Advice Please: Which LED Tri-Light is Best?

Those of you who have been readers here for a while know about our tale of woe with Morgan’s Cloud’s Lopolight LED tri-light. You can read the whole saga here, but the short version is that we have replaced this light three times over nine years (on warranty) because of failure and/or RF interference with our VHF radio.

And now the latest Lopolight, while still working, has started to exhibit the same RF-interference problem, which makes it fundamentally unusable, since monitoring VHF channel 16 while underway is just good seamanship.

Bottomline, we are all done with Lopolight, particularly since after we posted, many others commented about the same problems that they had experienced, which make Lopolight’s protestations that:

  • the problems we were having were extremely rare; and
  • it was something to do with our installation that was causing the lights to fail;

a tad difficult to credit. (Why is it that vendors always start with that stuff?)

Be that as it may, we need a new tri-light from a different vendor, and would be very grateful for input on what you have found works. To that end, please leave a comment about your real world (no hearsay please) experiences with LED tri-lights.

It would be great if you could include the following information:

  • Brand and model of light.
  • Rough guess of how many nights you have used it while underway. This is what really matters—simple age is pretty meaningless since many boats don’t use a tri-light for more than a few hours a year.
  • Do you monitor VHF while at sea?
  • If so, have you experienced any interference from the tri-light?
  • If no interference, what is the separation between your VHF antenna and tri-light?

Not only will your help save Phyllis and me from another expensive mistake, your combined wisdom will also help other cruisers make a good choice for years to come. Thank you.

Talking of expense, when commenting, please keep in mind that Phyllis and I are far more interested in reliability than price—stuff that breaks may be cheap, but it’s never economical—and further, we are not interested in options that retrofit an old incandescent light fixture with an LED bulb.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

123 comments … add one
  • Dave Apr 21, 2017, 8:29 am

    Bill

    You are exactly correct. A small three terminal voltage regulator IC could be used to keep the voltage stable and the LED light output the same under varying voltage inputs. The switching circuits used in commercially available LED lights are indeed voltage regulators. All voltage regulators are not created equally. Some are not very efficient [ get hot ] and others may be very noisy.
    Early Espar heaters had a non regulated glow pin start up circuit. When your house batteries were low, you had to start the engine in order to turn on the heater. They fixed this issue in later models by going to a 5V regulated glow pin circuit. This solved two problems. Not only does the heater start reliably but the glow pin lasts much longer.

  • Enno Apr 22, 2017, 6:55 am

    Hi John
    We have got the Aquasignal tricolor combined with anchor light since 2011. Distance to VHF antenna is ca. 10cm. We only use it offshore as tricolor and at anchor (combined with deck level anchorlight). It has seen ca. 200 nights of use including 2 Atlantic crossings. (probably some days too when we forget to switch it off.). No problems so far and no RFI. We also have Aquasignal LED lights at deck level and an engine running light that we use when sailing inshore. One of those broke some years ago and I replaced it. Otherwise no problem and no RFI. The power consumption is almost neglectable.

    Btw. The reason that we do use the tricolor offshore is that deck level lights get regularly obscured by waves and the triclolor is visible from a longer distance. This is mostly for other yachts and fishing vessels that sadly often do not have AIS. Also the Tricolor nicely illuminates the windex. The best (only?) way to be reliably seen by commercial shipping is AIS and a beefy radar reflector.

    • John Apr 22, 2017, 7:54 am

      Hi Enno,

      Thanks for the report on Aquasignal. We have used their incandescent lights for years and have always been impressed with the quality of build.

      Yes, I think on balance your analysis of whether or not to use a tri-light is correct. The only exception I’m still thinking about is very dense fog where I have always burned deck lights on the theory that my lights will only be seen at the last moment (a cable or so) and at that point the other helmsperson might not look up. That said, I’m not even close to 100% sure that’s correct.

      I actually have had exactly this experience off Cape Sable—one of the foggiest places in the world. I need to think some more and then maybe write this experience up.

      • Enno Apr 23, 2017, 6:30 am

        Hi John
        You are probably right about the fog. Although I never sailed in your part of the world I understand that the grand banks are notorious for fog in combination with wind. Here in Norway fog more often occurs on calm days near the coast and is not very common anyway. Also our batteries would not supprort the radar for longer than a couple of hours. So we usually use the engine in fog and the problem never occurred to me.

