Still relying on an old hurricane lamp at anchor? Duncan Kent tests the latest electric anchor lights

Anchor lights test

Duncan Kent

Duncan Kent

There has been a rapid move from incandescent filament bulbs to LEDs over the past few years, both in our homes and on our boats. In addition to navigation lights, another area important to all cruising sailors is visibility when anchored. Some skippers just hoist an old oil-powered hurricane lamp up a halyard, others deploy converted solar garden lamps, but if you really want to avoid being hit in the early hours by a latecomer to the anchorage it’s surely best to ensure your anchor light is clearly visible from a good distance.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)

Nowadays, the problem of high current drain from your boat’s lights should be in the past. Modern LED ‘bulbs’ are rapidly overtaking the old, inefficient filament-type bulbs, proving to be equally bright – brighter in many cases – and with a fraction of their power demands.

Being nearly 10 times as power-efficient as standard filament bulbs, as well as considerably more resistant to vibration and impact, they appear to be the ideal solution for all sailing boat lights. They can be left on without the worry of flattening the ship’s batteries, but also the wiring required to power them can be reduced in size, minimising weight aloft where masthead and steaming lights are situated.

Wiring them up

LEDs are wired in a similar way to filament units. Although they are polarity sensitive, most can be wired up either way and they will still work, thanks to integral diode correction circuitry. At worst, they simply won’t light if you reverse positive and negative, until you swap the wires over.

It is worth mentioning at this point that if you intend to keep the same wiring and just change the lamp or bulb to a lower power LED type, the circuit protection fuse or breaker must remain the same value as it is there to protect the wiring, not the device.

Reliability and lifespan

Almost as important as low power consumption is reliability. When a masthead bulb blows, someone has to change it – something few sailors are inclined to do at sea. Being less vulnerable to the typical jarring the masthead is likely to experience in rough sea states, LEDs are far less likely to blow during a bumpy passage. In fact, most of the top quality units are quoted as having a 50,000-hour lifespan! For this reason it’s not surprising they are currently quite a bit more expensive than the incandescent bulb types, but this is likely to change once LED navlights become the norm.

Changing bulbs to LEDs

Many boat owners have converted their incandescent navigation lights to LED by simply swapping existing filament-type bulbs with the equivalent LED clusters. Early LEDs were not very powerful and therefore not necessarily visible over the legally required range. Nowadays, however, with the integration of miniature voltage regulators, most decent-quality LED clusters can accept any voltage between 10v and 30v DC, whilst retaining full brightness, regardless of the battery condition or voltage fluctuation.

Top quality LED clusters are encapsulated in resin to prevent water ingress. Though more expensive, it makes sense to fit this sort, particularly to a masthead-mounted unit, to avoid the climb to replace it.

Despite the longevity of LEDs, bulb replacement clusters suffer the same problems with dirty or corroded contacts as filament bulbs, so it’s a good idea to grease up their contacts with silicone grease before installing them.

How we tested them

Anchor lights

We hung the anchor lights in the fore triangle, but tested them singly

 

In this test we took a selection of typical modern anchor lights – a mix of masthead mounting and hoistable types – and tested their visibility from a mile away to see if the new LED types were genuinely as easy to see from a distance as the traditional filament bulb models. We also tested a selection of LED replacement bulbs that will fit most of the older-style lamps that were designed to run on incandescent bulbs.

Taking all the anchor lights out on the editor’s boat late one June evening, we picked up a buoy in Calshot Bay and hung the lights in the foretriangle of the yacht, around 2.5m above deck level. At first we tried lighting five of them at once, to see if we could compare them together, but 150m away the light started to merge into one bright blob, so we reverted to testing each one individually.

Anchor lights

Testing the current draw of each light using an ammeter

I set off across Southampton Water in our RIB, having set the boat as a mark on my GPS, so that I knew when I was exactly one nautical mile from the yacht. Then, communicating via VHF radio, we lit each light and judged by eye as to how bright, white and clear to see they were – scoring them out of 10. We did consider using a spot-beam analyser, but in the end the human eye is by far the most accurate detector of distant lights and, after all, that’s exactly what would happen in real life.

Later, back on land, we powered them up again to check their actual current consumption using an ammeter.

