With one all-round white anchor light, as most boats have, are you sure you'll be seen? Alastair Buchan asks if it’s time to update the COLREGS

Anchor lights: are you sure you’ll be seen?

Last October, 175 years after the rules on anchor lights were introduced, the MCA’s Safety of Navigation Committee (UKSON) considered whether they needed updating. I sat in on the meeting.

In 1840 Trinity House first insisted anchored vessels showed ‘where it can best be seen, but at a height not exceeding 20 feet above the hull, a white light in a globular lantern of eight inches in diameter and so constructed as to show a clear, uniform and unbroken light, visible all around the horizon, and at a distance of at least one mile’.


Rule 30

(a) A vessel at anchor shall exhibit where it can best be seen:

(i) in the fore part, an all-round white light or one ball;

(ii) at or near the stern and at a lower level than the light prescribed in subparagraph (i) an all-round white light.

(b) A vessel of less than 50 metres in length may exhibit an all-round white light where it can best be seen instead of the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) of this Rule

(c) A vessel at anchor may, and a vessel of 100 metres and more in length shall also use the available working or equivalent lights to illuminate her decks.

Today Rule 30 (Annex 1) of the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea says that between sunset and sunrise anchored vessels of 50m LOA or less must show from the bows an all-round white light with a range of two miles, adding ‘no other lights shall be exhibited, except such lights as cannot be mistaken for the lights specified’. No height above hull is specified, but if a second anchor light is displayed it must be lower than the one in the bows. The MCA ‘believes the current status-quo, as per Rule 30 with regard to lights and shapes, is adequate for all vessels at anchor.’

Trinity House’s choice of a fixed anchor light is understandable. The MCA’s is not. In 1840 street lighting was very scarce. Pall Mall lit the UK’s first public gas street light in 1807. The first electric street light on the Thames Embankment in 1878 proved so popular another 4,000 were added inside three years. Now the country is dazzling by night with public light.

Today anyone attempting to pick out an anchor light from amongst a mass of shore lights would wonder how a solitary fixed white light could ever be considered a sensible way of drawing attention to a vessel’s position. Surely it would be reasonable to revise the rules to reflect reality?


We put fairy lights on the topping lift and babystay and hung an LED cluster from the boom end. It’s much easier to see the yacht but is she breaking the law?

The MCA acknowledges the problem but won’t consider changing the regulations. It says ‘that the danger or possibility… of confusing shore lights with anchor lights… is always there and not just for recreational craft but any vessels for that matter, and not just in anchoring. Hence due knowledge and competence, among other topics, of the COLREG and professional judgement(s) by the navigators is always expected/required.’


We spent less than £15 and improved the visibility of a yacht at anchor

Our eyes can spot a flickering candle at 30 miles. The challenge is not seeing a light but distinguishing it from those surrounding it. It is hard to understand just what combination of knowledge, competence and professional judgement will help us to do that.


Rule 34

Manoeuvring and warning signals

(d) When vessels in sight of one another are approaching each other and from any cause either vessel fails to understand the intentions or actions of the other, or is in doubt whether sufficient action is being taken by the other to avoid collision, the vessel in doubt shall immediately indicate such doubt by giving at least five short and rapid blasts on the whistle. Such signal may be supplemented by a light signal of at least five short and rapid flashes.

Flashing lights stand out but Rule 34 (Annex 2) says you can only display a flashing light if you believe that you are in immediate danger of being run down. This is leaving it late. Imminent dangers give you time to put the kettle on and think, an immediate danger demands a kneejerk reaction.

Once, the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations (RVLR) stated ‘no vehicle will be fitted with a lamp that automatically emits a flashing light.’ En masse, cyclists chose breaking the law over dying under a car. In October 2005 flashing lights on cycles became legal.

Today, leisure craft are in a similar situation. The MCA recognises the probability of a small vessel’s lights getting swamped by others in the vicinity, but then states that making anchor lights flash isn’t suitable within the COLREG context.


Rule 2


(a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.

(b) In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.

With their choice limited to some combination of fixed lights, 19th century bureaucrats collected their pensions before agreeing on an all-round white anchor light. While bureaucrats talk, leisure craft could take advantage of Rule 2 (b) and supplement their anchor light with a flashing light. However, ‘immediate’ means happening now, and waiting until you are about to be run down before making your position unmistakeably obvious just because the rules said so is the tidy, but dangerous, possibly fatal, logic of shorebound bureaucrats.

It is fair to say that, when I expressed them, these views were not universally welcomed by the UKSON committee.

Have your say


With furling sails there is less call for foredeck work and so deck lights are becoming a rarity

Do you think the COLREGS should be changed to allow yachts at anchor to be more visible? Vote in the poll below: