Navigating a Boat After Dark

Updated: May 12, 2020

‘There is a mixture of excitement and respect when you navigate a boat in the dark.  Lifejacket now on, I put the key into the ignition, flip the choke switch, and start the engine...’



The lay of my land, sky and water that I am familiar with day or night.

Flashlight in hand I had walked to the boat. These days it seems I am watching the placement of my steps a little more carefully on the dark, uneven terrain as I make my way to the dock, and my awaiting boat. Reaching the dark wooden deck of the dock I can feel that tingle of excitement starting, which has come to me every time I prepare to get into a boat and navigate back to my little cabin in the woods. There is no fear of driving in the dark, I have done it hundreds of times, there is just that excitement that accompanies the feeling of respect and responsibility as I push away from a dock and navigate through dark waters, passing hard to see shorelines, and barely visible land markers.


These days you have to have a Boat License to legally pilot a boat, though I will mention I have Power Squadron credentials and knowledge from courses taken years ago. Even though I have that license, it is truthfully the common sense I rely on, and the spidey-sense I possess that really carry me through the dark waters to home. It is also my years of experience. I untie the bow and stern ropes from the dock cleats, though often, I am not alone, (as I am not in the habit of just going out after dark by myself usually), so I'm with someone returning from a friend’s or neighbour’s cabin and have assistance. I get into the boat and others then can untie the ropes, while I prepare to do my ‘captain’s’ duty to get the journey and boat started. Key into the ignition, choke up, engine started and now idling, bumpers up, and navigational lights on. When my passenger is in and fully seated (I mean fully seated, do not ever put an engine in gear and start moving until all your passengers are fully seated, free safety-tip), we can push away from the dock and head home. In the very early days of coming to the cabin, when I was with my husband 'pre-kids', it might be dark by the time we travelled from the city and arrived at the end of the lake from the city. We would then have to launch the boat, load it up, abandon the car, and head up the lake to my cabin in the complete darkness, which was about 5 miles. Those were the days when both my husband and I worked full-time, and so we made a run for it to come up from the city on a Friday night. In later years, with little ones in tow, we would only navigate an arrival in daylight.  When I was very young my father would take my brother and I out in the boat after dark, and ask us where we were in relation to the faint distinction between the lay of the land, and the night sky. He thought it important to teach us where we were on the lake when it was hard time to see in the darkness. He was right, every boater should know how to late-night navigate on a lake. It’s a matter of safety, for instance, if there was ever a medical emergency and you had to get someone to a vehicle, or awaiting ambulance. You need to know how to navigate at any time of day or night, and in inclement elements of weather. You have to know how to navigate, for instance, in heavy rain. For me, I was the usual ‘captain’ of the boat, including being the main pilot over my husband in a heavily loaded boat or in very poor weather, and I was also the usual driver after dark and on the way home from somewhere.  And so, owning property that does not have road access means you cannot spend time with friends and neighbours into the late-night hours if you do not know how to navigate your boat home safely. We all enjoy the social camaraderie with friends, and to enjoy appies, often a dinner, with socializing or cards after dinner. Since we cannot drive to other cabins because we have no road, and can only walk to one cabin really in my bay safely at night, the boat is the only way to get home. I wear a lifejacket now, especially after dark, however, I will honestly admit that there were years we never wore lifejackets in daylight or at night. I have a decent sized outboard engine and boat, and I will admit to this day I do not always wear a lifejacket in the daytime. Those of us who have been brought up here on the lake have learned to respect it and have  many years of boat operation under our belts, maybe that has given us, those that have been here decades, a false sense of security because we still do not wear them. In perspective, our lake is small, our trips short, there are no tides or squall conditions here, there is very little driftwood or logs as water hazards during the summer months that I reside at my cabin. Our lake is also generally small, in the scheme of things, and so we are never out of sight of land. Yes, you should always wear a lifejacket. Yes, my kids always did. Yes, my dog even wore a life jacket. However, I do not always wear one on my rather small lake, for my fairly quick trips here and there. I do, however, always wear a lifejacket at night now, and I do wear one if we are just arriving to the lake and the boat is heavily loaded with supplies.  In the dark, visibility is severely limited, unless it is under a full moon, my favourite time to be in residence at the cabin, and then, under the full moon it is like driving in daylight, easy-peasy. The air is always fresh and invigorating when you go out at night and the world familiar, but I don't let my guard down even with that familiarity. At night, you have to be responsible because the water, land and sky are usually very, very dark, and it’s not easy to distinguish where the water ends and the land starts, or where the land ends and the sky starts. It is a good idea to learn how to navigate your boat in the dark so you become more experienced and are then better prepared for your own safety.  As there is little driftwood, and only rarely logs floating loose on the lake, so I normally run my boat at a good speed when I drive home in the dark. Obviously, if there are limited conditions such as navigating in driving, pounding down rain, and I have the boat cover up and attached, I have to go much slower, because I have to unzip the roof so only my head pops out for visibility. In heavy rain I drive the boat with the stinging sharp droplets of water cutting at my face, as it is impossible to see anything through the cover and windows, its a necessity to drive with my head out. I also generally sit higher in my boat seat, on a boat cushion, or on my knees to view over the windshield when I navigate at night in the dark, it just makes it easier. Many a time I am driving home in the dark, eyes peeled ahead of me for safety, but there are giant tears streaming out from the corners of my eyes from the wind and I will hard-blink them away, never letting may hands leave the wheel and the boat controls. Don't get me wrong, I am still in my glory and excited to be alive in that moment. I love it! Your first concerns you head out and leave the dock is that you travel well away from shore, and any shallows, or deadheaded logs (deadheads are logs that are submerged at one end and so only a small portion of the log is visible out of the water), hitting a deadhead, especially after dark would be disastrous. The second concern is that there is no loose debris floating down the lake, and your visibility from your boat after dark is not that far up front, so you must keep your eyes peeled. For my boat, the front running lights are a means for another boater or a cabin to see me, they are not a means of flooding the water or path in front of you with light, that just blinds you in many ways. I have a conservative outboard ski boat, and though my dream was always to get a pontoon boat, which is what more of my neighbours who are my age now pilot, that wish has not come to be and I am still in the outboard. The pontoon boats are so much easier, you can just step on and off a dock through a gate with their design, none of the climbing up and down, in and out, like I do in a regular ski boat. They also have useful underwater running lights, which are far more efficient in helping you navigate in dark waters.


