Are your lights safe?

Two recreational power boats were operating on Lake Erie one clear evening in July 1998.  One boat was approaching the other from close on the starboard bow, with one proceeding at 20 knots, the other at 25 knots.  The two boats collided, neither having seen the other, and three people died.  How could this have happened?

Both of the boats involved were displaying all-round white lights, an acceptable alternative to a masthead light and sternlight for vessels less than 12m long (Rule 23c).  The operator of one of the boats was standing at the wheel.  From this position, the all-round light was 12 inches forward, 1.5 inches above, and a few inches to the left of his line of sight when looking at the horizon dead ahead.  It was the opinion of experts that the position of this all-round white light destroyed the night vision of the helmsman, especially as the other boat was approaching on nearly the same bearing as the light when seen from the operator’s position.  Although it was not a cause of this accident, it was also noted that the all-round light was shielded astern by the position of the standing operator.

Why didn’t the other boat see the first boat on a collision course?  The all-round light is mounted on a standard, which when vertical meets specifications for visibility of 2 miles when the boat is at rest.  That visibility is decreased as the boat comes up on the plane, and the operator is supposed to adjust the position of the light standard in increments of 15 degrees to compensate for displacement; there is now no way to know whether the operator of the first boat had adjusted his light correctly to achieve the required visibility.  And how about the sidelights?  The two boats were closing at a rate of nearly 45 miles and hour.  Sidelights are only required to be visible for one mile -- at these speeds that distance was covered in about one and a half minutes.
Source: The Expert newsletter, published by Capt. Kirk Greiner, USCG (Ret)

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