Running lights

  • Thread starter Philip Martinez
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Philip Martinez

I was wondering if anyone knows what running lights the Titanic had? I know what the current requirements for running lights are but I don't know what the requirements were back in 1912. Also if someone can please point me in the right direction for where I can find the history of running lights on ships.

Phil Martinez
David G. Brown

David G. Brown

Phil -- Can't say that I've ever seen a formal history of running lights, which are properly called "navigation lights." The concept of lighting vessels at night to prevent collision goes back to the first night fleet operations. A white light was hung on the stern as a warning to overtaking vessels. Somewhere I read that the use of those large stern lanterns seen on 15th and 16th century ships played a role. The lanterns were mostly to allow quartermasters to see the sails well enough to steer at night, but I'm sure they would have helped avoid collisions.

The modern standard originates with the first international Rules of the Road. These Rules came about during the mid-1860s after the advent of steam brought about a rise in ship collisions. By the time of Titanic, steamships were required to show a red light to port, green to starboard, white astern and a white masthead light forward. The second masthead light now mandatory for vessels over 50 meters in length was optional in 1912 and Titanic was not fitted with one.

A masthead light shows right ahead from two points abaft the beam on either side. That gives it an arc of visibility of 225 degrees. (Two points abaft the beam is 22 1/2 degrees.) The colored lights are properly called "sidelights." They shine from dead ahead to port or starboard through an arc of 112 1/2 degrees. Each sidelight has half the coverage of a masthead light and the combined coverage of the sidelights is exactly the same as the masthead light. The white stern light shows through a 135 degree arc that "fills in" the area not covered by the masthead and/or sidelights. Thus, each ship displays navigation lights a full 360 degrees.

The after masthead light is located higher than the forward mashead light, when both are carried. They act as "range lights" that allow approaching vessels to gauge the direction of travel of the ship on which they are displayed.

Today, ships the size of Titanic must carry masthead lights visible at least 6 miles. Side and sternlights are 3 miles minimim visibility. Sidelights must be screened to restrict scattered light. In the early days screens were painted the same color as the light. These days screens must be flat black in color. Sidelights are displayed on the bridge wings of larger ships.

Sailing vessels do not display masthead lights. This led to the popular phrase "steaming light" to describe masthead lights. Only ships with steam power could display them. I've run a diesel-powered ferry built in 1962 that still had the masthead light switch labeled "steaming light."

Specific classes of vessels (as defined by the Rules) carry navigation lights quite different from power-driven vessels. One of the hardest parts of becoming a licensed "captain" is learning all of these light patterns. For instance, a ship fishing with nets does not display masthead lights, but in place shows two all-round lights the upper red and the lower white. A lot of bad, very bad poetry has been written to help jog the memories of prospective captains as they sit their tests. Some that can be displayed in mixed company include:

"Red over red, the captain is dead -- not under command."

"Green over white, shrimp tonight -- trawing."

"White over red, pilot ahead."

Closely related to navigation lights are day shapes. These are black-colored silhouettes of balls, cones, and cylinders displayed on ships during daylight hours to convey certain information. The first day shapes were baskets hung in the rigging of fishing vessels. The story is that commercial fishermen during the Napoleonic wars did not want to become involved in the conflict. So, they displayed fish baskets. The navy vessels could then identify the fishing craft and come buy to purchase the evening's meal (for the officers only, of course). That's the story.

A single black ball indicates a ship at anchor. Three balls in a vertical line tell the sad tale of a ship aground. A sailing vessel also propelled by an engine displays a cone, apex down.

Sadly, the basket continued for several hundred years as a day shape but is no longer authorized. Today, all fishing vessels display two cones apex-to-apex and the basket is relegated to the bilge of history.

Full details of the modern navigation lights and shapes can be found in most libraries. Look for comprehensive books on boating such as "Chapmans--Piloting, Seamanship & Small Boat Handling." Big libraries may have copies of "Knights Modern Seamanship," which is the equivalent for big ship operations.

-- David G. Brown

Erik Wood

Captain Brown is a wealth of uselss knowledge. The sad thing is that I knew all of what he wrote (I didn't read all of it) from memory.
David G. Brown

David G. Brown

Red to red...port your helm and go ahead.
Green to green...all is well, keep up steam.

Yellow over yellow I'm pushing a fellow.

NUC at Anchor = Aground

Pawnshop = Mineclearance

--David G. Brown

Philip Martinez


Thanks for your response to my questions. I do know the current rules of the road just not the older ones and I was curious as to the history behind the navigation lights on ships. Thanks for some of the memory rhymes. I heard of most but not all of them.