Alan Lucas looks at ways for yacht owners at anchor to enhance their safety, especially against hoons in powerboats.
The rule for all anchor lights, regardless of vessel size, type or motive power, is that they must be clearly visible from two miles away through 360 degrees. On a sailing vessel this means that the light should be on the main mast cap because anywhere below that has an arc of darkness cast by the mast.
However, there are two distinct problems with a mast-cap anchor light: one, it is hard to maintain; two, from a distance it can disappear into background lights, especially from the viewpoint of a person driving a speeding runabout from behind a salt-crusted windscreen. And even in isolated areas, with just one yacht at anchor and no background lights to cause confusion, a mast cap light casts no light on the vessel herself so that at close quarters her presence may be forgotten by those who travel at speed.
In truth, the problem is less about light placement than it is about runabout drivers zooming through anchorages at planing speed in the dead of night. This is the single most common cause of accidents, especially after a day’s fishing (and possibly imbibing) when drivers rush home after dark assuming there are no officials watching and no anchored boats in their path.
Having identified the most likely cause of a serious prang, we are obliged to be a little anarchic and find a way of making ourselves more visible to small, fast boats. In other words, we must compromise the rules and regs by lowering our anchor light while at the same time maintaining 360-degrees of visibility that is not only more likely to be seen by small boats but also illuminates parts of the yacht.
I have favoured a lower anchor light ever since being nearly whacked by a runabout whose last minute desperate swerve was so violent she threw wake onto my side deck. My mast cap anchor light complied in every way yet the driver roundly abused me for not having a light on, perhaps because it was lost in background lights from his distant approach and forgotten by the time he nearly hit me.
There have been numerous runabout incidents involving yachts with fully compliant anchor lights, a most traumatic example being the two fellows who died when they slammed into Jill Knight’s yacht Cooee on the Brisbane River.
In another spectacular accident (fortunately non-fatal) a friend was sound asleep at anchor on his catamaran when he was violently thrown out of his bunk from the impact of a high-speed tinnie slamming into his forward topsides. Rushing on deck my friend could not immediately identify the area of impact until, as he gingerly walked forward, an unseen voice plaintively called out, "Stop: Go back".
The voice came from the runabout driver whose tinnie was firmly embedded in the catamaran’s side, causing such massive damage that the deck above it was no longer supported and would have collapsed under my friend had he walked any further. The tinnie driver was riven with regret, explaining that he saw the anchor light but thought it was a house on a distant background hill that he was actually using as a steering reference. Predictably, in the ensuing insurance battle, he changed his story to that of the catamaran not having an anchor light.
The question of sobriety is another part of night collisions because those who hurtle through moorings half tanked and fail to see a single light in the wilderness may be destined to prang no matter how or where we display our anchor lights. This is why so many sailors double indemnify themselves by adding solar garden lanterns around their deck. This is not a bad idea, but it is too radical a departure from a rule that is fundamentally sound and, most importantly, internationally recognised.
I digress: How do we lower our anchor light and maintain the obligatory 360-degrees of visibility?
Remembering that it is perfectly legal to display two all-round anchor lights (as is the rule for vessels over 50 metres), one answer is to hang a lantern forward and aft, justifying the extra power consumed by their greater promise of protection. Alternatively, it is practicable to switch on the vessel’s masthead and stern steaming lights to let their combined 360 degree coverage do the job. (Remember, a masthead steaming light is on the front of the mast, not on its cap.)
A rather radical idea, but a very versatile one used by cat sailors, Ken and Sue Mills, is to permanently attach two small masthead lights to the sides of their mast at a common level so that their combined illumination covers a full 360 degrees at a more user-friendly height above water. This deployment not only satisfies the anchor light rule, but it produces a low-powered deck light that illuminates parts of the deck structures for greater owner-safety and enhanced visibility to approaching boats. This spread of illumination can be more important than the light itself under some circumstances.
In the days before LED, solar panels and wind generators, I met an American sailor who literally floodlit his decks every night with two five-amp deck lights. His battery-draw was prodigious, but after a nasty incident in the Caribbean he considered it money well spent.
Apparently a planing craft hit his vessel so hard that he was seriously injured when its bow pierced his hull and nearly ripped his arm off while asleep. His floodlighting habit thereafter was extreme, but he was committed to it and happy to pay the cost of fuel for an overworked generator.
For the rest of us, a happy medium must be struck between ample visibility and a light that doesn’t suck our batteries dry. Permanent lights attached to each side of the mast, as discussed above, is probably the most positive solution, but two single portable LED lanterns hung fore and aft also do the job admirably, especially as their slight swinging movement tends to highlight their presence. The real problem here is to find lantern-style lights at a chandlery. It seems they just don’t exist, obliging us to be creative with whatever is available.
One way of making a robust, portable lantern is to mount two small masthead lights back-to-back onto a central plate, rather than the mast, with lanyards top and bottom for hanging in the rigging.
Another method is to buy a medium-sized all-round anchor light that is designed for mast-cap mounting and hang it lantern-style in the rigging. It is also possible to buy motorboat anchor lights mounted on short stalks that can be hung upside down lantern-style. And don’t forget your local electronics store that may have an item at half the price and begging to be used on a boat.
Regardless of what system you adopt, always presume it will fail and need urgent backup. Carry at least two spare portable lights with leads ready to deploy in the rigging. And in the event of the whole ship’s power going down, keep a battery powered emergency light handy too.
In the final analysis, being seen at night whilst sound asleep is vital. If this means more than one lantern must be displayed as well as the mast cap light, then don’t let power consumption get in the way of presumed necessity.
If, on the other hand, you are surrounded by well-lit anchored craft, then the single light should be ample because an approaching vessel – be she slow or fast – is unlikely to increase speed through an anchorage full of boats.
Finally, LED lights are marvellously economical but it has been my experience that they fade over time leading to the contempt of familiarity over the years producing uncertainty about their effective visibility. If you don’t want a runabout impaled in your topsides, stand off in your tender or walk ashore to judge your light’s intensity from a distance.
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