When summer comes, a dozen or more sparkling white lights will adorn every popular anchorage. Visible from miles away, they promise to provide good warning to approaching boats that something is anchored there. In practice, they have manifold shortcomings. They all look alike, distance is impossible to gauge, and they can be difficult to distinguish from stars and shore lights. Fast-moving dinghies and runabouts often overlook them, since they are far above the driver’s sight line.
The basic rules for anchor lights were written in 1846-1850. The United Kingdom led with the Steam Navigation Act of 1846, and the US followed soon after. Electric lamps had not been invented, confusion with background lights was a minor concern, and a single lantern was considered enough. But is it now?
COLREGS states in Rule 5 (long before we get to the description of lights in Rule 30) that we must maintain a watch. There is no exemption for smaller vessels or while at anchor. Since this is impractical for the cruising sailor, and because nighttime harbor collisions are unfortunately common, taking additional steps in the form of supplemental lighting seems prudent.
When entering a harbor or any area that might have anchored boats, watch out for a relatively bright star that is moving in relation to the others. That’s a mast light indicating a boat. And if you are approaching that boat, the motion will be even less obvious. Once you learn how difficult this can be on a moonless night, you will understand our call for supplemental lighting.
Our opinion is that anchoring in an active harbor requires lighting both high and low. A masthead anchor light can be lost in the cloud of anchor lights and stars. An anchor light placed lower can be lost against the background of street lights and porch lights. So while the lower light could be a second anchor light product—COLREGS 30 (a) says it can be—an area light may better serve the purpose by illuminating the deck and super structure. COLREGS 30 (b) says you may display additional work lights, and we think you should.
A powerful spreader-mounted deck light may be too much, disturbing your neighbors. In principle they are focused downward, but some light up the whole harbor.
Cabin lights generally impart a glow to the whole boat, making the outline clear, but you can’t sleep with them on. Allowing for tinting and curtains, they are generally visible for only ¼- to ½-mile, depending on intensity. Cockpit lights draw mosquitoes to the companionway; if you leave cabin lights or the cockpit light on and go to shore for dinner, you may return to a cabin full of the pests. Put the screens in before you leave. Sometimes we set a light on the pulpit to draw them away from the companionway. Don’t forget radio interference. LEDs require current regulation, which is most often accomplished by a combination of resistors and rapid switching of the power using transistors. If the voltage drop is sufficient, this will cause radio frequency interference. Most interference is contained within the boat’s own power system, where it interferes with your radio and instruments, but it can also radiate a short distance.
Lights that show an FCC or USCG approval have been tested for radio frequency interference (RFI). In our testing, the RFI of low-voltage solar lights, which lack the approval of either agency, are too low to be a problem. At a minimum, scan that full range of VHF frequencies after installing any new lighting.
No flashing or strobe lights, please. This is reserved for signaling distress and can annoy your neighbors.
SOLAR PATHWAY LIGHTS
Designed for lighting footpaths ashore, these cheap lights intrigued us. Most solar pathway lights claim 8-hour run time, but all the ones we have used go dim after 4-6 hours and wink out well before first light. The solar panels are really tiny. Although they require only a few watt-hours to recharge the battery, they need at least 4-6 hours of full sun for best results.
Units we tested in broken shade usually fully recharged, but those in deep shade often winked out hours earlier. Likewise, overcast and rainy days can slightly reduce run time.
Swapping the factory NiCads (0.600 Ah) for lithium rechargeables (2.3 Ah) seemed like a good idea. Fully charged, they kept the lights on for two nights, but then failed to recharge because they require a higher charging voltage than the factory NiCads, more than the solar panel puts out. Also note that not all lithium batteries are rechargeable, and not all lithium rechargeables are 1.5V (some are 3.2V).
Don’t overdo it. Decorative lighting and strips can obscure your functional navigations lights. Observe your boat from all directions with all the lights on. Are the basic navigation lights clearly visible and the course of the boat obvious? Any supplemental or decorative lights that could interfere with clear recognition of your functional navigation lights must be turned off when underway.
Boats on moorings. For moored boats, we’d install enough built-in solar panels to run a conventional masthead anchor light through the main battery system.
Although there are photocell systems that will turn lights off during the day, a low-draw LED anchor light draws little more than the sensing circuit, so you can just leave it on. We don’t fully trust the durability of any of the solar pathway lights, so we would install one additional anchor light down low, with a separate switch.
