USCG Issues Alert on Uncertified Nav Lights


LED tri-color masthead lights

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) recently released a safety alert regarding unapproved recreational and commercial vessel navigation lights, and they also issued a reminder that using some decorative lighting onboard (rope lighting, underwater lighting, etc.) may be a violation of the Nautical Rules of the Road.

Uncertified nav lights

According to the USCG, theres a growing number of navigation lights on the market that do not meet technical certification requirements. These lights are typically less expensive, making them a tempting choice for uninformed shoppers. However, installing these lights (which likely do not have the proper chromaticity, luminous intensity, or cutoff angles) could land the boat owner in violation of Coast Guard regulations, and they could potentially cause an accident.

Specifications for lights vary depending upon the type of boat but regardless of the light source (i.e., incandescent or LED), they must follow the requirements prescribed in Rules 20, 21, 22 and Annex I of the Rules of the Road, which is the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (72 COLREGS) or the Inland Navigation Rules (33 CFR Subchapter E). Recreational vessel and uninspected commercial vessel navigation lights must meet American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) standard A-16, and commercial inspected vessels must have nav lights that meet Underwriters Laboratories standard UL 1104. You can find the Rules of the Road online at

Dont get duped when shopping for navigation lights. Brush up on the Rules of the Road nav light requirements, and be sure that any light you buy clearly states the following information:

USCG Approval 33 CFR 183.810

Meets ABYC A-16 or equivalent

Tested by an approved laboratory

Name of the light manufacturer

Number of Model

Visibility of the light in nautical miles

Date on which the light was type-tested

Specification of bulb used in compliance test.

Also, be sure to check out our last review of LED tri-color nav lights (see PS February 2010 online) and previous articles that evaluated tri-color incandescent nav lights, masthead lights, sidelights, stern lights, and all-around white lights (see PS September 2005 and Jan. 15, 2002). All of the products weve tested meet the Rules of the Road regulations.

Decorative lighting hazards:

According the USCG safety alert, boat owners should be cautious about installing onboard decorative lighting underwater, on the rubrail, or just above the waterline, among other places. When installing such lights, be sure that they cannot be mistaken for navigation lights, do not impair the visibility or distinctive character of approved and properly placed nav lights, and that they do not interfere with the helmsmans ability to keep a proper lookout. If any of these situations exist, you can be found in a violation of the Rules of the Road (Rule 20).

A violation can occur if the decorative lights can be construed as a nav light required by the Rules for another vessel. An example the USCG offered was when blue underwater LED lights appear to be flashing if there is any wave action; this may give the appearance of a flashing blue light, which is only authorized to be used by law enforcement boats. For questions or concerns, email

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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