Where should it be?

Anchor lights

On the boom end, masthead or hung in the foretriangle? Colregs say you shouldn’t show more than one

Every time I go off for a week, or even a long weekend, I spend as much time as possible at anchor. There’s something about being in charge of your own destiny that culminates in a night at anchor.

After a good day’s sail I often end up entering an anchorage after dark, picking my way through a forest of unlit masts and almost imperceptible hull silhouettes. Most boats are poorly lit – if at all – and the few that are lit have an all-round white light at the top of their mast, which boatbuilders these days like to call an anchor light.

The masthead anchor light came about to make life easy for builders. Wires have to go up to mast for a tricolour (de rigueur for today’s small to medium-size cruisers), so why not take one more up for an all-round white ‘anchor’ light?

In the Colregs, Rule 30(b) simply states that for a vessel under 50m LOA ‘an all-round white light should be placed where best seen’. Traditionally, this always meant hanging it in the foretriangle. An anchor light at the masthead was never a consideration until a couple of decades ago.

Anyway, the purpose of the anchor light is not to satisfy regulations, but to enable your vessel to be seen by others so that they can take avoiding action. Being keen to light up my rig or decks to an incoming vessel, rather than show a light 40ft up my mast where it often gets lost in amongst the jumble of shore lights surrounding many anchorages, I often hang mine from the stern end of the boom, raising it to ensure it is visible above the sprayhood. This also serves as a useful cockpit light when eating al fresco on warm summer evenings.

However, there is a point to the old custom of hanging it in the foretriangle: it gives some indication of where your anchor cable is laid out, so that others can avoid snagging it when they drop their own hook. This is particularly useful in crowded anchorages, where swinging room can be tight.

Products tested

Prices include VAT, and were correct when we went to press (2014)

Hella 2010 series £23.22

Anchor lights

We couldn’t find an LED bulb to fit

Smaller and less rugged than the NaviLEDs, it comes with a stubby pole making it 100mm high. Pre-wired with just 100mm-long wires, the unit is not fully sealed, but has a twist-and-turn lens with a rubber O-ring.

Anchor lights

Hella 2010

Sporting a 31mm, 10W festoon-style filament bulb, this light unsurprisingly scored lowest. Although still visible at 1nm, it had a dull orangey glow, unlike the brighter LED types, but then it is the least expensive unit of those tested.

Current draw: 770mA

Range: 2nm

Brightness: 4/10

 

Contact: EC Smith

Tel: 01582 729721

Web: www.ecs-marine-equipment.co.uk

 

Boatlamp portable anchor light £27.50

Anchor lights

A hoisting ring would have been useful

Most portable anchor/cockpit lights plug into a 12V socket, but this one comes with a choice of LED clusters and has an automatic dawn-to-dusk switch to save power when the sun is up but you’re not.

Anchor lights

Boatlamp Portable Anchor Light

Both the standard 1.3W (6-LED) and the more power-hungry 3W, 15-LED version worked very well, and even the 1.3W model could be seen clearly from 1nm.

Current draw: 1.3W/46mA; 3W/115mA

Range: 1nm/2nm

Brightness: 5/10; 6/10

 

Contact: Boatlamps

Tel: 07970 074667

Web: www.boatlamps.co.uk

 

Perko 10W filament £33.75

 

Anchor lights

Well built but not all LED bulbs would fit

This solidly built navlight, designed to be masthead mounted, is a good size and comes with a 10W incandescent filament bulb. As with the Aqua Signal filament lamp, the bulb is bright and clearly visible at 1nm.

Anchor lights

Perko 10W filament

However, due to its rather clunky wire terminals inside the lens, it wouldn’t take the superb Searolf LED cluster, but did take the Boatlamps 18-LED dawn-to-dusk cluster, which was very nearly as good. The lamp has a twist-to-lock lens and is sealed by an O-ring.

Current draw: 1.4A

Range: 2nm

Brightness: 7/10

 

Contact: Marathon Leisure

Tel: 02392 637711

Web: www.marathonleisure.com

 

Hella Compact NaviLED 360 £101.70

Anchor lights

The unit has a five-year warranty

 

This light is fully sealed and has a heavy-duty, polyamide lens and UV-resistant, high-impact nylon housing designed to provide outstanding resistance to vibration and impact. It is waterproof to IP67. Its 90mm diameter, round base can be black or white with three holes for mounting flat.

