 25). To make matters worse, the two sets of lights were not aligned. When the deck level running lights showed red and green headed for us, the masthead only showed green. We turned to port about 20 degrees and eventually saw the mast head red and green appear but at that time only the deck level red was showing. If you are going to use a masthead tri color, only use it under sail and make sure it is properly aligned fore and aft!

Posted by: TomHale | October 22, 2017 10:09 AM    Report this comment

In using a masthead tricolor, on many boats - mine included - turning off the deck level navigation lights results in extinguishing the compass light. Rule 25 of the Navigation Rules indicates that a mast head light consisting of an all around red light above an all around green light may be shown in conjunction with the usual deck level lights. However, I have NEVER seen such a light available commercially.

Posted by: Chris B. | October 1, 2017 1:36 PM    Report this comment

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