For anchoring while aboard, or for a short hiatus away from the boat, a few of the Hampton Bay Silver Pathway Lights should make your boat easy to find and will make it more visible.
Technically, anchor lights are not required for boats under 23 feet (7 meters) in length, but to leave your boat unlit at anchor or mooring is risking trouble. Light your boat, even if it’s just a dinghy.
There are literally hundreds of possibilities, so we’ll discuss only a few, highlighting what we do and do not like (see also PS May, 2011 “Portable LED Rail Lights” )
MANTUS SNAP ON LIGHT
Initially, we thought this was a bit pricey for a battery-powered light, but over time we realized it filled the roles of several products, a good thing on a smaller boat.
On the high setting, it is as bright as most cockpit lights and will run for 16 hours. Switched to either low or red, it spreads an even light that does not compromise night vision, perfect for reading charts or tidying up underway. Clamped to a high railing, it meets the candela basis of a USCG anchor light; we’ve confirmed this on the water. It makes our F-24 easier to find when return from a mid-night kayak trip.
It makes a good non-glaring bilge worklight; we’ve dropped it in the water enough times to confirm that it’s waterproof. Clamped to the pulpit it makes a bow worklight, though we would use a head lamp for most night deckwork. It even has an SOS flasher setting. Although it does not meet the standard for an eVDSD (Electronic Visual Distress Signal), it will supplement other signaling means (see PS June 2021, “Distress Flares Go Electric”).
Finally, it is rechargeable by USB, and now that most of us have a port somewhere on the boat, it will always be charged without lugging around another charger.
Bottom line: Recommended as a small boat supplemental and a non- USCG emergency anchor light.
HAMPTON BAY PATHWAY LIGHTS
Most pathway lights direct the light downwards, toward your feet, with little escaping to the sides. They light up the cockpit a bit, but you can’t see them from a distance. Hampton Bay Silver Pathways lights, on the other hand, direct the light horizontally, perfect for viewing from a distance.
Though not as well focused as an anchor light, the mere 15 lumens output was clearly visible at 1-mile and very nearly meets the 2-mile anchor light visibility standard. The low profile allows them to be slapped on any flat surface with self-adhesive Velcro. We love the price, but unfortunately they only run 4-6 hours, meaning they will protect you from late arrivals and wee hour drunks, but will not stay lit until first light.
Bottom line: This is our Budget Buy for supplemental lighting. Do not expect the light to be on at 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning.
EMERGENCY ANCHOR LIGHTS
Our search for temporary lights took us into the realm of temporary lights designed specifically for anchoring, and claiming to meet one or more marine specification.
DAVIS INSTRUMENTS MEGA LIGHT
Many small boat sailors use this as their primary anchor light, hanging it in the rigging. It is has a 15-foot cord.
The Mega-Light is still available with the original incandescent bulb (0.3 amps), and with that lamp installed, performs the same as it did in prior testing. We measured the bright beam width at +/- 8 degrees, and long distance visibility seemed enough to meet the standard.
However, on the newer LED lights, with a factory-installed LED bulb, the center of the bright beam is about 30 degrees above the horizon if mounted with the base down (and 30 degrees below the horizon if suspended from the base). In the areas outside this narrow bright band of light (within +/- 5 degrees of the horizon), the light is less than 10 percent of the required brightness. Although quite bright, the LED emits upwards instead of radially like the incandescent lamp does.
The LED also sits about 1/4-inch lower in the housing. When tilted 30 degrees, the lamp aligns with the fresnel lens and becomes much brighter. In practice this means that if it is suspended as suggested by the maker, the light is really only visible within 50-100 feet of the boat, with most of the beam being directed skyward.
Our experience offers an important lesson for DIY sailors looking to save some amps by swapping to a different bulb than the one specified. Navigation lights are only approved with the specific lamp that was used for approval testing—no changes allowed.
Another thing that bothers us is the cigarette lighter plug, but it’s not Davis Instrument’s fault that we have such an impractical industry standard. We’re hoping the boating industry moves to a better standard, perhaps the DIN 4165 Powerlet- style (see PS August 2021, “Watertight Connectors”).
Bottom line: The non-LED version is Recommended, but the LED version has a limited beam angle that restricts visibility. There are better low-draw options for deck level lighting.
