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2013-08-16

And you, you light up my skiff...



Elderly pop song references aside (although the alarming video above is most unlikely conversion of treacle into vinegar I could find), the miracle that is LED lighting for the boater has some darker aspects, pun intended, in my view.
Cozy but functional, LEDs are great for spot applications. Image copyright www.sintacha.com

When compared with old-school incandescent lights, i.e. "light bulb", a term soon to be as archaic as "LP" or "cursive writing" to younger people, LED illumination is cheaper to run in terms of power draw and is significantly longer lasting. Of course, this remains to be proven in some ways, as LEDs made for boats haven't been run for 100,000 hours (or over 11 years) straight. We've got some time yet before that century-old Edison-style lightbulb is eclipsed.

While the price of properly made LEDs continues to drop from when I first starting seriously considering them (mainly by purchasing and installing a few to see how we liked them), decent ones with desirable current regulation (because a boat's power supply from battery banks is variable in terms of voltage) are still not cheap. Nor, it can be argued, given the harsh marine environment, should they be. Balanced against this cost should be the LED fixture's endurance and, if you are laying out the whole circuit from scratch, the rather relevant fact that the power wires can be considerably smaller for the fractional amperage drawn by LEDs. Other considerations are beam angle and total lumens, but only a little education will suffice to light up most boats to a satisfactory degree.

Of particular interest are LED navigation lights. Given that these are legally required parts of a boat's safety gear, the idea that you can be seen just as well as with the effective but comparatively wasteful incandescent light bulb of the past is compelling a cake-having and -eating equation as you are likely to find afloat.

But as the estimable John Harries says, "beware the time suck of complexity". Sometimes the latest, greatest tech isn't entirely ready for prime time...which may be revealed when said prime time is 1,000 NM offshore. We currently have well-made Aqua Signal 40 incandescent nav lights on Alchemy that are, with 25 watt bulbs, brighter than are legally required...not a bad thing. Aqua Signal also has replacement parts, which both speaks to the quality of their products and says "in your face!" to the planned obsolescence of most marine gear manufacturers (in my rueful opinion).

Aqua Signal: Not a flash in the pan.

So the logical thing to do, I think, would be to source 25W-equivalent LED replacement bulbs...and replace 'em when needed. If we are needing running lights, we are likely "steaming", i.e. using the motor. Seventy-five watts of draw isn't going to be a big deal for us. A more compelling argument would be found to get less amp-hungry interior lights and strip lighting, and to switch to a LED mast-top trilight and anchor light combo, where both the long runs of wire and the length of time spent lit (not to mention the annoyance of changing bulbs) strongly favours the LED solution.

Less cozy and probably only functional for spotlighting inadequate genital dimensions is this whore's nightmare.
The downside to which I initially referred of the vast range of LED solutions for boats involves overkill. Because these lights draw so little of what was once a strictly metered resource: the 12-volt battery bank, and because more boats have multiple charging sources (diesel gensets, wind generators, solar panels, gerbil wheels), it is possible to deck out one's vessel into something more garish and wetter than a heavily greased Mardi Gras participant in Rio during a cloudburst.


The future's so bright, I've got to wear sunglasses at night. Two '80s references in one caption!

"Pimp my yacht" is still largely restricted to the more insecure/mobbed-up sort of powerboater (or so I have observed), but whereas one used to see sailboats lit more than regs required only when a feeble string of lights were hauled aloft at Christmas, an increasing range of LED "cockpit accent lights" and "table lights" and "gunwale lights" and so on are making appearances.

This is not the lair of the villain in a gay-themed James Bond spoof: it's a catamaran. (C) http://sailtrue.blogspot.ca

Mankind marches on: If something can be made to shout "look at me", it will be. Harley rumbles over birdsong; office tower lights over stargazing.  I recently had an exchange over at Cruisers' Forum with a fellow (SV Neko out of San Francisco) who asks, innocently enough, I'm sure:

"So, I just installed this nifty LED floodlight on the davits to light the transoms and the area between the hulls. Makes dinghy arrivals at night pleasant. It takes nearly no power and I can leave it on all night.

