Paddling at night - rules/regulations

So where can I find the “official” nautical rules regarding kayaking at night? A couple of friends and myself were on our way in just after the sun had gone down (but it was still pretty bright out)…police boat stopped us and asked us if we all had head lamps and flares. My buddies were aware of the head lamp regulation for night kayaking, but were unaware of the need for flares. This is just lake kayaking at night…so flares seem a bit extreme to me, but I’d like to see the laws on this if someone has a link to a page…

You need to check for your state
States often adopt the coast guard rules but can enact local variations, depending on the location it may be under state or coastie oversight… not just one link. Look around for your own state.

As to flares and lights, headlamps usually don’t cut it if someone is being picky because they aren’t 360 degrees visible. But on smaller venues they’ll often let someone get away with them. Flares are basics for big water kayaking day or night many places.

state regulations vary
but the minimum federal requirement for kayaks and oared vessels is that “…A vessel under oars may exhibit the lights prescribed in this rule for sailing vessels, but if she does not, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.”

…so in other words, on the sea all you need is a light handy to avoid collision.

states on the other hand (and they generally are the folks enforcing boating regulations on lakes - fish and game dept?) have a # of different requirements depending on what state you’re paddling in.

international waters
Which includes the Great Lake require the carrying of flares when there is 3 or more miles of open water off the beam of your boat.

I asked a coastie about this today at work and he said any vessel traveling at night much have navigation lights (in Michigan on Lake Michigan). I’ll check on that and see.

Not correct
The regs state a light or lantern that you can show in sufficient time to avoid a collision. A 360 degree visible white light is the light for a vessel at anchor so technically you can not use that for your running light because you can’t show lights that may be mistaken for other nav lights. I specifically contacted the coast guard website about this and that was the interpretation I got back.

That being said, I don’t like it. First it is not always practical to turn and shine a light on a boat that is bearing down on you. Second, if a pleasure boat drifting toward you backwards showing their legal lights you will only see a steady white light. I don’t think any wise person should assume that a steady white light is stationary. Third, I believe that the regulations were written at a time when a lantern implied a 360 degree visible light.

But to be legal according to coast guard regulations your best bet is to carry a white light and avoid any situation where you have to use it. After all, if someone runs you down, you obviously didn’t show the light in time to avoid a collision.

At a recent Kayaking symposium the Coast Guard let us shoot off both Expired and Good flares. Out of every eight good flares roughly 1 worked. They were shot correctly and were suposed to be good yet. So, pack lots if you think you might need one. 1 in 8 LOL not the best odds and that is if someone doesn’t mistake it for a firework.

All around white light
An all around white light is legal for vessels under 20 feet that cannot exceed 7 knots.

(figures from memory, I may be off a foot or so, or a knot or so)

the skinny
I’ve been involved in several national organizations over the years which work with paddlers, the US Coast Guard and states and I find it a bit of a maze to figure out. But, my opinoin is that the USCG sets rules and regs for inland and coastal waters. The various states can enact tougher laws, but cannot abrigate the USCG regs. Most of the regualtions are enforced by locals such as state police or sheriffs, and are interpreted or enforced rather unevenly depending the individual doing the interpreting. Clear as mud? You bet. Find out what the State regs are and conform. If a local enforcer is mad at ya, chances are your gonna be out of compliance in some fashion. Just don’t smart off.

Remember, opinion are like anal sphincters, everybody has one.


after sunset
Usually the rule is after sunset local time. Around here that is usually later than you can actually see the sun as it is obscured by mountains for an hour before official sunset. But like the man says above, if the official decides the sun is down, it is up to the judge.

Rules vary as stated. And if you are in water divided by state lines, you should probably consult both states regs to ensure compliance. Don’t go by Coast Guard rules only. Army Corps of Engineers has additional regs, so do some State Game Lands, State Parks, etc. You have to do your homework for each body of water.

That’s the kind of reg that NY state has, though I believe it is under 18 feet here.

Sometimes you have to dig around a bit to find out what applies for kayaks and canoes. The regs are written to be apparent to motorized craft or more serious sailboats, so it’s not hard to get an answer that isn’t quite on for paddle craft.

The white light at anchor thing has been around on this board before. I think that responses at the time were coming in indicating that a number of states had the exception for typical paddle type boats.

Lights out (or on)
Absolutely accurate. If we’re talking here about not getting written up (as opposed to talking about safety) what Pagayeur says here is on the button. Those who would stop you almost always need to be spoken to in a reasonable tone and shown that you have at least tried to provide the basic safety of a white lantern or strong flashlight. Having paddled rivers and streams at night for well over 40 years, I’ve certainly had some chats with the gentlemen and (recently) ladies of the various law enforcement branches. I’ve never been faced with a “gotcha” attitude yet, but usually with a “what’s up?” kind of approach. Since I DO carry a big white lantern/flashlight, I always make sure to use it on an approach from a power vessel. That act, and taking a cooperative, non-confrontational attitude, has (luckily) kept me free of ever getting a ticket, deserved or not.

the assumption
is that a white light will prevent collision. It’s just photons. Won’t work.

If you want lights to prevent collision then you need to have running lights that provide location/direction 100% of the time and not according to ones ability to shine a light of unspecified power in an unspecified reaction time in an unspecified direction.

local knowledge

– Last Updated: Aug-08-07 1:47 PM EST –

sounds like you're getting it. I don't think flares are required but it's worth listening to what the authorities expect.

Once you start paddling in traffic the need to enforce and inspect ALL boats becomes important.

Even though it's "just lake paddling" if you're around other people "just lake boating" then you really need to go by the book.

this running light with white stern light will take care of paddling around boats. Once you start paddling where there's other boats you need to be visible like any other boat.

Exceed the rules

– Last Updated: Aug-08-07 3:28 PM EST –

Not that I am suggesting to anyone to follow my footsteps for any reason, but when I paddle at nite, I want to be seen and avoided by non-paddlers. I have a small red/green LED nav light set up on the bow with 100 hour battery life and a LED white light 12 inch wand on the stern. At night, I look like a 17 foot runabout to other boaters. In addition I will carry a headlamp and/or a very bright Luxeon LED flashlight designed for wet envrionments.

There needs to be a balance between being able to see.... and and being able to be seen. My simple Nav lighs allow me to be seen and do not impact my night vision the way they are designed. If someone gets too close, I am lighting up everything I have until I see them respond.

I use a bi-colored bow light and white stern light as running lights, and wear/carry at least one other light that I can turn on as needed. I’ve had compliments on the lights from a couple of the powerboaters on the lake.