“As different as night and day.”

A boater must have coined this phrase. I can think of no environment where the contrast between day conditions and night conditions is so pronounced, than when on the water. When twilight fades into darkness and familiar landmarks disappear, it’s as if someone deftly plucked your boat off your favorite lake or bay and silently dropped it down in some strange realm. And this new place has no visible smokestacks or antennas along the shoreline. In fact, the only hint of a shoreline at all is the flickering of some lights on the now-invisible horizon.

A night cruise can be one of the most relaxing and enjoyable pleasures of boating. The sun isn’t scorching your hide or making you squint, the surface confusion caused by the wakes of too many boats has diminished, and an offshore breeze replaces the heat and humidity of midday. But night boating requires some special attention from the skipper. You can’t see where you are, you can’t see where you’ve been, and you can’t see where you’re going.

There is a natural tendency for a boater to want to use a searchlight or spotlight at night, just as one would use headlights on a car. But headlights won’t work on the water. For one thing, you’re not on a street or highway where other traffic will approach you from predictable directions. On the water, other boats may be approaching you from anywhere.

Secondly, other boats will not be using searchlights (headlights). The only way you’ll have to spot them is by their green, red or white lights. And with both stationary and moving lights all up and down the shoreline and criss-crossing the surface of the water, it’s easy to see why night boating demands a tremendous amount of concentration. Those who have boated at night will agree with me that navigation lights on boats are not very bright, and by the time you can see them, you can be dangerously close.

The other reason headlights would be of little use for boats is because boating is three-dimensional. Automobile drivers don’t have to be concerned with what lies beneath their highways, but boaters must. Also, a spotlight shining on waves creates shadows and reflections that can look very much like fishing floats or debris. This causes the skipper to consider every sighting as a danger, when most are simply illusions. After a while and after a few “false sightings,” the skipper easily can become complacent, opening up the possibility of missing the ones that truly do represent a risk.

But the biggest reason we don’t have headlights or use our searchlights for nighttime running is that we would temporarily blind other boaters, confusing them and perhaps causing them to make some inappropriate maneuvers like into the path of our own boat.

So let’s face it. We’re all handicapped when we’re operating our boats at night because we just can’t see very well in the dark. Unless you’re in big water, and a long way from shore with plenty under your boat and along your course, you should pay close attention to some basic principles of boating after dark:

1. Slow down. You can’t judge distances at night as easily as you can when you have high visibility and a relative sense of distant objects. And you’ll need more time to figure out what all the lights mean that are moving at different speeds, directions and distances relative to your own boat.
2. Arrange your interior lighting so that you are not blinded by your own illumination. I was on a boat one night that had an all-round white light mounted atop the windshield, and the reflection off the glass was so blinding I couldn’t see the gauges on the helm station, let alone the bow. Make sure such lights are shielded, and keep your interior lighting dimmed.

3. Use your hearing to your best advantage. Sound carries across the water as if amplified. If your boat’s SuperStupendousSonic Stereo System is on full blast, you’ll miss some important clues given by approaching vessels, such as engine noise, horns, rushing water, sails flapping or even loud conversation.

If you’re a relatively new boater, and not comfortable skippering your own boat in the dark, try and go out with a friend as a passenger and watch and listen to what’s going on. Night boating is a different ballgame,

but one you can play safely if you follow a few simple rules and use good common sense.