Skip to main content

Increase boat visibility

VisibilityHow to be seenWe all hope the lookouts on those huge container ships will see our little sailboats in rain, mist, and low light. Should we find ourselves in trouble, we pray that our rescuers will be able to make us out in the breaking waves.Some sailors have long recognized the value of being highly visible. Many ocean-racing boats have brightly colored hulls
  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

Visibility

How to be seen

We all hope the lookouts on those huge container ships will see our little sailboats in rain, mist, and low light. Should we find ourselves in trouble, we pray that our rescuers will be able to make us out in the breaking waves.

Some sailors have long recognized the value of being highly visible. Many ocean-racing boats have brightly colored hulls and decks. In New Zealand, sailors are strongly advised to sew bright orange stripes on their sails. Yet most cruising sailors own boats with white sails, white or blue hulls, and gray or white masts and so are difficult to see at sea.

It is very easy and inexpensive to dramatically improve your boat's visibility. Whether you're bluewater cruising or just daysailing around the coast or lakes, it's worth the effort. Painting the top few feet of your mast international orange will make the boat much more visible from a distance without affecting its aesthetics. I painted the top 4 feet of Hawk's masthead. It’s very visible in profile, but from the front and back, the mast section is much narrower and a 6-foot stripe would be better.

I did this from a bosun's chair, after first masking off the area I wanted to paint. I taped the mainsail track and other hardware and covered the deck for 6 feet around the mast base to guard against paint drops. I sanded the mast lightly, cleaned it with acetone, and brushed on two coats of orange paint. It doesn’t need to be a perfect high-gloss job.

To further increase visibility, sew international-orange panels onto your storm sails. Many New Zealanders also sew an orange triangle on the heads of their mainsails and working jibs. A sailmaker can do this quickly and inexpensively.

Making the hull and deck both highly visible and aesthetically pleasing requires a little thought. The paint job needs to be quite good, since it will be seen close up, and the color and pattern need to be large and bright without being too much of an eyesore. Many Open Class raceboats have a hot pink, bright orange, or yellow circle about 3 feet across painted in the center of their foredecks. This dramatically increases visibility from the air.

You could paint a similar bull's eye on the hull sides at the bow or stern to make you more visible to ships, but it is better to get the bright spot higher up. One way is to use a high-visibility color for the dodger and cockpit spray cloths. Those concerned with aesthetics might opt for two sets of dodgers and cockpit cloths, a bright and garish one for offshore use and a less garish one for local use.

At night, you need the appropriate navigation lights, and a powerful hand-held spotlight trained on your sails will dramatically increase your visibility. Some cruisers have masthead strobe lights, but international law says these must be used only in a true emergency.

Making yourself visible is also important. The usual colors of foul-weather gear—blue or dark red—are more fashionable than visible. Bright yellow or orange will improve your chances of being spotted if you go overboard. E.S.

Seamanship

Light line only

Many years ago an acquaintance was nearly strangled when his knife, which he wore on a strong lanyard around his neck, got tangled up in the anchor chain as he was easing a 45-pound hook over the bow roller. It could have ended badly had he been alone. It's certainly a good idea to attach lanyards to valuable items like flashlights, knives, shackle keys, and so on so that you don't lose them overboard, but make sure the line is weak enough so it will snap easily if whatever it's attached to gets caught up in a flailing sheet or anchor rode. One way to do this is to connect the implement to the lanyard with a plastic clip. Better to lose a knife than a hand or a life. P.N.

Passive radar reflector

Wooden boats with wooden masts make poor radar targets; the same is true of fiberglass hulls with carbon-fiber masts. Even boats with aluminum spars are notoriously unreliable targets, which is why all sailboats should carry passive radar reflectors. Yet few boats have these permanently mounted.

Instead, most rely on corner reflectors to reflect a radar signal directly back to the scanner that transmitted it. These work well on many navigation buoys, but size is important: a 12-inch corner reflector is theoretically less than 1 percent as effective as a 36-inch reflector.

