Different types of navigation lights

Navigation lights do not only allow you to determine which direction a ship is heading, but they also indicate if a vessel has a particular function. It can even act as an alarm to signal for help when a ship is in trouble.

Different types of ships result in different navigation lights. This way they can be matched with their ship type among other essential rules.

We can define the country of origin thanks to the mark, plate or token, that is usually, present on the light.

! Disclaimer !

Rules and information below may or is not the same as the current rules and regulations state.

We can be, in any way whatsoever, not responsible for your use of the information contained in or linked from these web pages.

Board lights and Side lights Port and Starboard

antique ship lights, port and starboard Pascall Atkey & Son Cowes

These lights have in common that they are located on the ship's side and have colored glass. Red is on the port (left), and green is on the Starboard (right). The light arc of each of these lamps is 112.5 degrees.
Making that so that the light is visible from the front and the side.

There are several theories, but likely they chose green because Starboard was on the side where the steering wheel was also placed. Starboard was on the steering wheel's side, so every helmsperson at sea knew that the helmsman would see you if you approached the ship from this side. Making green the "safe" side. The helmsman had less visibility on the port side; coming to a boat from this side was hence much more dangerous, thus the color red.

International translations for Port and Starboard

Country Port Starboard
The Netherlands Bakboord Stuurboord
Germany Backbord Steuerbord
Spain Babor Estribor
France Bâbord Tribord
Sweden Babord Styrbord
Norway, Denmark Bagbord Styrbord

Combined Port and Starboard, Bicolor light

You don't often come across a two-tone; it was used on smaller motorboats or sailing ships shorter than 20 meters.
It is called a combined Port and Starboard light or bicolor.


International translations:

The Netherlands: Tweekleur

antique ship light combined port and starboard

Masthead light

old vintage ship lamp Masthead William Harvie

The Masthead is a white light with an arc of 225 degrees, visible from both sides and the front. A Masthead is always positioned higher than the port and starboard lights.

Because the arc of a masthead coincides with the angle of both the port and starboard light, it allows for determining the ship's direction.

Larger ships need to carry a second Masthead, which is placed higher and more at the back of the boat.


International translations:

The Netherlands: Toplicht
German: Topplicht
Spanish: Tope de Proa
France: Tête de mat
Swedish, Norwegian & Danish: Topp

Stern light

The Stern light is a light that has an arc of 135 degrees; it is positioned at the rear of the ship. Do you only see a white light? That means you're looking at the back of the boat. Hence the boat's stern.

Tugboats use a Stern with yellow glass.

International translations:

The Netherlands: Heklicht
German: Hecklicht
Spanish: Alcance
France: Poupe
Swedish, Norwegian: Akter
Danish: Agter

stern ship light with special glass

Combined Masthead and Stern light

The Masthead and Stern may also be combined into one ship's lamp for smaller motor boats up to 20 meters. It may even be the ship's only lighting, which is only allowed for boats up to a maximum of 7 meters. Though they have to deal with a speed limit of 13km/h.

Anchor light

heavy used anchor light ship light harvie

Ships at anchor must carry an all-around light, the so-called anchor light. An anchor light hangs very often between ropes, explaining the brackets and/or handles on the sides, bottom and top.


International translations:

The Netherlands: Ankerlicht
German: Rundumlicht
Spanish: Todo Horizonte
France: Tout Horizon
Swedish: Ankarljus
Norwegian: Ankare
Danish: Anker

Not Under Command (N.U.C.) Light 

Ships that can no longer sail must shine a red ship lamp visible all around. These lamps are marked with N.U.C., which stands for Not Under Command.

Usually, N.U.C. ship lamps have a red glass insert, this way, they could also be used as an anchor light.

International translations:

The Netherlands: Niet Manoeuvreerbaar Vaartuig (N.M.V.)

not under command, NUC ship light red light

Anchor light with blue glass

anchor ship light with blue glass for dangerous goods

A blue glass anchor light is rarely seen. It is commonly stated that they were used during wartime. However, this is not true.

They were an indication of a ship transporting dangerous goods. Other ships were thus not allowed to sail and moor nearby. One light stated a minimum distance of 10 meters, 50 meters for two lights and 100 meters for three lights.

These blue glass anchor lights were only used for ships that navigated inland.

360-degree lantern

This lanterns were mainly used for smaller ships with convex 360-degree glass for cabin lighting. Often equipped with an oil reservoir and protection around the glass. Sometimes with crackled- or wavy glass.
On smaller ships, this could also be used as an anchor light

360 degree ship lantern anchor light

Approach Light

old ship light approach light

An approach light is no longer in use; this had to be shown on the bow in some waters when approaching another vessel.

This light was similar to the Masthead; the only difference was that it was placed lower on the front buoy.


International  Translations:

The Netherlands: Oplooplicht

Steering Light

These were used on inland shipping during dark and foggy weather. The lamp was visible on the foredeck, so the skipper knew from the wheelhouse where the prow was.

This way, he wouldn't have to make dangerous guesses while navigating through corners but could estimate what his boat was doing.

These lamps were also used when towing boats with trade on the deck of the towed ship.


International Translations:

The Netherlands: Stuurlicht

ship light steering light

Signal Lantern

signal lantern meteorite

As its name indicates, the signal lantern was used to transmit signals on the water to other ships or people on the shore. This allowed for example to signal Morse signals towards other boats.

The key to recognizing signal lanterns is their handle, usually with a button on the side. It was thanks to this button that you could slide the two plates, located on the inside of the glass, in order to pass on the signals.

Inshore Fishing Boat Front Lantern

You don't see this one too often, the front lantern for coastal fishing boats.


The lantern has a front lens for white light and a red and green lens on the sides. The sectors deviate from the regular navigation lighting.


front lantern for inshore fishing boat

Tri-color Light

A Tri-color Light is a navigation lamp that looks like a Masthead but contains red and green glass on both sides of the glass, making three colors visible.

You could identify it as a combined Masthead, Port, and Starboard navigation light; however, the sectors deviate from the regular ship lamps.

I could not find an explanation of when, why, and by whom the tricolor was used. Under the current rules, it is no longer in allowed. Possibly they may have been used as a combined Masthead, Starboard, and Port on small vessels or in trawling, as a successor to the front lantern for the inshore fishing boats. So, if you have the answer, please let me know!


International Translations:
The Netherlands: Driekleur

old ship lamp, tricolor lamp

Fishing Light

old ship light, anchor light

When fishing boats are fishing, they have two all-around visible lights on top of each other.

The top is green and the bottom white. These are only to be used when actively fishing.


International Translations:

The Netherlands: Vislicht