6- Volt Lights. Make Sure You Check Them, Before You Use Them.

Okay, first let me just say that what I am about to write about is a loose interpretation of a wonderful talk given by Gary Van Tessal at the most recent gathering I attended.  Gary had it down and read from manuals, so he was correct, my memory of it is that of a burned out 60 year old in desperate need of a boat ride in Florida in 21 days… SHAMELESS PLUG…and more general. That’s the disclaimer!

Stinky’s former 6 volt light

Lights on your boat need to have a certain intensity and be visible from at least 2 miles away. Fact. Now how does this effect classic boats?

Red light, just in case you are colorblind

Well, both red and green need to be visible, and the white light above them. This allows other boaters to tell the direction you are coming or going. These are hard fast rules since 1910 and some sort of boating act. A two page act, which is shocking that anything called an act was two pages. That’s a Gary joke by the way.

This could confuse other boats at night.

Still with me here? Okay, “some” boats back in our day pushed the design thing, and may or may not be accurate. As in the lights were designed to look great, not to be seen. So that’s one potential issue.


Red fades faster than green

The red lens fades faster than green. Red always fades more, especially when its plastic. So you should check that, and that can reduce the light intensity.

THis is a 12 volt system on this boat. But sure shows how little that light helps

Still with me here? NOW, you have a 6 volt system. We all know that the low intensity and generator stuff can cause your 6 volt lights to look like small candles. Which there is no way deliver the correct light intensity.

This was not one of my greatest moments. 6 Volt lights on WECATCHEM, NOW 12 volt, and Suzy pictured saved the day at night.

Now, why does this matter? Well… Other than the fact that you may be putting others in danger, you are also putting yourself in danger for show accuracy. And to be clear, there is NO grandfathering type rules here. And to quote Gary again, “Nothing is wrong, until something goes wrong.” As in, if you did get in an accident, as in someone mows over you at night.

As I recall this happened on Lake Tahoe. 12 Volt Riva, but a sobering reminder that SHIP HAPPENS

Did you have a 6 volt system? See where this is going? You could be to blame. A good attorney would certainly look at this as part of the trial. So, that 6 volt system you have? Make sure its perfect. Maybe change your bulbs to LED to me stronger. There are ways around this, and now there is one more thing in the world to worry about.

36 replies
  1. FrankatFalmouth
    FrankatFalmouth says:

    The eye opening point for me as I understood his presentation was that the current requirements do not grandfather for things… In the classic car arena they will typically accept requirements that were in place at the time of manufacture (eg seatbelts lighting). Not so with USCG. So those correct, generator driven 6 volt bulbs behind original faded lenses are probably not up to spec.. and as Matt said, could mean you could be held liable (don’t get me started) for an incident if they say you didn’t have lights that were up to current spec!
    Another sobering wake up call and comment on our litigious society
    Gary’s presentation was both entertaining and informative in spite of the somewhat boring title “Coast Guard Regulations” (or something like that) 😀.
    I won’t be a spoiler for other issues he brought up that Matt will certainly come in future blogs!

    Take Away
    Lack of luminosity = Liability.

  2. Bilge Rat
    Bilge Rat says:

    I will never forget boating one night on the north side of Wellesley Island in the St. Lawrence river. Going slow of course just south of the main channel when suddenly less than 100 feet directly in front of me red and green bow lights appear out of no where! It was two guys fishing and anchored in a small outboard. They said they didn’t want to wear down the battery so they only turned the lights on when they heard a boat approaching. The boat I had at that time did not have a VHF radio, but if it did I would have called out a Sécurité to warn others (and the Coast Guard) about those clowns.

    I don’t boat in complete darkness anymore.

  3. Bilge Rat
    Bilge Rat says:

    I should also add that when the wife and I overnight on the Lyman, we select a small secure cove and the all-around anchor light is on all night. Two batteries on board so starting is never an issue.

  4. tparsons56
    tparsons56 says:

    The nav lights on my 1924 Fay and Bowen appear to have red and blue lights as opposed to red and green. Were nav lights always red and green as the lens appears to be original. I suppose a yellowish 6v light bulb with a blue lens would appear green.