An individual corner reflector has significant nulls, or areas in which it does not reflect effectively. Some products combine several reflectors in various orientations to provide something like omnidirectional coverage, but the individual reflectors are then smaller. Sailors should permanently fit as large a reflector as their boat can physically accommodate, as high up as possible, but they should not assume these will always makes them visible, especially in rough conditions. For circumstances in which being seen by radar is particularly important, a much larger reflector might also be carried, stowed flat but able to be quickly assembled and then hoisted in the rigging. A.B.

Safety

Will we collide?

To evaluate the risk of a collision, check whether the vessel in question is maintaining a steady bearing relative to you. Initially, you can do this by keeping your head still and seeing whether the other vessel remains in place over a particular stanchion, shroud, or other likely reference. If you’re not sure if the vessel is moving, take a bearing with a compass and keep checking as the range closes. You might even use the electronic bearing line on your radar. In confined waters, it is easier to tell whether the other craft appears stationary relative to its background. While difficult to prove mathematically, this old rule of thumb works every time unless the other craft is almost on the beach. If the other vessel stays in front of the same distant field or headland as you approach, you are on a collision heading, so watch out. T.C.

Words from the Wise

"Bad-weather seamanship, in the strict sense of handling a vessel at sea, only really starts when she is too far offshore to run back to the shelter of the land. It is the most satisfying art of all, as success depends entirely on the men aboard, with the vessel they have selected and prepared; it is too late then to wish for something different, and there is no possibility of consulting anyone else. No sport is more magnificent than deep-water sailing in bad weather, and none requires more courage, nor sustained effort of body and mind; nor does any pay a bigger dividend to careful preparation."

Related

Rescue

Cruising: Safety Lessons Learned

It’s not often that sailors get a chance to put their rescue and MOB training to the test, rarer still that they do as quickly as newbie California sailor Khosrow “Koz” Khosravani did recently. If and when an emergency situation ever arises, though, it pays to be prepared. This ...read more

01-LEAD-'22.01.10_FALKEN-Maiden_Emma-Bow

At the Helm: Sailplans

The first thing you notice when you look at the sailplan for the Farr 65, Falken, which Mia and I recently added to the fleet here at 59-North, is the sheer number of headsails. Falken was built in 1999 as a racing boat to go around the world, and the crew would have carried the ...read more

01-PR-2-Throwing-it-Back-_©LaurensMorel

Racing Class Reunion

Where does an old VO70 go to retire? Right back to the racing circuit, apparently. This spring saw a remarkable contingent of Volvo Ocean Race one designs back on the water and duking it out on the Caribbean circuit. While it’s no surprise that some of the VO65 teams intending ...read more

05-Sailboats-moored-in-sheltered-waters-off-of-Kärrsön

Charter: Sweden

With 2,000 miles of coastline, 270,000 islands and seemingly countless bays and inlets, Sweden is truly a sailor’s paradise. One of the top sailing destinations here is the archipelago just outside the country’s second largest city Gothenburg (locally known as Göteborg), on the ...read more

fa70b13c-8eec-4c35-b30f-f89e497b469a

Crowdsourcing Age-of-Sail Weather Data

Although big, multi-million-dollar projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the human genome project with their legions of PHD’s tend to grab headlines, there’s still a part of play for the “citizen scientists” of the world. Amateur birders have long contributed to an ...read more

01-LEAD-Ultime-race-Yvan-Zedda,-OC-Sport-Pen-Duick

Ultims to Race Solo Around the World

For years now, maxi-trimarans, both solo-sailed and fully crewed, have been racing the clock on their own around the world in an effort to set ever faster records for the world’s fastest circumnavigation under sail. Back in 2000-01 there was also a no-holds-barred ...read more

P1-01-LEAD-018_CARYNBDAVIS_AMISTAD

Juneteenth on the Water

Discovering Amistad and Mystic Seaport Museum have partnered to organize their third annual Juneteenth festival, featuring concerts, speakers and a reflection on the lasting legacy of racial injustice in America. Declared a National Holiday in 2021, Juneteenth celebrates the end ...read more

Lead-2021-01-17-vue-03-34-av-tb-01

New Multihulls for 2022

Lagoon 51 In keeping with many of the more recently launched models created by French multihull builder Lagoon, the Lagoon 51 is all about comfort, “en plein air,” in particular, as the French might say. Topside, a whopping 80 percent of the boat’s flybridge is given over to ...read more