TECNIQ TOWER LIGHT
Although intended for permanent installation, this USCG-compliant light is tiny, dirt cheap, and could easily be adapted to a rail clamp or other temporary mounting. The diameter is a perfect match for 2-inch PVC pipe, something we learned when installing one on the mast of our F-24. Because it is so low profile, we needed a short vertical extension to clear the wind instrument housing, a short stub of pipe boosted it just enough and gave us a place to hide the splices. Very low power draw and low price make it an outstanding choice for secondary low level anchor light for a boat kept at a mooring.
Bottom Line: Recommended for permanent installation or to make a custom plug-in.
ESAFETY S6LS SOLAR MARINE LANTERN
An improved version of the solar pathway lights, the S6LS has enough battery capacity to last 60 hours, getting you through a stretch of cloudy days. A local marina installed these on the outlying pilings several years ago, and we can see them at 2-miles, just about the same time the USCG fixed lights marking the harbor entrance come into the clear view.
Esafety also makes a slightly version (S8LS, 2-mile vis, 72-hour life, $85), suitable for a boat on a mooring. Too bad neither is USCG approved as an anchor light.
Bottom Line: Recommended for supplemental lighting and as an anchor light for moored boats that lack adequate battery power.
LANAKO SOLAR POSITIONING LIGHT
The solar power has clear advantages for boats that live on a mooring. In addition to the all-around white light, it also can serve as a tricolor light, and an SOS strobe. A wireless remote control determines which mode it will show. The strobe does meet the USCG carriage requirement for a visual distress signal. It has a convenient rail clamp.
Bottom Line: Recommended for moored boats that lack battery power.
Supplemental lights don’t need to meet a specific standard, but if you are shopping around it helps to understand the output claims—usually expressed in lumens and candela.
A lumen is a measure of total light output in all directions, without focusing. Candela is the intensity of the light within the focused beam, which can be anything from a hemisphere in the case of an area light, down to a narrowly focused beam. If a light emits evenly in all directions it takes about 12.6 lumens of light emission to create 1 candela of intensity. An anchor light, on the other hand, with a beam focused into 6 degrees vertically and 360 degrees horizontally, can produce as much as 2 candela per lumen if the optics are just right, although the actual output is typically closer to 1 candela per lumen.
The 2-mile visibility requirement requires 4.3 candela. An unfocused area light will require 25-50 lumens to meet this standard. Garden lights are typically focused downwards, so the typical 10-lumen light will be visible for less than a mile. With less than perfectly adjusted night vision, PS testing suggests a few hundred yards is more realistic.
We performed additional visibility evaluation of the Mantus Snap-On Light and Hampton Bay Silver Pathway lights, photographing at distances up to 1-mile, calculating intensity, and measuring run time.
In the June 2021 article on electronic visual distress signalling devices, we reviewed the USCG standard. Four handheld products met the standard. None of the devices in this review meet this requirement. A flashing masthead light is not bright enough and does not have independent power supply that the eVSD
If you are considering an unfocused area light to serve as supplementary or backup anchor light, it should have an output of >50 lumens to approximate the visibility required for anchor lights. Be aware that any blocking or partial interference from cabin top structures will decrease visibility significantly.
SOS beacons, intended to be seen from many miles, require a very bright area light, approaching that of a flare. They are expected to be visible at 5 miles and clearly noticeable at a few miles. A blinking anchor light is not bright enough to meet the visual distress signaling standard and does not have its own power supply, which is required of a true eVSD.
The high point on our test boat’s superstructure is a cabin-top winch. We built a simple mount to keep a Hampton Bay Silver light level and secure from sliding off. We have a similar homemade winch mount we use for our camera.
The standard octagonal winch handle hole fits a 0.70-inch (17.8 mm) square about 1-inch long, and you can extend it as needed to clear low obstructions; we chose 2.5 inches as a compromise between visibility and stability. Teak is a good material; rot-proof, hard, and easy to work accurately.
The Hampton Bay Silver Pathway light was mounted to a 5-inch circle of ¾-inch wood with a counter sunk hole for the screw that secures it to the square winch adapter. (The camera mount uses the same size wood square, but is topped with the swivel portion of a cheap table-top tripod.) You can repurpose the socket of an old winch handle.
