Tri-County Lakes Administrative Commission
A conservation officer with the Department of Wildlife Resources is pictured.

National Safe Boating Week runs May 20th through May 26th and the Tri-County Lakes Administrative Commission (TLAC) Navigation Committee is taking this opportunity to highlight an often overlooked aspect of boating safety.

Boating safety involves many different accessories including personal floatation devices, whistles, and throw cushions. Another critical accessory is lighting. Both onboard lighting and dock lighting ensure safe boating when properly installed. Installed incorrectly, lighting can create unintended hazards.

The US Coast Guard and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources clearly describe proper onboard lighting for nighttime navigation, anytime between sunset and sunrise and during period of restricted visibility. The specifications for navigation lights are straightforward. It is illegal to navigate after sundown on any power vessel that does not have a bow light and a stern light. Navigation lights enable other boaters to determine the type of boat they encounter and which direction the boat is travelling. This information helps other boaters determine right-of-way for safe passage.


The Sidelights on the bow (front) are required to shine from straight ahead to 112.5 degrees on their respective sides.
The port side (left when facing forward) light must be red, and the starboard side (right when facing forward) must be green. The stern (back) light must be an all-around white light that is visible 360°, and 1 meter (3.3 feet) above the sidelights. Please check the US Coast Guard regulations at https://uscRboatinR.orR/librarv/boatinR-safety-circulars/bscscan75a.pdf for specific regulations.


When anchoring at night, the side navigation lights are to be extinguished, but the all-around white light must be illuminated. These lights are important for both your safety and for the safety of other boaters navigating after sundown. Please be certain to keep required lights unobstructed and fully visible at all times.


In addition to ensuring the required lights are installed and operational on your boat, it is important not to use other lights while under power. The only lights to be used at night while under power are the side navigation lights and the all-around white light on the stern. Some boaters misunderstand the purpose of the bright docking lights in the front of vessels and mistakenly use them as headlights. Docking lights should only be used when approaching the dock where you will moor the boat. Docking lights interfere with night vision for the boat operator and for oncoming vessel operators. They are not intended to be used as headlights when operating at night.


Another lighting issue for boaters is the current trend — LED strip lights. When these are placed along the sides or stern of a boat, LED strip lights can be problematic for other boaters. These lights may impact the ability of other boaters to safely navigate the waterways by impeding their night vision and by making it difficult for them to see your navigation lights. Additionally, the angles illuminated, and NOT illuminated, by the side lights are critical in determining priorities between passing vessels. It is prohibited to use standard light colors for any lights other than those that are required. This is to prevent confusion for approaching boaters. Therefore white, green, and red LED strip lights are not permitted so as not to confuse other boaters of the position of sidelights or the all-around light. Blue lights are reserved for law enforcement, and yellow lights are reserved for towing/tugs. Neither blue nor yellow lights are permitted on private vessels.


In addition to the lighting on boats, dock and shoreline lighting should be carefully considered regarding their impacts on boaters. Lights along your dock are a great thing for safety. Too much dock lighting can obscure the visibility of navigation markers and the navigation lights on boats in the area. Choose lights that point downward and don’t fan out over a large area. Use of red and green colored lights may obscure or be confused for channel marker lights. For this reason, red or green lights should not be installed on docks or near shorelines. Unshielded white lights can render channel markers unseeable and should be avoided as well.



TLAC’s Navigation Committee strives to address current safety concerns on Smith Mountain and Leesville Lakes. To contact our office with questions or concerns, call (540) 721-4400, visit our website: email us at Be safe, have fun, and always remember the impact your equipment may have on others.


Kristina Sage is executive director of the Tri-County Lakes Administrative Commission.