    • Bilge Rat
      Bilge Rat says:

      The green colorant in the glass has destabilized from ultraviolet sunlight over the decades to blue. Yes, technically a yellow bulb shining through a blue lens would appear green (yellow+blue=green). May not satisfy the Coast Guard though.

      • tparsons56
        tparsons56 says:

        OK – Thanks. When we take the boat out we pass right by the Coast Guard Station in Charlevoix and the coasties always wave and say “nice boat”. I guess we are kind of down on their priority list.

        Going off topic I have never been pulled over for a vessel safety check in a vintage or antique boat – has anyone else?

        • Dave
          Dave says:

          I have have attended shows (Land O’ Lakes Chapter in MN) wherein one can sign up…..strictly voluntary …..and have their boat inspected by the coast guard or another credible authority. Any deficiencies are discussed. It is up to the boat owner to take it from there. Importantly, far more than a couple of running lights are scrutinized!

        • Greg Lewandowski
          Greg Lewandowski says:

          After launching my 20ft. Continental for the Racine International show in 2017, I was entering the Lake Michigan channel to the marina as a 40ft Coast Guard semi rigid was coming out of the channel. As I waved, they gave me a quick siren Bleep and said they wanted to inspect my vessel. I told them I was headed in to the marina and would rather they board me from a dock, so they said they would follow me in. I definitely caused some excitement as I entered the marina with this huge Coast Guard vessel, blue flashers rotating, following me in. As I pulled up to the dock in the middle of the show, one of the docking volunteers nasked me “what the hell I had done?”. Two thirty something coastys completed the inspection. I passed and got my yellow twelve month get out of jail form. The only issue during the inspection is when they wanted to check my registration hull number. They kept looking around for a plate like they would find on a newer boat. They gave me a strange look when I pointed to the starboard engine stringer and told them it was stamped into the wood. I guess they learned something that afternoon!

  5. mike S
    mike S says:

    The voltage of the system has little to do with the brightness of the bulbs other than the limited choices available. Most of the problems are due to incorrect bulb selection. For a standard 2-pin socket, the common bulb choices are #64, #82, and #210. Wattages are 4.4, 6.6 and 12, respectively. I always change to the #210 for bow/ running lights. There can be problems using the #210 in stern lights with plastic globes due to extra heat and a physically larger bulb. Also, the added brightness from a 360 degree light can drastically affect a person’s night vision when looking aft, so sometimes a #82 is a better choice.

  6. John Rothert
    John Rothert says:

    I am kind of a dim bulb as to lighting…but an expert at getting boarded by the Coast Guard. When I had the big Chris Craft I got boarded all the time. We have a CG station within sight of the Marina and mainly the guys were just training on me. Gave you a yellow (not green) piece of paper after the boarding that if you showed them within 6 months they would not board next time. Nice young coasties needed someone to train on I guess. Now that I have the Fairchild Scout repro…they never stop me????? When I was on the hook they would like to sneak up from behind in the big RIB and the first thing you would see creeping by was a front mounted machine gun.
    My only complaint is, I have NEVER seen a sailboat stopped??
    John in Va.

    GENE PORTER says:

    I love to boat at night but
    Wait Wait —-
    The Isssue is NOT just compliance with CG nav light rules. Its your safety on the water.

    A dark-hulled vintage runabout off plane at night near a shore festooned with strip mall lighting is a sitting duck for a collision, even if the nav lights meet the MINIMUM two mile spec.

    ALL vintage boaters should populate their nav lights, -particularly the red and green – with
    the brightest possible bulbs that don’t overheat the fixture and/or underlying varnish. There seem to be suitably strong LED bulbs available for most such fixtures.

    Bright white all-around lights can be a real problem for night vision in the cockpit – but that problem can be ameliorated either by

    1) temporarily (if authenticity is an issue – no judged shows seem to take place at night) replacing the all-around with two well shielded lights – one facing aft on the transom – and one facing forward well above the windshield.


