The Need for a Signal Light

-by Jay Murdock, SDKC Safety Editor

A flashlight saved us from a collision with a power boat in the fog

A flashlight saved us from a collision with a power boat in the fog

Years ago there was an article in Sea Kayaker magazine about a kayaker being run over by a power boat at night. In that story the young man had a flashlight, which he used to signal the other boat, without success. But it highlights the necessity to be equipped with proper safety gear, and to know what to do if collision is eminent. He flipped over at the last second, and avoided serious injury. His kayak was cut in half by the propeller, right through the cockpit area. The power boat driver had been drinking.


Kayaks fall under “Vessels Under Oars” in the Coast Guard Navigation Rules. Our boats are under 23 feet in length and are not required to have running lights which are visible from the sides and rear, but fall under Rule 25.


“A vessel under oars may exhibit the lights prescribed in this rule for sailing vessels, but if she does not, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision”.


In the spring of 1999 I was entering the bay one evening in my power boat at dusk, the hour when everything turns to shades of grey. Just before I reached Ballast Point I almost hit four kayakers, all wearing dark clothing and without any lights. It was so close that I may have splashed them with bow spray as my boat turned away. That event showed me just how “invisible” kayakers can be to boats under power in poor lighting conditions.

Some time ago I was kayaking with the Night Herons after dark, and was crossing the channel alone, heading back to Shelter Island. I heard a power boat approaching fast from behind and off to the right, but could not see it until it was about 150 yards away. I had 5 running navigation lights on my deck, but the boat kept coming right toward me. Only after I flashed my high-powered white flashlight did it finally veer away. It was a large yacht fisher, and was less than 100 yards away at that point.


Kayaks are so low on the water, and that makes us difficult to see from other boats to start with, whether in bright daylight or dim light. At night, it only gets worse. Fast boat skippers are looking for big objects that may do them harm. It is no different than how we observe objects while driving a car: we are not looking for smaller objects, which is why people on bicycles and motorcycles are often not seen. At night our tiny navigation lights are hard to see, and tend to blend in with lights on the shore, because everything is in motion to an observer in a boat under way. It is very hard to distinguish what lights belong to objects on the shore, what are reflections on the water, and what are boats in motion.

Our dim lights, low on the water, may appear far off to the power boat skipper. To make matters worse, on San Diego Bay at night, there is a lot of noise. Planes from North Island and Lindbergh combined with cars, trains, and helicopters, make it difficult to hear boats coming your way. Even when that “interference noise” has been low, there have been times that we could hear a large boat, but could not see it until it was very close, and that includes large commercial fishing boats heading our way, with flood lights pointing aft. In retrospect, we were seeing the running lights on the boat, but could not distinguish them from lights on shore while we were under way. If it is that hard for us to pick out large boats, how much harder is it for them to see us? In areas where there are few other lights, other boats may actually use your running lights to “steer to”, thinking they are lights on shore. So it is incumbent upon us to “paddle defensively”.


Prior to crossing the channel, or anywhere there are fast boats, stop, look, and listen for at least 30 seconds. Look in one direction until you are convinced that none of the lights are moving. Do the same thing half way across the channel. Remember, you should be stopped in order to pick out movement. Keep conversation to a minimum, in order to listen intently. If you are paddling with others, stay together on the crossing, as you are more likely to be seen as a group.

On the bow of every power boat are two Navigation “Running” lights. If you see a green and red light, you know that boat is heading directly at you. If the other boat is far off when first spotted, the best position for your kayak at that point is at a right angle to the power boat. If there is time, a forward or back paddle may get you out of harms way. As you paddle to avoid collision, if the red and green lights are both still visible, stop paddling and flash your signal light, then resume the avoidance action if the other boat does not change course. If time allows, you can also shine your light back and forth on your kayak deck, then back at the power boat (but keep your eyes on the other boat while doing this). When the red or green light disappears, you know that boat is turning away from you.


The light needs to have a high intensity beam, be waterproof, and be available to use instantly. An emergency light in a pocket somewhere is about as useless as a life jacket strapped to the deck behind you (instead of being worn). I have the Princeton Tec AMP 1 in neon yellow, as it is a small light with those features, and have it on a 5 inch tether to the top D Ring on my life vest. That way it can be pointed in many directions. On that same D Ring is my whistle (also required by the Coast Guard), with an equal length tether. Lights worn on the head are not advised for signal lights, as they can not act as effectively, diminish your night vision if always turn on, and tend to “blind” your companions every time you look their way. Also, if you use a headlamp as a signal device, and the power boat is approaching you from behind (as in my case paddling with the Night Herons), it takes time to turn your kayak around so you can point your headlamp correctly, and you can also flip over in your haste to make the turn. While, under rule 25 we are not required to display running lights, it is also prudent to have at least a white light on the aft deck. The one that works the best is on a 12 inch post that is attached to the deck by a suction cup. Placing a bright flashlight on the bow or stern of your boat is not advised, as it will “blind” other paddlers.


A flashing light always attracts more attention, and a short flash can heighten the effect. That is why a strobe is so effective. But we can not set our running lights to “flash” as that will interfere with the Coast Guard’s flashing Navigation Lights on buoys, jetties, piers, land points, etc (which include red, green, and white lights). The Coast Guard can ticket you for doing that. But a bright white light, when “flashed” can act as a strobe, and can be seen even during overcast daylight hours (or in the fog, which saved us from a collision with a power boat off the north Mission Bay jetty one morning). When you shine your flashlight at the other boat, move it sideways back and forth quickly, as you also move it up and down slightly. By doing this, the direct beam points at the boat in a quick, random manner, which the eye takes notice of more readily. Do not point the light at the other boat, other than a quick flash, as you do not want to “blind” the skipper and hamper his/her ability to avoid you. To the power boat skipper the strobe-like flashes will give you the best chance of being seen.

See you on the water…with a signal light.

– contributed by Jay Murdock