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The last few days I have been having a bit of fun on our Facebook page by conducting a few little surveys. I mentioned the one yesterday about tools. The most recent two have related to anchor lights. I first asked “when at anchor (or on a mooring ball) do you illuminate a proper anchor light each night, either at the masthead or in the fore-triangle?” As you might imagine, most people responded in the affirmative with many stating that they also leave additional solar lights on around the deck. That’s good news. A few points came up though.

  1. A few people mentioned that they do not turn their anchor lights on when in a “marked anchorage.” This, I fear, is a mistake made by some, confusing a normal anchorage with what the COLREGS refer to as a “special anchorage.” Yes, it’s true, COLREGS say that you are not required to run an anchor light in such a spot (source) but these “special anchorages” are not all that common. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ve never been in one. The little anchor symbol on a nautical chart does not represent such a place. Now, all that said, even if you were in such a place, why wouldn’t you turn on your anchor light anyway? Just do it!
  2. Some people said that while they do run their anchor light when anchored, they do not when on a mooring. How could it possibly make a difference whether your boat was held fast to an anchor that you brought with you or to one that someone had left in the seabed some time before? It doesn’t! Turn your light on!
  3. One person mentioned a strobe light. Unless you want to be the most hated person in the anchorage, do not turn on a strobe light! Seriously, don’t do this!
  4. Solar lights around the deck do not take the place of a proper bright anchor light. According to the COLREGS, an anchor light (all around white light) must be visible from a distance of 5 miles. If you’re concerned about power draw, as most boaters are, replace the incandescent bulb in your old anchor light with one of the new bright LED bulbs. We just did that and in addition to it being super bright, it also draws about 1/10th of the power that the old bulb did.
  5. There are some who say that a bright light in the foretriangle of the boat is more easily seen from the water than the masthead light. I can’t disagree with that. We actually have a secondary proper LED anchor light that is portable and when in areas with a high amount of traffic, I rig it in the foretriangle.

Anchored Vessels and Vessels Aground
(a) A vessel at anchor shall exhibit where it can best be seen:
(i) in the fore part, an all-round white light or one ball;
(ii) at or near the stern and at a lower level than the light prescribed in subparagraph (i), an all-round white light.
(b) A vessel of less than 50 meters in length may exhibit an all-round white light where it can best be seen instead of the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) of this Rule.
(c) A vessel at anchor may, and a vessel of 100 meters and more in length shall, also use the available working or equivalent lights to illuminate her decks.
(d) A vessel aground shall exhibit the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) or (b) of this Rule and in addition, where they can best be seen;
(i) two all-round red lights in a vertical line;
(ii) three balls in a vertical line.
(e) A vessel of less than 7 meters in length, when at anchor not in or near a narrow channel, fairway or where other vessels normally navigate, shall not be required to exhibit the shape prescribed in paragraphs (a) and (b) of this Rule.
(f) A vessel of less than 12 meters in length, when aground, shall not be required to exhibit the lights or shapes prescribed in subparagraphs (d)(i) and (ii) of this Rule. Source

The second related survey asked a similar question “when at anchor (or on a mooring ball) do you rig the appropriate day shape on your boat?

Our anchor ball rigged between the spinnaker halyard and a cleat on the bow.

Not surprisingly to me, most people said no, they do not. I say not surprisingly because I can look around the anchorage and do a quick survey on this. Typically not more than 10% of the boats we come in contact with rig an anchor ball. We do though, and here’s why… I don’t trust insurance companies. Perhaps I’m wrong but my thought is that if someone were to broadside us in the middle of the day, our insurance company could turn around and deny a claim based upon the fact that we were not following the COLREGS which do state that you must rig a single black ball in the foretriangle when at anchor. Is this likely to happen? No, but neither is it a lot of work for me to put the ball up. In fact, I, like most sailors, tend to run the unused halyards out away from the mast when at anchor so that they don’t bang on the mast. When I do this, instead of connecting our spinnaker halyard directly to the boat, I connect it to the anchor ball and attach that to the boat. No biggie.


  1. Mike,

    Take noice, next time you’re in Charlotte Amalie, of the very large mega yachts that are docked there. If they have dropped their anchor to help with docking, they always will display a black ball, even if they are moored up if the anchor is in the water.

  2. Good post Mike. I bet you convert quite a few boaters to put up a ball at anchor just in the fact of the insurance companies being d–ks if they have the chance. I’m going to find a ball, and use it … and I don’t even have insurance.