I admit I am getting a little long-in-the-tooth for a ski boat. Naturally, all the years of water skiing, knee boarding, and tubing for my husband and I and the kids was why we had our boat. In my opinion I have been blessed to have the best boat there was for that, a modest wake for skiers, and the craft is a bow-rider, that is, a walk-through windshield for docking on land for easy loading and unloading access and getting in and out beached on shore. However, I’d sure like a pontoon boat these days, ah well, such is life!  You also need to know how to properly dock a boat in the dark. Obviously, because I have been coming to my cabin for 55+ years, I have had a heck of a lot of practice. I am the world’s best boat docker, in my humble opinion. Why one night I was asked to drive a few inebriated souls home from a lake party in my boat. Now, I was at a disadvantage because I was not familiar with this family’s exact location, property shoreline, or shallows by their dock, but I was proficient at asking the right questions to get the information I need to know, and I am extremely proficient at docking, so, no problem. The words that this one man said to me were not particularly nice, “are you sure you can do it?” And then the words, muttered to one side to the party's host, “but she is a girl, do you think this is a good idea.” Yes, those words still pop into my head today, but I grin from ear to ear. I not only drove the loud, drunk handful of individuals back to their cabin, but the man who had mentioned no confidence in me, clearly ate his own words, and he heavily complemented me on my docking skills in the end. It was a great life moment.  Today we use solar lights to light up our properties and docks, and so returning home is easier as we approach our cabin. So many other properties are lit up like a runway, and so the night world is brighter and properties and locations easier to identify after dark. I do use a flashlight occasionally as I approach, aiming the light's beam at my land and 2 docks when I am about to do the final swing in. A flashlight gives me a last clear quick reference. I still have to sneak the boat in between the shoreline and manoever behind our log breakwater to reach the dock. At this point after all these years I can almost do it blindfolded. I am very confident in my docking skills. And so, dear reader, I have shared with you my thoughts on navigating a boat after dark on the lake. It is an exhilarating and exciting experience, but it is one that must be done with the utmost respect for the water, the land, the elements and your own personal safety. Your life may depend on it. Personally, there is nothing I like better than to be navigating a boat in the dark, where I often will slow down or stop to take my eyes safely off the water, and take the time to gaze up and enjoy the millions of bright, twinkling starts, including the clear stream of the Milky Way, which is visible right above my cabin every night when there are no clouds. I also see the Big Dipper up there, and of course, I love to do that favourite night-time activity, face the challenge of catching a glimpse of a shooting star or two, so I can make a wish. The second week of August is well known for meteor showers in our part of the world, and that is a wonderful time to catch the busy night sky. Away from the bright lights of the city, the night skies here at the lake are truly amazing!  Star gazing cruises are another nighttime activity here, but I will save that for another story...

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