Boat Lights

If you would like a new pair of lights, send me an email, or send a check to the address below.  $60 buys a pair, batteries included! Also, as many little strips of DualLock as you need to attach the lights to your boat or boats. If you would like your lights mailed to you, please add $6 for USPS postage. Discounts available for team orders or bulk orders!


A few words on Boat Lights

As per the Schuylkill Navy Rules:

2. All shells that row in darkness shall have fixed, flashing lights bow and stern.

Over the past 15 years in Philly, I have put together what I consider to be the best lighting option for shells.  I take top-end Cateye or Serfas bicycle tail lights and mount them on a custom fabricated bracket and use 3M DualLock to attach them to the shells.  Most BBC club boats have the strip of DualLock on the bow and stern decks, but it is ultra-easy to attach strips to your own boat or to another club's boat (ask permission first).

We will talk about what types of lighting are legal later, but first we will talk about what types of lighting are the most practical. By way of example, for night bicycling, PA state law requires bikes to have a white head light and red rear reflector, both visible from 500 feet (no rear light). There are plenty of riders who comply with the law, some who don’t come close, but there are way more who go beyond the law and equip themselves with even better options. Personally, I’m with those guys. Outfit yourself with lighting options that will announce your presence to anyone who may cross your path. And 500 feet? I believe that the minimum standard for visibility should be one mile.

As a rower with 35 years of experience, and a coach with 30 years of driving a launch in the pitch black, I can tell you from first hand experience that you want lights that are as close to car tail lights and brake lights as possible. These are the lights that are easiest to not only see, but also to discern how far away they are. The reason that car taillights are red is because, in darkness, the eye percieves red the most clearly, compared to other colors. Amber is pretty good, also. Even though it signals your presence extreemly well, a bright white light is very difficult to place in the field of vision. Are my retinas being seared by a shell that is 20 meters away or 200 meters away? Obviously, anything is better than nothing, but, if you have control over what you put on your boat, you have control over how well you are seen in the dark.

As long as rowing shells are following the traffic pattern, catastrophic shell to shell accidents are unlikely, even in the dark.  Clashing of oars is commonplace, even in the daylight, but head-on collisions of shells is less about lighting and more about competence.  That’s why we have a traffic pattern, so that every shell is, for the most part, going the same direction when it is on the correct side of the river or lake.  

The real danger in the darkness is not so much from other shells as it is from launches.  Launches don't always follow the traffic pattern (stop laughing).  If I (a launch) can see a shell's light from a distance, I can choose a course well away from it, before I get close.  When shells get close to each other, they can hear each other (mostly when they are traveling in the same direction), so there is a bit of early warning. A launch driver has an outboard motor droning in his or her ear and may not even hear cries of "look ahead!" over the din.

Visibility is the key function of boat lights. I am utterly confused by the proliferation of unacceptable lights that are being used by rowers on the Schuylkill; dim - highly directional -diffuse - using a blinking pattern that makes it less, rather than more visible (all LEDs need to blink IN UNISON!). If a launch can't see you clearly from one mile away, you are in danger. Safety light manufacturers tout the increased range of visibility of modern LED light bulbs. Please make use of them. Older, dim lights are worthless. Single LED lights are practically useless. If you can’t make out a boat light from the visual noise of surrounding street light reflections from 150M away (three docks down), toss it in the drink. Also, REPLACE YOUR BATTERIES early and often; your blinkies will keep blinking for quite a while after the LEDs lose brightness.  Dim LEDs are just as useless as a bad design.

With regard to design: Launches mostly view shells from the bow or stern; rarely from the side for any length of time (except for the boats in their own practice). Therefore, it makes sense to me that the lights should be focused towards the bow and stern to alert any launch on the river. Obviously, you want 360º visibility, but when it comes to being seen by launches, you want to let them know where you are from a good ways off, and that is way up or down river from where you are, i.e. way to the bow and way to the stern.

Some of the newer number clip bow lights have the LEDs focused directly outward from the shell. This I don’t understand at all. When an LED is viewed from the side (of the LED), it loses most of it’s brightness. Single or diffuse or otherwise dim LEDs are invisible in the visual noise of reflected street lights. And, like I said, if a boat light can’t be seen more than three docks away, a launch driver won’t see you untill he is right on top of you.  I think you know who will win that bump.

My personal preference gained from years of coaching in the dark is red or amber flashing lights bow and stern. I like knowing exactly how far away other shells are from my practice, both upstream and down. It is not a bad idea to distinguish the bow from the stern, but, on the Schuylkill with a very strict traffic pattern, it is not really necessary. There would need to be some sort of convention as to what is a stern light and what is a bow light. Some possibilities would be:

  • Solid red bow, flashing red stern.
  • White bow, red or amber stern (flashing or solid, like the PA bike law).
  • The legally correct choice: solid white bow and stern (see below).


Now we will talk about the legal choice. The line below is from the PA Boating Handbook:

Navigation lights are designed to identify the type of boat and its situation on the water.

By law, the only boats that can display red and green bow lights are powerboats or sailboats under power or under sail. The red and green bow lights show that this is a boat that is under way. The orientation of the red, green and white lights provides the information that other boaters need to know: where a boat is, how far away it is, and which way is it heading in the dark. This is crucial information on the open water, where there are no lanes or traffic pattern. The rules of navigation take over and boaters decide how to alter their course to avoid collision based on those rules.  I won’t talk about those rules here, but anyone who has taken a boating course can tell you that those rules are very strict and well defined.

The law states that human powered boats (canoes, kayaks, shells, even dragon boats) should have one solid white light visible from 360º. Do I advocate following the law? Not exactly, but I also don’t believe that putting port and starbord lights on the bow of a racing shell is the best answer, either. In some situations, it may actually endanger you, especially on a wide body of water. If a motor boater is out at night and sees what he thinks is another motor boater underway (based on the lights you are displaying), he might not have any qualms about buzzing past you at full speed; after all, he is passing what he assumes to be another motor boat. Fortunately, there is very little motorized pleasureboat traffic on the Schuylkill, so this is an unlikely scenario in Philly.

My conviction is that you should make yourself clearly visible. In my opinion, nothing does that as well as one excellent, one mile plus red flashing light on each end of your boat. 

If you row on a wide body of water with little pleasure boat traffic in the dark, for God’s sake, establish a traffic pattern. My experience on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts in the summer was such that I rarely did any rowing in the dark. Powerboaters were everywhere, and were not the best neighbors. Please know your body of water better than the back of your hand before you row in the dark.

If you would like a new pair of lights, send me an email, or send a check to the address below.  $60 buys a pair, batteries included! Also, as many little strips of DualLock as you need to attach the lights to your boat or boats. If you would like your lights mailed to you, please add $6 for USPS postage. Discounts available for team orders or bulk orders!

Jamie Gordon

208 Engle Drive
Wallingford, PA 10986

© James A. Gordon 2013 Logo ™ Nicole Gordon © 2013