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In the last issue we discussed the best lighting practices for night running—mainly using dim white rather than red light for nighttime navigating. Another important thing to consider when running at night is how to protect your night vision from fellow boaters who are, well, not quite as enlightened.

Sailors like to complain that powerboaters are too quick to shine their searchlights, and it’s an opinion that I share. No one likes to have a bright light shined in one’s eyes while operating a boat because it destroys night vision.

My theory for the overreliance on searchlights is that many of these powerboat skippers use them because they have already lost their own dark adaptation. This is not a comment on anyone’s competence. The reason that sailors better maintain their night vision has more to do with sailboat helm design. Normally sailors are working with a single darkened screen at the helm and a couple of gauges, so they are not faced with anywhere near the number of multiple small light sources found on the bridge of a trawler.

The best way to dim your dash.

The best way to dim your dash.

Delivery captains know this. When we’re going to move a powerboat at night, we use blue painter’s tape to cover the myriad indicator lights, which taken together can ruin the dark adaptation of a human eye. Big stuff like a marine multifunction display can be turned down to nearly black, and PC navigational software can also be dimmed to black even if the laptop itself cannot.

It’s all the other stuff that gets you—instrument panel switches, inverter status displays, shifter and thruster lights, etc. And even if a screen is dimmable, say on the VHF radio, the process is unlikely to be intuitive. On a sailboat, most of these ancillary panels are down below, not in your face at the helm.

As one delivery veteran told me, running at night should be safer than during the day—there is less traffic and fewer distractions, and it’s more likely that the other boaters out there with you are the experienced types. But if you’re not eliminating those pinpricks of light at the helm, you might be the one too quick to reach for the searchlight.

Let this sink in: You’ve spent anywhere between $35,000 and $100,000 to populate your helm with modern electronics, but your 2018 universal dimming solution is analog—a $4.95 roll of tape.


If it seems wrong to solve a boating dilemma by paying less than $5, don’t worry. There are other more complex solutions currently in development. Shadow-Caster LED Lighting is a Florida company that makes those whizzy underwater lights so favored by the sportfish crowd. Founded by Jeff Pound and Brian Rogers in 2007, Shadow-Caster is working on developing a way to integrate a vessel’s lighting systems to make it easier to preserve night vision (without using any adhesives). Rogers said, “One of our visions when we started the company ten years ago went like this: Okay, anybody can make a lightbulb, but if we can increase our value by making integrated lighting controls, then we’ve [got] a business model.”

At the Miami International Boat Show, Shadow-Caster president Brian Rogers demonstrates how a lighting control system might work.

At the Miami International Boat Show, Shadow-Caster president Brian Rogers demonstrates how a lighting control system might work.

To integrate light controls, Shadow-Caster had to develop a standardized communications language, and that is the province of the National Marine Electronics Association, the alliance of manufacturers that developed the NMEA 2000 standard that lets different marine electronics devices talk to one another. When Shadow-Caster initially pitched the idea of lighting integration to the NMEA five years ago, the notion ran up against some initial skepticism. But in the face of an LED lighting revolution, the standard-setting organization finally got on board. A working group composed of marine lighting executives was formed in February 2017.

“We have seen a huge increase in the [number] of lights, LED or non-LED, that are being installed on vessels of all sizes and types,” said Mark Reedenauer, NMEA president and executive director. “As the multifunction display more and more becomes the command center of the boat, there is a clear need for a lighting control page on these displays in the not-so-distant future.”

Rogers, who chairs the working group, says there are eight proposed parameter group numbers (PGNs) that can send instructions from a central controller to a boat’s NMEA 2000–compatible lighting system. This can include dimming and changing the colors of the lights or the duration of a function. For lovers of luxury, integrated lighting controls can turn a boat into a floating mood palace.

For passagemakers, it will provide the framework for universal dimming. Who knows? Though a true universal dimming control may take a while to reach the marketplace, we may someday be able to select any or all the lights at the helm—big and small—and dim them using an app on our phones.

Expect to hear more about NMEA’s progress by the end of the year. In the meantime, keep on taping.