Safe Boating in Poor Visibility

How to Navigate and Stay Safe on the Water when Visibility is Restricted

Boating requires all your senses to ensure you stay safe. If you have restricted visibility due to poor light or bad weather conditions, knowing what steps to take to keep you, your boat and other boaters safe is very important.

The weather off the coast of Vancouver Island can change quickly, and on the west coast in particular, sudden fog is not unusual. 

Would you know what to do if you found yourself in thick fog? Or if you needed to sail in the dark?

Reduced Visibility and Why it’s a Problem

Restricted, or reduced, visibility is something that prevents you from seeing other boats and being seen by other boaters and is usually caused by:

  • Reduced light – i.e. sailing at night
  • Bad weather – i.e. mist, fog, rain, snow

Boating in reduced visibility brings an increased risk of collision – with another vessel or a fixed object or the shoreline.

Visibility levels are classified as follows:

  • Very poor visibility – Less than 0.45 nautical miles
  • Poor visibility – Between 0.5 and 2 nautical miles
  • Moderate visibility – Between 2 and 5 nautical miles
  • Good visibility –  Over 5 nautical miles

What Should You Do When Operating a Boat in Reduced Visibility?

If you find yourself in conditions of poor visibility when boating, there are some important steps you should take right away to ensure you can remain safe and in control:

  1. Slow Down – Go slow enough to be able to stop in half the distance you can clearly see. It’s better to keep moving than to stop; however, if you feel unsure, anchor up until the bad weather has passed.
  2. Turn on all your running lights – The lights you must display differ according to the craft you are operating. Make sure you know what applies for your boat.
  3. Locate your equipment – Know where your noise-making and other emergency equipment (such as flares and lifejackets) are kept.
  4. Allocate a look-out –Ask someone to look and listen out for other vessels around you.
  5. Chart and track your current location – It’s easy to drift off your path in poor visibility, so keeping track of your position is important. GPS navigation can be used for this, but boaters should also know how to chart with a map and compass and ideally use both methods when in poor visibility.

Understanding the basics of marine navigation, and what the tools in your yacht can do, are important when you are in poor visibility conditions.

Using Navigation Lights at Night


Using, understanding and interpreting navigation lights are vital when you are sailing in the dark.

Recreational vehicles must display red and green sidelights,a stern light, and a masthead light. 

Using the sidelights to determine which direction a nearby boat is moving, use the same right-of-way rules as you would in daylight.

Navigating in Foggy Conditions – What You Need to Know 

Foggy conditions in particular mean that the usual visual clues to what is around you are gone. You may not see the lights of another boat until you are very close to them. It is important you know how to make others aware of your vessel and you know how to work out what is around you.


Let other boaters know you are there. Use your horn and bell to make the internationally recognized marine sound signals to let others know that you are moving, stationary or grounded. In return you should listen for sounds coming from other boats.

Radar is very helpful in limited visibility as it locates both moving and static objects in the water around you such as other vessels, buoys and rocks. To maximize the benefit of your radar in poor visibility do the following:

  • Set your electronic bearing line on a vessel that is heading towards you. If it continues to travel along the line they are on a collision course with you and you need to take action.
  • Set your guard zone out 1-2 miles and at 360 degrees to provide maximum warning of possible dangers.

Prepare For Poor Visibility Before You Sail


Educate yourself – Everyone who operates a recreational boat in Canada must hold a Pleasure Craft Operator Card, which is obtained after completing an accredited safe boaters course. It’s a good idea to regularly review the content of this course to ensure you remain familiar with the rules and regulations.

Get to know your boat – Learn stopping distances at different speeds, know where your sound signals and light controls are located and how to operate them. Know how to tune your radio to the emergency channel. 

Complete a pre-sail check – Inspect your safety equipment every time you go out. Check the lights and horn and make sure you have everything you need on board. 

Check the weather forecast – Weather can change very fast on the ocean. Transport Canada publishes up-to-date marine weather reports for the whole of Canada.

Carry an emergency kit – make sure you have emergency equipment such as whistles, flares, flashlights, life jackets and a first aid kit on board.

Navigate With Confidence on a Yacht from Van Isle Marina.

Does your boat have the up to date navigation equipment that can help you deal with poor visibility? Van Isle Marina, in Sidney BC, is the exclusive dealer for Pursuit boats, which contain the latest state-of-the-art equipment.

The Pursuit OS 385 Offshore provides optional navigational tools including:

  • Garmin GPSMAP – A 9-inch touchscreen advanced navigation solution
  • Garmin Radar Open Array – A high definition radar perfect for limited visibility conditions
  • Garmin rear-facing camera – Useful if you are sailing alone
  • FLIR night vision with image stabilization
  • SiriusFM weather receiver (with subscription)

To find out more about this meticulously designed luxury yacht and the other boats we currently have available, contact the Van Isle Marina sales team and arrange a viewing today.