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When the Lights Go Down in the City: Reading Navigational Lights
Sitting in the Main Dining Room, sipping your Sauvignon Blanc, you look out into the Bay and see a boat with three bright white lights, all in a row on the masthead. Do you know what it means? The Seamanship Committee breaks down a handful of helpful ways to remember light configurations.
  When the Lights go Down in the City
Reading a sea of navigational lights on San Francisco Bay

By Christopher Hanson, Seamanship Committee

Sitting in the Main Dining Room, sipping your Sauvignon Blanc, you look out onto the Bay and you see a boat with three bright white lights all in a row on the masthead. You turn to your dinner guests and say, “Hmmm, a long tow over there.” Dang, don’t you feel like Thurston Howell III incarnate?

Oh, you didn’t know that three white lights in a row signals a boat towing another one, over 200 feet away?

What about “yellow over yellow, hip towing fellow”? No?

OK, what about “red over red, captain is dead”? Nothing on that one either?

Hmmm. There may be more to this “lights on the Bay” stuff than you thought.

The San Francisco Bay is one very busy international port. There are fishing boats (“red over white, fishing at night”), trawlers (“green over white, trawler at night”), harbor pilots (“white over red, pilot ahead”), container ships that must stay in a channel because their draft is significant (“three reds in a row, no room below”) and more.

And there are rules around the rules. For instance, “three reds in a row” is an “International” rule, as opposed to an “Inland” rule. Those three red lights turn into “red, white, red, restricted ability ahead” once the container ship crosses the demarcation line near Mile Rock and heads into the Bay.

Also on the Bay, we’ve got tankers, barges, ferries, fishermen, and a bunch of sailboats (“red over green, sailing machine”), criss-crossing all the time. Including at night, just as you’re headed home in your yacht. And there is nothing, and I mean nothing, worse than finding yourself behind a boat with “yellow over white”, signifying someone towing a barge, a barge you likely didn’t see, which is now coming up very fast, on your opposite side!

Prudent seamanship means knowing the Rules of the Road. I’ve only touched on some of the major light configurations here, but if you’re interested in taking a deeper dive I recommend you order a copy of Chapman Piloting and Seamanship. Or, keep your eyes open for an upcoming Seamanship Seminar on lights on the Bay. Being familiar with the meaning of various light configurations can save a huge repair bill, or even a life. And, it is pretty darn cool when you can spot a submarine because of the flashing yellow light on the conning tower. I’m just sayin’.  

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