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.
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Board lights and Side lights Port and Starboard
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
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.
The Netherlands: Tweekleur
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.
The Netherlands: Toplicht
Spanish: Tope de Proa
France: Tête de mat
Swedish, Norwegian & Danish: Topp
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.
The Netherlands: Heklicht
Swedish, Norwegian: Akter
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.
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.
The Netherlands: Ankerlicht
Spanish: Todo Horizonte
France: Tout Horizon
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.
The Netherlands: Niet Manoeuvreerbaar Vaartuig (N.M.V.)
Anchor light with blue glass
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.
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
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.
The Netherlands: Oplooplicht
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.
The Netherlands: Stuurlicht
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.
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!
The Netherlands: Driekleur
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.
The Netherlands: Vislicht