Navigational Light

They for ever flash in the darkness, guiding navigators to safe waters.

Navigational lights are lights placed on buoys, lighthouses, lightships, beacons, and structures. With the purpose to aid in the navigation of ships, boats and other vessels.


Most famous are maybe lighthouses, tall towers on the edge of cliffs on remote islands, with an old man living inside a small house at the base, turning on the light at night. Unfortunately for your fantasy, not all of them are tall towers. If they are on a natural elevation they are much lower. Sometimes just a single floor with a light on top. Also, they are not always on islands, they are build along the whole shore. Where ever there was a need for a beacon to guide ships home, or around danger.

At night a lighthouse is recognised by its character. The rotating light is seen as flashes from a far, the time between the flashes can be counted and by that a lighthouse is identified.

At day a lighthouse can be recognised by its shape, or by the colouring, those red and white bands aren't only there to look good.

This information about the lighthouses is printed on the charts, often even a small line drawing of the lighthouse is included. In addition to that, their light characters and other identifiers are listed in several books ships carry. Including the List of Lights and the so called pilots. The latter are full of detailed descriptions of ports and passages.


Lightships are best described as floating light houses. They were used where the water was too deep to build a lighthouse. Sturdy hulls with a tall tower mast with a light on top, often painted bright red. With their name in large letters spanning the whole side of the ship. They usually didn't have a propulsion system of their own, and were towed to their station. They're anchored with large anchors with extra heavy chain. Often multiple anchors were used.

Nowadays lightships are a thing of the past. Technology has advanced. There are more buoys at sea to guide ships, better maps, and better navigation equipment. Light ships were placed where buoys were thought to be insufficient. And often the lightship was the only light. Nowadays there could be a whole row of buoys with lights around a sand bank.

Most often light ships where manned, to maintain the light, and sometimes they also functioned as a radio (relay) station for the coastguard.

Records show that lightships were already in use in the Roman times.


The Narwhal approached the channel at night. Ideally they would've come to this unknown harbour at daytime, but the nature of their business forced them otherwise. The red lights of the buoys flashed randomly ahead, and the helmsman steered to the side of them, confident that the single line of buoys guided him into the channel.

It was after they had passed the second buoy that suddenly the vessel started shaking, a loud scratching sound could be heard from down in the ship. And the speed dropped to zero.

Freaking Frigate! They had run aground.

What the hell? How did that happen? A quick look on the chart showed them their mistake. In this part of the worlds the red and the green buoys were on the other side of the channel! Then what they were used to. Damn it, why couldn't humans across the world not agree on something for a change?

Fortunatly for the Narwhal the tide was with them, and ten minutes later the incoming flood tide had lifted them off the sandy bottom and they quickly moved the ship to the other side of the red buoys, into the dredged channel.

Related Items


Buoys are small floating objects anchored with a chain at the sea bottom. In the past made of wood, later steel, and nowadays often plastic. Often you find them coloured red or green, showing the sides of a (dredged) channel. Some are red and white, while others are yellow and black.

The red and green buoys, if they have lights, have lights of a colour that matches their paint scheme. So to easily identify on which side of the fairway they are. Along a fairway, they all flash in a different pattern to make it possible to identify them. A lot of times not every buoy on a stretch has a light.

The red and white stripped buoys are often found far from the coast. They are the last, or first, buoy in the system, it's the "safe navigation" buoy, indicating that from that point sailors can sail any direction they like, it should all be deep enough and safe to navigate.

These safe navigation buoys are topped with a white light that blinks slowly.

The yellow and black buoys are what is known as Cardinal buoys. They mark that a danger is North, East, South or West of them. The way they are panted in bands of yellow and black tells a sailor which one is which.

At night, these cardinal buoys blink in a very specific manner, not easily confused with another buoy. All cardinals of the same type (N,E,S or W) blink the same.

All buoys are in our modern times equipped with solar panels and batteries, to keep the light operational. This technological advancement is what also pushed the light ships out of business


Beacons are land-based structures, but not light houses. Beacons are the lights on the end of a peer, on top of a breakwater, or indicating the harbour entrance. They can have a red or green light, if there is a safe passage on a side of them. Or a yellow light.

Cover image: by Johannes Plenio


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