My question for the denizens is: When away from the boat with the dinghy, should I leave it on or off? On lights the area and may be a deterrent to evildoers who want to board. But it also highlights the fact that the crew is ashore. Maybe they know that anyway with good eyes or a flashlight. What do you think?"

My reply was, I hope, not harsh:

"I can find no reason for leaving it on, frankly. Aside from saying "WE ARE AWAY" and making boarding so much safer for thieves, even an LED flood is a source of light pollution that destroys the night vision of those trying to find shore marks or nav aids.

It's the visual equivalent of leaving a parked car idling. Or an over-sensitive car alarm. Anyone in a city knows it's hard to go a day without hearing one of those menaces.

I recall coming into Charlotte Amalie at midnight and trying along with the skipper to locate the FlR and FlG marks against the town's traffic and streetlights. Fat chance, although we eventually saw them. Throwing in a floodlight on a boat that's not even occupied would compound the issue. Imagine EVERYONE in the anchorage having them. Now you are motoring a tender at night and no one has dark-adapted eyes. It's like the definition of endless love: Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles playing tennis.

If you wish to leave a light on, leave one on in the saloon, but with closed sheer portlight curtains. No one will know there isn't anyone aboard. Throw in a stereo on low, with say a symphony on a CD on "repeat", and the illusion is near-complete. Even a thief "casing the joint" in a rowboat would select a fully dark and quiet boat over a potential interaction. As a one-time audio producer, I would probably make a classical recording with sounds of galley work, dog noises and conversation mixed in. Only the most homicidal villians would board a boat that sounded like that.

Back to the stern light: I'm not saying you shouldn't have it; it's clearly a useful safety device. But I suspect it would not be hard to add either a waterproof switch on your rail or stern or a waterproof IR or RF "remote" you can carry in your pocket to switch on the light when needed, meaning it is only ON when needed...and off most of the time.

An alternative is to get those waterproof accent lights for the boarding ladder, but switched. Pull the ladder down (after unlocking it) and the lights glow. You can then get aboard and manually switch on the stern light for area illumination to get the tender in davits.

Frankly, however, most people seem to use Petzl or similar headlamps. Some varnish the lens to throw a yellowish light...easier on the eyes. Use the headlamps to find the ladder...get aboard and then light up the boat. Hope these suggestions help...to keep you popular in the anchorage and yet meet your safety needs."
I guess the hooks, gaffs, nets, purses and dynamite weren't sufficient.
In this particular case of the stern-mounted floodlight, I'm not objecting to the light per se. I'm objecting to leaving it on when it's not in use. Consider the local fishermen who tend to have (if anything) a weak oil lamp to show where they are. A well-lit anchorage not only ruins the recreational sailor's night vision for to- and fro-ing in either the main boat or a tender, raising the possibility of collision, but also has the known effect of concentrating sealife directly off your stern (in this example). The fishermen are going to see this and fish where the light is attracting the prey. How long the fish will last so "baited" is a matter for conjecture, but I wouldn't consider it ideal for me to try to squeeze between my boat and some panga full of locals trying to bring in a load of squid at 2 AM.

In addition, half the boats strongly lit in the anchorage render those boats with just the typical anchor light or light hoist into the triangle less visible to boats underway. You have made a host of new visual distractions. The anchorage becomes a fun house of bright and dark areas. Now I must add blackout curtains to my portlights and hatches, because maybe the boats beside me are not quite so careful with their floodlight angles. Note they are called "floodlights": the light is meant to go all over the place.

Lastly, so long, starlight. You might as well be in an RV in a mall parking lot (exaggeration for rhetorical effect, but again, if everyone has a downward-pointing stern light of sufficient strength, the resemblance to street lights would be close).