Alternatively, you can just place the light on the highest part of the cabin, secured by Velcro. We still recommend mounting the light to a disk of wood with screws, because this adds compression to the bottom plate and improves the weather sealing.
When we went ashore from our cruising cat, we’d leave the cockpit light on, and perhaps a few cabin lights. The cockpit light was not blocked by more than a few degrees in any direction and was quite visible, and the glow of cabin lights through the windows made the length and width of the boat obvious. If the anchorage was isolated, we’d turn off all but the anchor light at night, but if we expected late night traffic, we’d leave the cockpit light on for a bit of security. With our F-24, lacking an installed cockpit light or anything overhead to fasten it to, we clip a Mantus Snap-On Light to the stern rail. Both are about as bright as the anchor light, with the advantage of lighting up some portion of the deck as well.
What about emergency anchor lights? A plug-in light will do if the electrical system is still working, and generally it is. Turning on cockpit and cabin lights will work for a single night’s emergency. In the event of general electrical failure, a separate battery powered light also makes good sense. Locate it so that it is visible from all directions.
We’re not saying that supplemental lights are a substitute for a conventional USCG recognized anchor light. Not at all. You need that for compliance, because it is visible above shore lights, and because it is visible at a reliable distance. We’re saying that adding some light down low will make your boat easier to find and reduce the risk of things going bump in the night. Your fellow sailors will also appreciate the improved safety when navigating a crowded harbor at night.
VALUE GUIDE: SUPPLEMENTARY ANCHOR LIGHTS
|BRAND||MANTUS||HAMPTON BAY||TECNIQ||ESAFETY LIGHTS||LONAKO||DAVIS|
|TYPE||Supplemental||Supplemental||Rechargeable Lithium||Emergency Anchor Light||Emergency Anchor Light||Emergency Anchor Light|
|MODEL||Snap-On||LED Silver Pathway Lights||Tower Anchor Light||Beacon Light S6LS||LNK-PL-RGW||Mega Light Utility|
|HORIZONTAL BEAM||1.5-28 cd||3.5 cd||4.5 cd||8 cd||5 cd||5 cd|
|VERTICAL ARC (OUT OF 90 DEGREES)||+90/-20 degrees||+30/-15 degrees||+6/-6 degrees||+10/-10 degrees||-12/+12 degrees||-12/+12 degrees|
|RUN TIME (HOURS)||16-156 hours||6-8||N/A||60 hours||10-12||N/A|
|CURRENT DRAW||N/A||200 mA||100 mA||N/A||N/A||23 mA|
|POWER SOURCE||Rechargeable via USB||Solar||Wired||Solar||Solar||Wired or cigarette plug|
|DIMENSIONS (W X H)||2.8" x 1.8" (plus clamp)||4.8" x 0.9"||2.5" x 1.2"||6.5" x 6.1||4.5" x 2.8"||1.9" x 2.6"|
|PRICE (EACH)||$69||$25 (4 pack)||$18||$156||$85||$54|
Know the rules to prevent collisions and to avoid liability lawsuits.
All sailors should be familiar with the International COLREGS rule 30, which details the uniform requirements for ship lights. Below are excerpts of the important specifications with some italicized comments from our testers.
(a) A vessel at anchor shall exhibit where it can best be seen:
(i) in the fore part, an all-round white light or one ball; and
(ii) at or near the stern and at a lower level than the light prescribed in subparagraph (i), an all-round white light.
(b) A vessel of less than 50 m in length may exhibit an allround white light where it can best be seen instead of the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) of this Rule.
(c) A vessel at anchor may, and a vessel of 100 meters and more in length shall, also use the available working or equivalent lights to illuminate her decks.
Note that the anchor light does not have to be at the masthead, but rather where it can best be seen. The masthead is generally a good place, free of obstructions. The “where it can best be seen” requirement rules out very low locations, but there is no stipulation that it be placed high in the rigging or at the masthead, where it might be hard to see in a crowded anchorages. Note also that the placement and specifications for deck illumination lights is left open for the captain to decide.
Annex I provides additional detail that sailors are often less aware of:
9. Horizontal sector.
(b) (i) All-round lights shall be so located as not to be obscured by masts, topmasts or structures within angular sectors of more than 6°, except anchor lights prescribed in Rule 30, which need not be placed at an impractical height above the hull.