    2) Elevating the all-around and installing a wide flat guard plate under the light to shield the cockpit.

    Don’t let your moonlight cruise be aborted – just brighten up your bulbs!

  8. m-fine
    m-fine says:

    The lack of grandfathering has my attention. Is this just for lighting, or does it apply to other things like our copper fuel lines?

  9. Sparky
    Sparky says:

    I understand that electricity may be a mystery to some people but let’s face facts here – 6V to a light bulb is not rocket science.

    Make sure your alternator / generator works, your wires are not frayed or missing conductors, your light socket is not corroded, your ground wire is actually grounded (to the engine block) and your switch has good contacts. And if you don’t understand any of this then find someone who does.

  10. Gary Van Tassel
    Gary Van Tassel says:

    I have sort of been wondering if my best accomplishment last Sat. was to cure insomnia. Regulations are not exactly a spell binding topic. Thanks to Matt for his kind words. After reading the comments this morning I have a couple of thoughts – the faded green lens is all too common. Visibility or range is one issue but equally important is the arc of visibility. The classic “bicycle” bow light Matt dug up fails on all accounts. I used to have one on a small runabout growing up.
    The issue of 6 volts vs. brightness is not the 6 volt system itself. A 6 volt bulb with full six volts at the bulb under load is fine. The issue is voltage drop. The current draw for the same wattage bulb is double with 6 volts vs 12 volts. Which results in more voltage drop for the same size wire. So your 6 volt bulb is not seeing 6 volts. Normal design practice is to select wire sizes to limit voltage drop to less than 10%. Measure the voltage at the bulb then compare to voltage at the battery to see where you stand. I don’t have any idea if one might find a 6 volt LED replacement. but the voltage drop will be very small due to the much lower amperage draw. As to USCG boarding, etc. Your not likely to have problem, my experience having been boating over 60 years and a licensed mariner, as long as your lights were working after dark or you had the misfortune of encountering a newly minted boarding officer with regulations fresh in his mind. I have sail and power boats I can only think of 1/2 dozen times when I was boarded. Memorably, once heading out to the race course for a sailboat race, to respond to sailboats being boarded, and once when I pulled a USCG boat off a shoal. I helped them out and they boarded me!!!

  11. Briant
    Briant says:

    Oh yeah, our 1930 Zoomer has been vessel checked by the local sheriff and the coast guard many times over the years, not every year, but damn close. In the spring, they park a few boats at the local ramp and have a chit chat with everyone. They check for current registration, boating cards, fire estiguishers, bilge pumps, floatation devices, working lights, etc….and then after those bits are done, it turns into a twenty minute admiration and gab festival about the boat and her history! As it has always been during the daytime, exact light colours and intensities have not been inquired about though.

  12. Gary Van Tassel
    Gary Van Tassel says:


    I went looking thru the CFR’s, specifically 33-CFR where “most” of the motorboat regs reside and 46 CFR. I could not find any indication of grandfathering for the current regs. If some else has insomnia and they can point me to it, I would love to hear from them where they found it. I have a feeling Matt might cover some more of this issue, so not to take away story topics from Matt I will not spill the beans on future topics. BTW, what you will find in the regs for some critical items is mandatory compliance dates. With new regs they will typically provide a grace period for compliance.

  13. Old Salt
    Old Salt says:

    I think the real discussion should be the difference between the boating environment from the early 1900’s to current day. Typically on inland lakes houses with bright lights surround the shoreline which was not the case in the early 1900’s. It is easy to miss even bright navigational lights on a lake surrounded by houses at night.

    I think the real answer especially for new boats would be to replace the black plastic rub rails around the boat with translucent ones and have them illuminated all the way around the boat with LEDs.

    Once again just my two cents, and my perspective since my life revolves around lighting design!

  14. Ned Protexter
    Ned Protexter says:

    Be sure to clean out your lenses as well. spider webs and dust aren’t helping. I did this on one of our fiberglass Arabians and I don’t think it had ever been done since new. It really helped. Make sure you put the shades back in on the correct side…..