Lights, when inappropriate, can be considered a form of pollution. Just as I choose not to pump out inshore, I choose not to light my boat like a stage, unless for safety reasons, I need to briefly light to embark.

Now despite the certainty of my tone above, I may be living, or at least sailing, in the Dark Ages. Dim light at sea keeps my vision ready for that which is unlit, and I find that more seamanlike. At anchorage, I prefer the stars over the Vegas Strip. I find lighting that baffles fish about what time of day it is and that do not reside in a tackle box unsporting (see "headlight hunting").

But I may be wrong here, and so I welcome comments: Be it resolved that LED lights are largely a boon for the voyaging sailor, but should be kept largely off and largely inside the boat, unless they are for required navigational lighting or safety while disembarking or embarking.
 

5 comments:

The Ceol Mors said...

I get the appeal of the colored exterior lights- they are pretty but the opportunity cost is far too great when you take the need for preservation of night vision into account.

Also, all those floodlights would make it impossible to see the space station trucking across the night sky, or meteors or falling stars.

I am with ya on this one.

Rhys said...

Glad to hear it, Cidnie...but what do you mean by "opportunity cost"? I'm unfamiliar with the term.

We saw the space station last new moon from the boat. Around 10 PM, when it's fully dark, but the ISS is (presumably) still in full sunlight and is trucking SW to NE...man, that thing is bright, brighter than most airplanes save for those fixing to land on your head!

One of our boaty pleasures is to sail south of the island (really a big sandbar that's south of Toronto. Much of the city's ambient light is semi-blocked and you can get the sort of darker sky usually found only after a 120 mile drive north or north-east (what we in Ontario call "cottage country"). I would imagine it takes some doing to find a dark sky in Texas these days, too.

Ken Goodings said...

While sitting here at anchor; Danfoss 12V fridge is running, both the masthead and bimini anchor lights are on, three Caframo fans running and two (halogen bright) Sensibulb LED reading lamps and the LINK 20 monitor never turns off. Total drain 7.2 amps. LED's rule for sure. Two cheap solar patio lights sitting in the two primary sheet winches give a nice glow in the cockpit all night. A third patio light sits forward on the anchor windlass to indicate where our bow is to late night dinghy traffic.

Silverheels III said...

Leave the anchor light on 24 hrs/day. No forgetting problems then, and returning to a darkened boat. When away at night, leave 3-4 LED reading lamps on and couple of patio lights or whatever in the cockpit to help illuminate the area. A stereo on is good too, along with the VHF on loud volume setting. All boarding ladders up and locked, all hatches firmly locked as well. Of course, a missing dinghy is a potential sign of no one home, (owning two dinghies might help here)but getting to know your anchored neighbours is a very good idea....kind of a neighbourhood watch on the water.

Rhys said...

Good points all, Ken/Silverheels III. I picked up that Turigy watt/Ah/etc. meter you suggested, which lead to Radioworld on Steeles at Jane, apparently the closest place in Toronto where I could source Anderson Powerpoles. Oh, well, it's not like I couldn't benefit from a three-hour height of summer bike ride uphill in both directions...it's prep for the tropics, right? Heh.

As for the LEDs, naturally they are the bomb for people who don't wish to carry half a tonne of batteries. Less out means less in, which is good policy aboard, I find. Have you considered "customizing" those patio lights with either bits of coloured scrim or patterns made out of tape? I thought that was semi-clever, myself, because of the fact that it won't be long before every boat sports similar cheap LEDs on a stick.

Even with the small draw of an LED anchor light, I would prefer in my heart of hearts to have it switched off and on by a light sensor. Just the Scottish gene, I guess.

How do you address ventilation when off the boat if you lock it down? Dorades? Head hatch too small for even a child-sized thief?

Part of the logic, unexplained to this point, of having two tenders is that the presence of one (secured, naturally) makes the boat look more occupied, along with the stereo and VHF idea and a couple of lights.

But the "know (and guard) your neighbours" is a good idea, particularly if you are staying put for a while.