(ii) If it is impracticable to comply with paragraph
(i) of this section by exhibiting only one all-round light, two all-round lights shall be used suitably positioned or screened so that they appear, as far as practicable, as one light at a distance of one mile.
Practically speaking, this means that if a light is not mounted at the masthead, it must be above the cabin and canvas work, and it must be mounted about
10 times the mast diameter away from the mast to ensure that the mast will not excessively obscure the light. 10. Vertical sector.
(a) The vertical sectors of electric lights as fitted, with the exception of lights on sailing vessels underway, shall ensure that:
(i) at least the required minimum intensity is maintained at all angles from 5° above to 5° below the horizontal;
(ii) at least 60% of the required intensity is maintained from 7.5° above to 7.5° below the horizontal.
(b) In the case of sailing vessels underway the vertical sectors of electric lights as fitted shall ensure that:
(i) at least the required minimum intensity is maintained at all angles from 5° above to 5° below the horizontal;
(ii) at least 50% of the required minimum intensity is maintained from 25° above to 25° below the horizontal.
Because anchor lights are not used underway, they need not adhere to the sailboat beam angle requirement. Some lights we have tested met only the section (i) requirement of 5 degrees above and below the horizon, yet don’t indicate they are for powerboats only. These are hard to see when you get close to the boat, gradually dimming as you approach within 150-250 feet of the boat and under the focused band. Even sailboat lights with the broader beam angle dim when you get within a few boat lengths.
Additionally, this means that anchor lights that meet only part (a) vertical sector (5 degrees) must be mounted within a few degrees of plumb to avoid black-out zones. Even sailboat lights meeting part (b) appear dim when rigged out of plumb.
Cruise long enough and your anchor light will fail. The first night after the failure, anything that lights up the boat will help. Leave on the cockpit light, as well as deck lights and cabin lights, as needed to meet the intent of the rule (that the boat is visible from 2 miles away).
After that, a US Coast Guard approved anchor light is needed, as a matter of practicality and legality. In some areas local law enforcement target boats that lack a bright all-around light. If a boat collides with yours at night, attorneys could cite your inadequate lighting as an easy defense for their clients.
If you still have power, a plug-in emergency light will serve. The Davis Instruments Mega Light is probably the best known, or you can make your own from an inexpensive anchor light and a cord. Don’t string an emergency or supplemental light at an angle to get the required spacing from the mast. Don’t place it in an angled fishing rod holder. And no allowing it to swing free; it will appear to flash.
We’re not fans of cigarette plugs, which are not waterproof (see PS August 2021, “Waterproof Electrical Connectors”). Consider swapping the common cigarette plug for either an SAE 2-pin or DIN 4165 Powerlet-type plug.
To minimize maintenance, you can replace the masthead anchor light with a sealed LED unit. The bulb life is practically forever and corrosion is rarely a problem. Alternatively, you could find a new mounting location closer to the ground.
A dead battery or general electrical failure requires a portable unit, and low-draw LEDs and improvements in battery power have made these possible. The Mantus Snap-on Light is bright enough to meet the USCG requirements, and testers have used the Hampton Bay light on the transom of our kayak as a nighttime running light; it is bright, all around, flat for easy mounting with Velcro, and on the transom is out of the paddlers line-of-sight.
Many of the early solar powered garden lights converted for marine use with the addition of a plastic rail clamp turned out to be duds after a single season (see PS May 2011, “Portable LED Lights”). As prices for LEDs have dropped precipitously and the market for robust weatherproof garden lights has exploded, we’re seeing some terrestrial products that seem perfectly suited for use at sea.
Nevertheless, quality is highly variable in this category. This report looks at only a few of the many varieties on the market. We’ve tried several other types, but they weren’t worth the waste of ink. If you’ve found a reliable light that compares to what we have here, we’d be interested in hearing about it.
1. We built our own winch mount using a square wooden plug that fit neatly into the winch handle socket.
2. We also tried leaving it flat on the deck, secured by high strength hook and loop (Velcro) fasteners. This location made the light less visible at closer distances, but the main drawback was the vulnerability to being stepped on.
3. Although the solar charged Hampton Bay light is not specifically designed for marine use, it is meant for use outdoors, and its seals do a good job of keeping moisture at bay in the harsh marine environment.
4. We experimented by replacing the rechargeable NiCad batteries with rechargeable lithium ion batteries. They ran longer, but would not recharge fully on solar power.