  15. mahoganymadness
    mahoganymadness says:

    Just a Fyi…a friend mine had a 16 cc special runabout and that boat rode very bow high.. he was following me home one night and I would swear there was no boat behind me…the stern pole was to short to see and the bow light was to high…If I was going straight on towards him..it would not have been pretty…he solved by trimming the boat out…

  16. Dick Dow
    Dick Dow says:

    … and then there are those “checkbook boaters” who run around with their docking lights/spotlights/tower lights on. The law prohibits pointing a bright light at another skipper/helm station when that boat is underway.

  17. Mike K
    Mike K says:

    When I brought the Streblow to fe myers one year the coast Guard boarded us because they wanted to see the boat couldn’t of been nicer
    I to received the “golden ticket”

  18. Herb Hall
    Herb Hall says:

    I’m glad the mention of grandfathering is being discussed. Our vintage boats for the most part, do not meet current regulations and are not considered grandfathered. Trust me on this, Sierra Boat was named in a lawsuit involving a boat we had worked on, that was involved in a nighttime fatal accident. The issue; one meter separation between the masthead light and the sidelights. Here is the complete Coast Guard regulation: Powerboats under 12 meters (39.4 feet) in length must have separate or combined red and green sidelights covering 112.5 degrees and visible for 1 nautical mile. The white masthead light must cover 225 degrees, be 1 meter above the sidelights and be visible for 2 nautical miles. The white stern light must cover 135 degrees and be visible for 2 nautical miles, or you can substitute one 360-degree all-around white light. For larger boats, the sidelights must be visible for 2 nautical miles and the masthead light for 3 nautical miles.

  19. Bob B
    Bob B says:

    CC Runabout. I’m still 6volt. A zillion years ago, pre-internet, I had to buy a case of 6v bulbs to get one replacement bulb. I now have a life-time supply of 6v bulbs and my running lights are plenty bright. Proper size battery cables ensure the starter works good too.

    A properly maintained 6v system works just fine. Every time I research converting to 12v the old-timers ask “why?” And yes, I love my 6v bilge pump.

    Boat performs as good as new.

  20. Dick Dow
    Dick Dow says:

    KW, That is what spotlights are intended for and no, it is not against the law. What is, is using lights in a manner that “blinds” another mariner. That said, I hope you turn it off after the buoy is identified rather than run with it on all the time.

  21. Kentucky Wonder
    Kentucky Wonder says:

    There was an article in The Rudder some time ago that addressed the problem of replacing traditional tungsten bulbs with LED bulbs. Normally, one would think the LED versions would be brighter, but there is a problem with the wavelength of light as it passes through the red and green lenses on boats. Turns out that “white” LED lights suffer substantial dimming as their light passes through the lenses. One needs to buy red and green colored bulbs in order for their light to go efficiently through the colored lenses.

  22. Ed S
    Ed S says:

    Six volt equipment gets a bad rap but, as the old cartoon character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Copper and brass around water – especially saltwater – is a Petri dish for corrosion and every connection is a 6V system is much more vulnerable to resistance voltage losses than a 12V system.

    When doing bulb maintenance, clean out the socket with a strip of abrasive over the end of a suitably sized dowel then apply a thin coat of oil or grease (white grease or Vaseline) to the bulb’s base . (Do NOT let the parts store talk you into “dielectric” grease for this!)
    Today there are LED replacements available for virtually all 12v automotive bulbs. The ones I have tried on my old 6V jeep were still markedly brighter than the OE incandescents..
    If you’re concerned about a blueish starboard running light, take the lens to your supermarket vitamin aisle where there are dozens of supplements in various sized green bottles and find a bottle whose curvature matches the ID of the lens then cut and fit to suit.

  23. Ed S
    Ed S says:

    Yeah, but think about how much healthier you will be after consuming the contents of the health food supplement bottle than the Mtn Dew…as long as the bottle label doesn’t say Fleets Enema!

  24. Gary Van Tassel
    Gary Van Tassel says:

    Hull Identification Number (HIN) is the one reg that is grandfathered. Boats built before 1972 do not have HINs.

Comments are closed.