When to Use Navigation Lights

August 2, 2021

In boating, navigation lights are part of the safety equipment required on board a boat. The lights required vary depending on the size and type of boat.

Whether you are a pleasure boater or a professional, you need to understand the importance of displaying the correct navigation lights at the right time.

In this article, our boating safety experts shed light on the subject.

Types of navigation lights

Before explaining when to display your navigation lights, let’s go over the different types.

For more information on equipment requirements, please refer to our article on boating safety equipment.

Masthead light

The masthead light is a white light placed above the longitudinal axis of the boat. It projects uninterrupted light forward across the horizon in a 225° arc.


Sidelights are a red light on the port side and a green light on the starboard side. Each projects uninterrupted light across the horizon in a 112.5° arc. These navigation lights are placed as close to the bow (the front of the boat) as possible.

Sidelights can be combined in a single lantern placed at the front tip of the boat’s longitudinal axis.


The sternlight is a white light placed as close as possible to the back of the boat, or stern. It projects uninterrupted light backward across the horizon in a 135° arc.

All-round white light

As its name suggests, this navigation light projects uninterrupted white light across the horizon in a 360° arc. This light is usually placed at the stern of the boat.

Towing light

The towing light is a yellow light placed as close to the stern as possible. It projects uninterrupted light backwards across the horizon in a 135° arc.

Flashing light

A regular flashing light flashes at a frequency of 120 or more times per minute.

Special flashing light

A special flashing light is a yellow light that flashes at a lower frequency than a regular flashing light. This navigation light flashes at regular intervals at a frequency of 50 to 70 times per minute. It is placed as close as possible to the front of the tug or boat being towed.

Blue flashing light

The blue flashing light is a blue light that is visible all around the horizon, flashing at regular intervals at a frequency of 50 to 70 times per minute. This type of navigation light is mainly used by boats that belong to the state or police.

If a police boat approaches your vessel with a blue flashing light, you must stop and wait for it to reach you.


Flares are pyrotechnic distress signals that must only be used in case of emergency. There are four types of flares that are approved by Transport Canada:

  • Rocket parachute flares
  • Multi-star flares
  • Hand flares
  • Smoke signal

Flares must be kept in an upright position in a cool, dry place in order to remain effective. They must be accessible at all times.

When to turn on navigation lights

Generally, the purpose of navigation lights is to make it easier to see and be seen by other boats.

They can also help determine which vessel has the right of way in crossing situations, because they provide information on the type and status of the boat in question (anchored, fishing, towing, being towed, etc.) That’s why navigation lights are mandatory under the Collision Regulations.

Vessels must use their navigation lights when operating in the evening after sunset or early in the morning before sunrise.

Navigation lights must also be used during the day when visibility is restricted or reduced. Fog, heavy rain and snow are examples of conditions that can reduce visibility.

Recognizing different types of vessels based on navigation lights

As mentioned above, when you encounter a boat at night or in reduced visibility, navigation lights can help you identify what type of vessel it is.

Motorboats under 7 metres long

While its speed doesn’t exceed 7 knots, motorboats of this size must at least be equipped with an all-round light.

Motorboats under 12 metres long

While underway, motorboats of this size must display sidelights and an all-round light.

Motorboats over 12 metres long

While underway, motorboats of this size must display sidelights, a masthead light and a sternlight.


While underway, a sailboat must display sidelights and a sternlight. However, if the sailboat is less than 20 metres long, these lights may be combined at the top of the mast.

Sailboats under 7 metres long

Sailboats under 7 metres long may sail without lights, but must be prepared to signal their presence with an electric flashlight or lighted lantern showing a white light. The same rule applies for canoes and kayaks.

Visibility range requirements for navigation lights

Navigation lights must have a sufficient visibility range to meet requirements.

For vessels under 12 metres in length, navigation lights should have a visibility range of 2 miles, except for sidelights, which have a required range of 1 mile.

For vessels between 12 and 50 meters in length, the required visibility range for navigation lights is also 2 miles, except for the masthead light, which must be visible within a 5-mile radius (3 miles for boats under 20 metres).

Potential consequences of failing to display your navigation lights when required

If you don’t use your lights or fail to use the correct lights when the situation requires, you may receive a fine if you are stopped by the authorities.

If you convey incorrect information with your navigation lights and cause an accident as a result, the consequences may prove severe in terms of civil liability, particularly if you are found guilty of negligence.

The NBSS: your resource for boating safety

In order to boat safely, you must display your navigation lights during the hours of darkness and when visibility is reduced due to weather conditions. It’s also important to be able to correctly interpret the signals other boats send you with their navigation lights.

Want to learn more about boating safety and pleasure boating? The National Boating Safety School is your best resource. Our boating safety course is the ideal tool to help you prepare for the online boating exam, which is required in order to comply with Canadian boating laws.

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