Collision Avoidance for Recreational Boaters

Every so often, we hear about a collision between a recreational vessel and a commercial vessel. Given that powerboats and sailboats are lighter and smaller, the risk of injury and damage is much higher for the recreational mariner. It follows that we should take greater precautions to reduce the odds of such a calamity.

There are a few ways that we can minimize our risk. The first and most important is to know the Navigation Rules concerning lights. Our biggest risk is at night, since we cannot see such things as tow lines, fishing gear, etc. Towing vessels present a hazard to us unless we can identify them and know what to expect.

Have you ever been cruising along and observed a vessel in front of you with a yellow light above his stern light? The yellow light is a “towing light” and is required by Navigation Rule 24 when towing a vessel or object astern.  When you see that towing light, there will be a towline next to you and something being towed behind you.

A towline may be made of synthetic fibers, as is used by TowBOAT/US, or it could be a steel towing hawser, capable of sinking your boat. The vessel, barge(s) or object being towed may be moving at a greater rate of speed than you are and may be heading in your direction if you are behind the towboat.

The towing light requirement includes operation in a bay, river, sound or the ocean, since it is the same under both Inland and International Rules. Rule 24 applies to everything from a small towboat (under 25′) up to a seagoing tugboat  that may be towing multiple barges. If you get hung up on the towline, your next adventure will be with whatever is being towed.

Towing vessels are required to have at least two masthead lights (white and showing for 225 degrees) in a vertical line. Based on the length of the towboat and whatever is being towed, the towing vessel may have as many as four masthead lights. In any case, when you see multiple masthead lights on an oncoming vessel, beware!

The vessel being towed will have sidelights (red and green) and a stern light, but no masthead light. In the case where a vessel is being pushed ahead or towed alongside, the towing vessel multiple masthead light requirement is the same, but the towing light (yellow on the stern) varies between Inland and International Rules.

Inland, a towing vessel pushing ahead or towing alongside, will display two towing lights (yellow) in a vertical line on its stern. The towing lights will not be accompanied by a stern light (white). Under the International Rules, however, towing vessels pushing ahead or towing alongside will display only a stern light (white) on its stern.

Multiple masthead lights may also be observed on a vessel over 50 meters (165 feet) even when it is not towing. In that case, the second masthead light is there to indicate that it is a large vessel.

All recreational boaters would be wise to steer clear of any vessel with multiple masthead lights or yellow lights. You can also contact them on the VHF radio if you have any questions or concerns. Better safe than sorry!

Until next time, we wish you clear skies, fair winds and calm seas!


World Wide Marine Training, LLC, is a U.S. Coast Guard Approved facility authorized to give examinations for captain’s licenses up to Master 200 Tons, Able Seaman up to Unlimited, STCW Basic Training, Radar, ARPA and other Endorsements. Please visit or call toll-free 866-249-2135.