Anchor lights

Hella Compact NaviLED 360

Prewired with a 1.3m cable, it operates over a wide voltage range, using electronics to ensure consistent brightness. Its five-year warranty won’t cover faulty LEDs.

Current draw: 110mA

Range: 2nm

Brightness: 7/10

 

Contact: EC Smith

Tel: 01582 729721

Web: www.ecs-marine-equipment.co.uk

 

Hella NaviLED 360 pole-mount £125.80

Anchor lights

Power draw matched the Compact version

Almost identical to the Compact with the same 1.3m lead, only it comes on a short (155mm high) aluminium pole with a two-hole, screw-down plastic base mount.

Anchor lights

Hella NaviLED 360 pole-mount

The info and packaging claims a mere 1W consumption, but it drew exactly the same current as the 2W Compact and appeared to be equally as bright, so my guess is they are the same light just on a different mounting.

Current draw: 110mA

Range: 2nm

Brightness: 7/10

 

Contact: EC Smith

Tel: 01582 729721

Web: www.ecs-marine-equipment.co.uk

 

Lopolight £443.02

Anchor lights

Mounts as an anchor light or a steaming light

The virtually bombproof Lopolight’s sophisticated circuitry regulates its output over time. LEDs dim with age so a monitor counts ‘on’ hours and gradually increases current to compensate.

The Lopolight operates from 10-32v DC and power spikes are absorbed. It uses top spec, 3mm LEDs in a UV-stable acrylic lens within a rugged, anodised aluminium housing. Electronics are sealed in epoxy.

Anchor lights

Lopolight

Designed to masthead mount with a 750mm cable, it can be wired as a 360deg, a 225deg (steaming) light or both.

Current draw: 202mA

Range: 3nm

Brightness: 7/10

 

Contact: IM Products

Tel: 01763 241300

Web: www.improducts.co.uk

 

NASA Supernova £55.00

Anchor lights

A membrane equalises pressure on the seals

NASA Marine was one of the first to produce LED navlights, including the Supernova 2nm all-round white anchor light. It has 32 high-efficiency LEDs to ensure minimal power consumption, which are encased in a tough, waterproof polycarbonate shell.

Anchor lights

NASA Supernova

Each comes with a black-painted steel bracket that is designed to be bent to conform to the correct shape for your boat, which supports a simple clamp that tightens around the short pole supplied with the light. A 250mm cable enters the unit via a clamp-sealed grommet.

Current draw: 189mA

Range: 2nm

Brightness: 6/10

 

Contact NASA Marine

Tel: 01438 221023

Web: www.nasamarine.com

 

Navi Light 360 £59.99

Anchor lights

Our ‘most useful to have around’ winner

 

It’s AAA battery-powered, waterproof and floats light-side up. While not designed as a permanent anchor light, it’s a useful emergency all-round light, easy to use and well made.

A magnetic back and detachable panel allows it to be used in many ways, including on the head strap provided.

Anchor lights

Navi Light 360

Its 16 powerful LEDs can be seen clearly from two miles as a steaming or stern light, or flashing. We used it as a navlight on the RIB, and it was clearly seen a mile away – even in economy mode with four LEDs lit.

Duration: Full 15hrs; 4-LED 72hrs

Range: 2nm

Brightness: 7/10

 

Contact Force 4

Tel: 0800 1300 710

Web: www.force4.co.uk

 

Aqua Signal Series 40 £82.95

Anchor lights

A more traditional lamp for filament or LED bulbs

A larger lamp than the other units we tested, Aqua Signal’s Series 40 can be bought as either a masthead mount or a hoistable lamp. It is supplied with a 10W incandescent bulb as standard, but easily took our bayonet fitting Searolf 30-LED cluster as a simple, direct replacement.

Anchor lights

Aqua Signal Series 40

The lamp is robustly made and looks pretty tough, although it doesn’t claim to be completely waterproof.