  3. Excellent, practical advice. I’ll anchor this one away in my mind for future reference.

  4. I am aware of a number of boats displaying anchor lights that have been hit by go-fasts, perhaps with drunk crew. The problem is that anchor lights fade in with stars, street lights, bridge lights, and antenna lights, give no distance information, and don’t say “boat here!” to someone looking horizontally. A light 50-75′ up is basically invisible to them. I think we all know that masthead lights can be hard to sort out when entering a crowded anchorage or mooring field at night.

    If anchored in such a busy place I will often leave a cockpit light on instead or in addition. It better shows the outline of the boat and is far more visible at close range. I believe it is the same bulb as the masthead light and is quite bright.

    5-miles makes sense in open waters (masthead light for sure) where a ship could run you down, but in small harbors and creeks, not so much. 100 yard visibly is what matters.

    I agree that those little solar lights alone don’t get it. Additionally, they often fade to nothing in the wee hours.

  5. Mike and Rebecca – don’t need to say “hope all is well with you”, we can see it is in your posts. Your anchor ball post reminded me of something else. When in the Bahamas you get a cruising pass for X # of days and then have to go and have it renewed within X # of days BEFORE it expires, but not too many days before it expires and the whole process is a bit of an inconvenience, so many cruisers ignore the extension and just stay past their initial allotted days since there is very little chance of getting caught. Last year we had an incident where a fuel dock attendant put fuel in our water tanks (long story-and to answer everyones 1st question-NO we did not ask him to help us in any way, nor “invite” him on our boat). Anyhow, it resulted in a huge insurance claim as you can imagine, and one of the first questions BOTH insurance companies wanted to know was did we have an active cruising permit. We’re quite sure if we had not, the claim would have been denied on both sides. Bottom line BE LEGAL. Our black ball is the blow up kind on a clip, so it is also very easy and as we found out, you never know what is going to happen.

  6. Interestingly enough, when you Google “anchor ball”, you will find more references to an anchor retrieval system than you will a proper COLREG black anchor ball. I would have to say that here on the Chesapeake, I rarely see anyone display an anchor ball. And, sadly I don’t display one either.

    What about powerboats? How would they display said anchor ball with no rig to hoist one?

  7. Hiya Mike

    Great article, thanks!

    While my yacht restoration is yet to be finished, I have noticed that very few people display a day anchor black ball….which disappoints me somewhat. So many of these people boast their understanding and knowledge of nav lights, yet the day symbols are completely omitted.

    Thanks for the article…always looking forward to more.


  8. I must admit that not only do I not display the proper day shapes, I don’t even own any, and only remember the anchor ball. However, I also find that putting an anchor light up is a good way to find my boat among all the other ones which DON’T show a light!

  9. You only need to have an anchor light visible for 5nm if your 20m or over and the anchor light is on the masthead. From 12m to 20m the masthead light should be visible for 3nm. And below 12m the masthead light should be visible for 2nm. I may be wrong, but that’s the way I’ve read the rules.

    • But who can really tell than anyway? It will only come into question by a lawyer after you’ve been involved in an accident. Why not have the brightest one available?

  10. As a commercial maritime teacher (and recreational sailor) – I wish I had seen your surveys (been too busy finishing up books) – anyhow. We ALWAYS put up an anchor ball, we know of two horror stories where jet skis have hit a boat on anchor during the day and because the skipper had not raised the ball he was held partially to blame for their deaths! Doesn’t matter if people do not know what it is – they should! and as a skipper you must do the right thing. The anchor light – I agree – gets lost on the mast head – we liked ours to light part of our deck. It maybe sensible to have a light on, while on a mooring, however, the Col Regs state that you do not HAVE to have a light on while on a mooring. Great blog!

  11. We never ran an anchor light at our permanent mooring in Chicago . We were 5-12 rows in, and about 7-10 boats over from the edges of the tightly-packed mooring field depending on which way you approached it. This was in a harbor that was pretty much jammed with moored boats from shore to harbor walls other than a few barely wider channels through the groups of mooring cans. If someone didn’t realize there were boats moored inside the harbor they were probably going to hit a lot of them before they got to ours.

    Other than a very few folks who maybe had some Luci lights hanging about their boats, nobody ran any anchor lights whatsoever. The only time we ran any lights was when we were getting ready to cast off the ball or were just back from sailing and still hooking up the bridle.

    Oh, and sometimes the harbor tender service would want boats to turn lights on so they could find us when we called on the VHF for a pickup. Apparently some of the newer tender captains had a hard time reading their mooring charts and ball numbers in the dark and often got lost in their own harbor.

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