Situational Awareness Key to Nightime Boating
by Tom Rau

On April 21, 2006, a boater struck the Ludington Harbor north breakwater late at night. The 47 year-old-male operator backed off the rocks and motored to a nearby boat ramp where the Ludington police arrested him for operating a boat under the influence.
A sketch of Ludington Harbor shows the proper approach into the harbor at night. There are 19 Ludington like breakwater systems located around Lake Michigan. Yearly, countless boaters safely made nighttime approaches into these harbors. Operating at a safe speed is the key. Illustration/Dan Wrzesinski.

The incident once again sparked a lively response from the local maritime community regarding the Ludington north breakwater light. Many claimed it is not bright enough to alert boaters to the breakwater that extends out into Lake Michigan. Since 2004 the harbor has experienced nine breakwater collisions.

The Ludington Daily News ran a front page article the following Monday addressing the light issue. Brian Mulherin, who wrote the article, requested my input on the matter.

I told him it’s not the light but heedless boaters approaching the harbor at unsafe speeds that lead to breakwater collisions. Since 1997, I know of 58 breakwater collisions along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore between Frankfort, Michigan, and Chicago. Nearly all of the collisions involved harbor systems with breakwaters that reach well out into Lake Michigan with lighted navigation aids standing at the end of the breakwater.

Some lights are green, some are white and some are red. Whether bright or dim, they can be difficult to see against background lights on shore. I know firsthand because I have made port at night in many of these harbors and always with the throttles at clutch speed. I can’t fathom racing towards a harbor at night or why anyone else would. Yet, all 58 breakwater collisions involved excessive speed for the prevailing circumstances—in particular background lights on shore.

You would assume that boaters experiencing difficulty picking out navigation lights amongst the shoreline lights would bring back the throttles and asses the situation. Apparently many do since countless boaters enter Michigan harbors at night without incident. That tells me the aids to navigation lights serve their intended purpose of guiding boaters safely into port and that most boaters are in tune with Inland Navigation Rule 6, which addresses safe speed.

Rule 6 reads: “Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped with a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.” Conditions include visibility, vessel traffic density, weather conditions, depth of water and background lights at night such as shore lights. Rule 6 could just as well be called the rule of common sense or prudent seamanship.

Safe speed and background lights do not only apply to boaters entering harbors but those operating boats in inland lakes and bays as well. The following case reveals how a boater operating at night on Traverse Bay learned Rule 6 the hard way. The accident remains mired in litigation.

Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan, July 14, 2001. Following a fireworks show on Grand Traverse West Bay, Michigan, a 28-foot powerboat with two people aboard slammed into the stern of a 21-foot pontoon boat with six people aboard. Reportedly the stern light on the pontoon boat was out when the accident occurred. The stern light outage, however, could not be confirmed due to severe damage to the boat’s stern. Deputy Paul Pierce of the Traverse County Marine Sheriff’s department was the first official on scene, and he told me a passenger on the pontoon boat had sustained serious injuries. Alcohol was not involved.
A 27-foot Baja atop the Ludington north breakwater. Coast Guard officials report the boat hit the breakwater traveling at 35 miles per hour.

So who was at fault? The boater who reportedly failed to display a stern light, or the boater who apparently failed to stop in accordance with Rule 6, which addresses safe speed and prevailing circumstances? Without question, the prevailing circumstances in the collision were state of visibility as well as shoreline lights.

I spoke with Michigan Department of Natural Resources Officer Sean Kehoe the investing officer on the pontoon boat accident. According to Officer Kehoe both boats were in the lower bay heading on a westerly course towards a nearby shore where a major shoreline road rims the lower bay. That night the road was packed with post fireworks traffic that looked like a string of white and red Christmas tree lights moving along the shore. These background lights certainly qualify as prevailing circumstances that a prudent boater would consider regarding safe speed and state of visibility.

By the way, the fact that one boater is in violation of the rules does not exonerate the boater who runs into an unlit boat at night. If Rule 6 doesn’t hold up in court, attorneys will definitely be flipping pages to Rule 5, which reads: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”

That countless boaters safely operate in inland waters, bays and near harbor mouths at night without incident clearly indicates that most boaters do abide by the rules. Boat Smart — don’t be left out in the dark on a breakwater.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist.

Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at:,,, or
through local bookstores.

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