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What is an Anchor Light?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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An anchor light is a light displayed by a ship at anchor. Anchor lights are required by law in many settings, and strongly recommended in others, because they are an important part of the safety systems used to ensure that sailors are aware of the location of boats, and know what those boats are doing, even in poor visibility. Many stores which stock sailing supplies and equipment carry anchor lights, and such lights are also typically installed on ships and boats when they are manufactured.

The anchor light must be bright white, acting as a signal to other boats that the boat is at anchor, and not underway. The white light also acts as an alert that the boat is not in trouble; it's simply stopped for the time being. Laws require that anchor lights be highly visible so that they can be seen across a long distance, requiring very bright bulbs and well maintained lights which are not allowed to get dirty, as this might obscure the visibility and color.

Anchor lights are used for the safety of the boat. Boats which are underway can see the anchor light and adjust their path, if necessary, to avoid a collision. This is especially important with large craft such as tanker ships, which often have trouble seeing small boats. This is also why visibility is important, as a big boat can take a long time to change course for the purpose of avoiding another vessel.

In areas where people commonly anchor and sleep in their boats, fatalities can occur as often as annually as a result of not using anchor lights. In these regions, collisions happen because people neglect their anchor lights, and the occupants of a boat may drown or be injured when their boats sink or are damaged by a crash. This is why many sailors recommend using an anchor light even when it is not specifically required, because one never knows when another boat might go by.

Using an anchor light is only one among several marine lighting requirements. All of these requirements are designed to universalize the indicator lights used on boats and ships so that people instantly understand what they mean. For example, port and starboard running lights are kept consistent so that people can see that a ship is approaching or receding, and they can tell which direction the ship is coming from based on the configuration of the lights.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Calvin77 — On Jul 19, 2011

@BigManCar - Wow, that's sounds like piracy to me. With LED anchor lights and radar, I seriously doubt anyone could pull that trick on modern sailors. I suppose they could always setup a fake light house, but that would take some serious determination.

Just think about how often you see cars with their lights off on foggy roads. You wouldn't drive down a foggy highway with your lights off, so why should you sail with your lights off? There's no road to follow at sea, so the risk goes up.

By BigManCar — On Jul 19, 2011

Speaking of how lanterns were used in the old days, I recently went to Key West, which is a city that was partially founded by salvage ship captains who would rescue stranded vessels off the rocks which line the coast.

There is a monument there that tells us they used to hang lanterns on foggy nights in such a way that they would direct the merchant ships, who were unfamiliar with the area, onto the rocks. They they would "rescue" them and get a huge reward.

By KLR650 — On Jul 18, 2011

@Calvin77 - I agree with you about LED lights. I have a boat, and I switched my navigation lights over to LED. It's a lot brighter. Really helps in the fog and at a distance.

I also ride a street legal dirt bike, and I put on a set of LED fog lights. It is a lot easier if I get caught on the trail in the dark, and it helps cars see me too. I couldn't be happier with my LED lights.

By Viktor13 — On Jul 18, 2011

@Calvin77 - LED lights have been a great thing for lots of different applications, boats included. I have a boat and have switched all of my navigation lights over to LED. It really makes a difference in the fog and at a distance. Any increased visibility is a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

I also ride a dirt bike, and I put some LED fog lights on it. It makes all the difference in the world for riding at night.

By parkthekarma — On Jul 17, 2011

@Calvin77 - Boats definitely still rely on lights, you have that right. It's likely they always will, at least for the foreseeable future. Even Navy ships or other large ships with radar may not see a small, fiberglass vessel bobbing in the waves.

I remember when I took my boating safety class when I was in school, they took a lot of time with us on the different lights, their meaning, and how they were to be displayed.

By tanner182 — On Jul 17, 2011

It's amazing how much boats still rely on lights. I know that back in the old days, all they had was a lantern to hang from the front of the boat. It must have been terrible to try to see another boat out at sea like that. The lantern could be blown out too.

The lanterns were so dim, you probably wouldn't see them until you were nose to nose with the other ship. Whoever invented the LED boat lights we have today is a hero.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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