Practical Boat Owner's experts answer a reader's question about LED navigation lights

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Here’s a question from the November 2013 issue of PBO.

Are my new lights legal?

QUESTION: I’m a long-term reader of PBO and am in need of some basic advice regarding LED navigation lights, but I can’t seem to find a conclusive answer anywhere.

I’ve recently decided to upgrade my nav lights to LED. I have removed the tatty bi-colour from the pulpit and instead bought two separate port and starboard navigation lights to mount on the coachhouse sides. I also got rid of the tricolour/ all-round white at the top of my mast, with the view that I’ll have less need to go up there.

I have a new stern light, and a steaming light for halfway up the mast. Are two separate coachhouse side lights effective or even legal? I have recently only seen these on power boats. Secondly, when at anchor, can I use the steaming light and stern lighttoperformall-roundwhite duties if I have the two separate port and starboard ones turned off? The stern light would fill in the ‘blank’ of the steaming light, but would of course be lower.

Basically, I am trying to avoid using the top of the mast! Is this possible or am I breaking the Colregs with this approach?
Alasdair Hood, London

CRUISING EXPERT Stuart Carruthers, of the RYA, replies: Separate port, starboard and stern lights are acceptable for navigation of sailing craft under sail alone. If the engine is used then the craft is a power-driven vessel under way and a masthead light must also be displayed.

A masthead light does not necessarily have to be at the top of the mast, but is defined in Colregs as a white light showing an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 225°, fixed to show the light from dead ahead to 22.5° abaft the beam (90° + 22.5° = 112.5)on either side of the vessel. This in now commonly but inaccurately referred to a s a ‘steaming light’.

When mounting separate side lights, care must be taken to ensure that the horizontal and vertical sectors of visibility prescribed in the Colregs are observed. This may be may not be straightforward to achieve if the coachroof slopes.

An anchor light is described in Colregs as an all-round light, meaning a light showing an unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of 360°. The use of the masthead/steaming light together with the stern light does not satisfy the requirements of the Colregs in this respect.

However, a vessel of less than 50m in length and at anchor may exhibit an all-round white light where it can best be seen: it doesn’t necessarily have to be on top of the mast and it can be temporary in nature.