Current draw: 1.4A

Range: 2nm

Brightness: 7/10

 

Contact: Marathon Leisure

Tel: 02392 637711

Web: www.marathonleisure.com

 

LED CLUSTER BULBS TESTED

 

Boatlamps 15SMD 5050 £12.95

Anchor lights

A replacement for standard bulbs

Boatlamps stocks a huge range of LED clusters. We tried several and found the large bayonet type, with 15 LEDs and a photo-sensor that switches it off when the sun rises, to be perfect for this purpose,. Note that this model’s sensor is on the top of the cluster, so if its housing has a covered top it’s not quite as sensitive – but still works from reflected light through the lens.

Anchor lights

Boatlamps 15SMD 5050

It fits most of the regular all-round white lamps that use a 15mm diameter, offset pin bayonet filament bulb.

Current draw: 50mA

Range: 3nm

Brightness: 6/10

 

Contact Boatlamps

Tel: 07970 074667

Web: www.boatlamps.co.uk

 

Boatlamps 18SMD 2835 £12.95

Anchor lights

More LEDs make this lamp appear brighter

This lamp uses the latest powerful 2835 LEDs and has an extra column to the 15 LED cluster. This means that at any time you view the light it will have three columns of three LEDs facing you, making it look even brighter.

Anchor lights

Boatlamps 18SMD 2835

It comes with or without a light sensor and in several different base styles to suit myriad light fittings. Once again, though, the light sensor is placed on the top of the cluster, so it can be blanketed a little by dark-topped lamp units.

Current draw: 130mA

Range: 2nm

Brightness: 7/10

 

Contact Boatlamps

Tel: 07970 074667

Web: www.boatlamps.co.uk

 

Searolf 30-LED cluster £26.50

Anchor lights

A top notch cluster but it doesn’t fit all lamps

Searolf’s replacement anchor light bulb houses 30 LEDs in an aluminium cage, which meets IP67 standards. The cluster uses a CMOS chipset, runs on 10-30v DC and boasts a working life of 50,000-80,000 hours. It fits most lamps that take a BAY15D bulb – although not the Perko as mentioned earlier, due to its shape.

Anchor lights

Searolf 30-LED cluster

The 70mm high by 32mm wide cluster is protected from polarity reversal, but won’t work if wired the wrong way around.

Current draw: 156mA

Range: 2nm

Brightness: 8/10

 

Contact Searolf LED Ltd

Tel: 05602 243142

Web: www.searolf.com

 

The Results

Every piece of kit Yachting Monthly tests is thoroughly examined against three key criteria

Performance: How well can they be seen over a distance of 1nm? Did they shine with a white or coloured light?

Power efficiency: How much power do they consume? Can you leave them on all night without flattening the batteries?

Value for money: Does the product’s performance justify its price-tag for the average cruising sailor?

Anchor lights

Anchor lights tested

 

 

 

 

Anchor lights

Anchor lights tested

Conclusion

All the lights we tested were guaranteed to be visible from at least 2nm – the standard for a yacht up to 20m LOA. With traditional filament lamps this roughly equates to a 10W filament bulb or a 3W LED cluster.

It’s not necessary to have a really bright light that can be seen for several miles – in fact it can often be misleading for vessels further offshore. It’s really only when entering an anchorage that you’re interested to see where other boats are. At no more than 200m a really bright light can be quite distracting to a newcomer to the anchorage on a dark night. For this reason visibility up to one mile was all we sought.

It would be short-sighted not to choose an LED light for anchor duty, given their meagre power needs. However, they are generally quite a bit more expensive than standard filament lamps, especially the sealed types.

The low-cost option, which proved quite impressive in our tests, is to buy a 10W filament type lamp such as the Aquasignal 40 or Perko, then swap the bulb out for a good quality LED cluster such as the Searolf or Boatlamp options. This can give you a well-performing light from just £50 or so. It might not be as bulletproof as the sealed models, so you might consider the latter for masthead mounting, but for an anchor light that will be hung in the foretriangle, it’s difficult to fault.

Best on test

Hella Compact NaviLED 360 £101.70

Good value, low power consumption, completely waterproof and very visible

Best value for money

NASA Supernova £55

Best value for money of the sealed units and a good performance too

Best LED cluster

Searolf 30-LED cluster £26.50

Bright, low power and totally sealed against sea and dust