The information on this page can't be looked at as recommendations. It's only a collection of observations. Before deciding what is appropriate for you, you must do some research on your own.
Most of the information has come from looking at many lights, web searches for lights and opinions, and a knowledge of navigation. However, I'm not an expert. I haven't performed any tests. Be skeptical of everything I say.
Rowing can be dangerous and rowing at night can be even more dangerous. As a rower or coach, you must do what you can to minimize the danger. The minimum additional thing you can do when rowing in the dark as apposed to rowing during the day is to have some kind of lights for your boat so that other boats can see you.
As many people know, in October of 2005 there was a tragic accident on the Harlem river where Jim Runsdorf of Peter J. Sharp on the Harlem River drowned after a collision with a power boat. He was rowing in a straight four that had a light on it. So, a light by itself doesn't guarantee to prevent accidents. It simply reduces the probability.
This is a very important issue and there is very little information on the web about it. I could only find bits and pieces scattered in many different places. So, I decided to put together some observations from myself and others into one place.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of information, just a starting point. I'm not a certified expert on the subject, just someone who has an interest and knows a little about marine rules of the road.
There are many lights on the market. They come with many different features:
Color and Strobe vs. Solid:
In the UK, the Amature Rowing Association recommends a solid white light on the bow or the bow and stern. My concern with this is that a solid white light typically means an anchored boat, or the stern light of a boat. An oncoming boat may not realize that the light could be from a boat heading toward them. This is not a major deal since the shell won't be moving too fast.
I would think that if the light were solid, then a bow light should be the standard Red and Green and a stern light should be the standard white. The only issue I can think of with a red and green bow light is that if an on coming power boat sees your green light and incorrectly assumes you to be a power boat or an on coming sail boat sees your green light and incorrectly assumes you to be a power or sailboat, they may assume they have the right of way. If so, they will assume you will avoid them. However, since they see you, they should figure it out before any collision.
I would also think that strobe white or red should be OK. The person in another boat may not know what the light means, but it would get their attention.
Emergency Strobe Lights:
If you go for a strobe light, one possibility is to get an emergency light from any marine supply store. These lights are intended to mark the location of someone who fell overboard or can be used when hiking or camping to indicate you need help.
The fancy ones turn on when put right side up or when in water. The less expensive ones are best for our purposes because they turn on and off manually. A benefit of them is that they float with the light on top so if they fall overboard, they are easy to retrieve. You can use Velcro to attach them to the combing on the bow of the boat.
The ones I have seen say they work for 8 to 10 hours when set for strobe. They usually say they can be seen from between two and three miles away.
My favorite way to mount a light is with a suction cup. I find the ones that mount on the bow bracket widen the bracket and make bow numbers fall out. Also, you can't reach the light while on the water. Once my light fell off the bracket but was still tied to the bow ball. It was dragging in the water. I had to row up to someone to get it out of the water and it was not waterproof.
If you use a suction cup, you can place the light close to you so you can reach it if you need to while you are out on the water.
Some people mount a light on their head or back. One problem with that is they are not always visible from a wide set of angles. Sometimes you may think it's point straight back but it's really pointing off to the side. This is especially the case if you pin it to your sholder.
Of course, a permanent mount is best.
Incandescent vs. LED
An LED has two major benefits over an incandescent light. The LED will go as much as 10 times longer on a set of batteries and the LED will last much longer.
An advantage of the LED lasting longer on a set of batteries is that when it starts to dim, it will take many practices before it goes out. You will have plenty of time to change the batteries. When the incandescent light starts to dim it my be out before the end of practice. You need to know how many practices you can go on a set of batteries.
The incandescent lights I've used lasted only between 15 and 50 hours before the bulbs burned out. That may be because when I use the light it is likely to be cold outside and the bulb may be compromised by the temperature variation. However, all three were from the same manufacturer. Other manufacturers may have better bulbs.
The advantage of an incandescent light is that it is likely much brighter. I say likely because LEDs are getting much better. Now you can get lights with 3 or 4 LEDs that may be brighter than incandescent lights. If you use an LED light, make sure it is bright.
All LED lights I've seen that are made specifically for rowing are way too dim. I've had a light that I was told couldn't be seen from more than 100 yards or so. If you do buy one, check it out and make sure it is bright.
Bow Only or Bow and Stern:
Ideally you should have a light on the bow and the stern. However, most people skip the light on the stern because they feel they could avoid a boat coming from behind and they are concerned that a light on the stern may make it hard to see the electronics.
If you don't have a light on the stern, you should make sure your bow light can be seen for much more than 90 degrees off your bow.
Waterproof and Floating:
This one is a no-brainer. It's best if the light is waterproof especially if you row in salt water. It is also best if it floats in case it falls off the boat.
If you row with a group of boats, there is something to be said for each boat having a different light. When it's pitch black out, the light is the only way you can identify another boat. The group I row with varies in size from two to six boats. The fact that each boat has a light that is a little different helps us identify each other.
Height of Light:
For some reason, some people have been saying that a light mounted low on a shell is harder to see than one mounted higher on a power boat. This is hard to understand. If you assume that any decent light will be seen at least 50 yards away (it should be visible at least a half mile away), the difference between a light mounted 6 inches off the water and one mounted 3 feet off the water is less than 1 degree (at a half mile it is 1/20th of a degree). Do the math. When you realize that a pilot of a boat must look more than 45 degrees left and right, saying they can't look up or down by 1 degree is a little bit extreme.
A tiny benefit of a light mounted low is that it is less likely to be confused with a light on the shore (it is really a tiny benefit).
Type of Batteries:
If using an incandescent (not LED) light, I would definitely suggest rechargeable batteries. Since batteries would last any where from 4 to 10 hours, you will be replacing them often. I would also suggest that in any case you check how long the light lasts with what ever type of batteries you use. Then make sure you set up a schedule where you replace the batteries often enough to ensure the batteries never die. Since the batteries don't last too long, you will not have much warning when it's getting time to replace them.
For LED lights its not that important what type of batteries you use since the lights last so much longer. You should be able to see the light getting weaker well before the battery dies.
I always use rechargeable batteries.
Many areas or clubs have their own rules. In those cases it's important to follow those rules because everyone will learn to expect them. The rules may require strobe lights or solid lights, red and green lights or white lights. Whatever the local rules are, follow them.
This list is not exhaustive and is not in order of recommendation. They are listed alphabetically by product name except for the emergency lights. Those are listed at the end with no listed manufacturer. If you know of any that you like that are not on this list, you can email them to me.
Several of those I row with use the emergency lights with good results. I've started using the Innovative Lighting LED navigation lights. The bow light seems just bright enough. I set the stern light to point backwards instead of up. That way the light doesn't interfere with my ability to see my electronics.
Copyright Bill Scholtz 2006-
Last edited 10/26/2009