      • Stein Varjord Apr 23, 2017, 8:53 am

        Hi John and Enno.

        About running lights in fog, this article and comments have made me rethink the topic, as usual here. As mentioned above, I’ve experienced that the mast top tricolour was visible at a significantly bigger distance, apparently because the fog seems less dense higher up. I also agree that low level running lights are way easier to interpret intuitively at closer range, which may indeed happen in fog.

        I can’t make up my mind quite yet, but I have a feeling I’ll end up with thinking that I’d like the boat in fog to resemble a Christmas tree, as the wording was in another comment. 🙂 Using the deck level running lights combined with the red and green mast lights bigger sailing ships normally use. If motoring, the steaming light put extra high might do the same trick. I’m also thinking about a strong slow blinking strobe at the mast head. Getting the attention earlier is maybe worth making some people annoyed?

        • John Apr 24, 2017, 7:20 am

          Hi Stein,

          Like you I’m still thinking about this, but I think that, on balance, in thick fog I will continue to burn my deck level lights, whether sailing or under power.

          I also agree that there is a lot to like about fitting the optional all around red and green lights for sailing vessels. Certainly something I would think about if building a new boat or mast.

  • Bill Attwood Apr 23, 2017, 9:53 am

    Hi Stein.
    I have mounted a strobe above the masthead Lopolight. Tapped holes in the Lopo and mounted the strobe on 3 alu brackets. I believe that Colregs do “sanctify” the use of a strobe as a tactic of last resort; it is safer than a white flare, and certainly easier to justify than aiming a laser at a ship’s bridge.
    Yours aye
    Bill

    • John Apr 24, 2017, 7:30 am

      Hi Bill and Stein,

      On strobes, actually what the COLREGS say about strobes under rule 36 (Signals to Attract Attention) is:

      For the purpose of this Rule the use of high intensity intermittent or revolving lights, such as strobe lights, shall be avoided.

      That’s not quite a ban, but it’s a long way from “sanctify”.

      Also, this is the only place in the regs where strobes are mentioned.

      Given that, I think I will not use a strobe, and certainly not in thick fog where I fear the other helmsperson could be distracted from the actual situation by a strobe suddenly appearing out of the fog at close quarters.

      Also, if a collision did occur and I was showing a strobe, I would fear for how the courts would interpret that given what the regs say.

  • Bill Attwood Apr 25, 2017, 8:47 am

    Hi John
    I must concede on “sanctify”.
    However, as you point out, Colregs don’t forbid their use.
    I would never use a strobe in fog, solely as a ship scarer. In really big seas I have had visual contacts of Very Large Bulk Carriers who have been unable to see us, neither visual nor radar, and where a near-miss situation was in prospect. Even with VHF contact they were unable to see us until very late. As we were running with twin boomed out headsails, it would have been difficult for us to take avoiding action. On all 3 occasions they did alter course, but it would have been less stressful if we had had a strobe and been sighted earlier. The seas were such that we could only see them when on the crest of the swell, and our masthead would only have periodically visible for them.
    The presence of the strobe gives me a feeling of improved security, even although it will be very seldom used.
    Yours aye
    Bill

    • Enno Apr 25, 2017, 1:39 pm

      Hi Bill
      Concerning Bulk carriers and strobes: Wouldn’t it be easier and more effective to fit AIS? With class A it would even be possible to announce navigational status like „under way sailing“ and „restricted maneuverability“.
      Not to mention the social aspect. We were called up several times by commercial shipping that wanted to check that everything was all right or just for a chat. I liked that. It would never have happened without AIS.

    • John Apr 26, 2017, 9:26 am

      Hi Bill,

      I guess I still can’t see the benefits of a strobe over a powerful spot light shined on the sails first, and then if that does not work, and only in last extremis, shined directly at the give way vessel—will be far brighter than any strobe.

      I can attest from at least three personal experiences that this works.

      This will also play better in court, I think, given the wording of rule 36:

      If necessary to attract the attention of another vessel any vessel may make light or sound signals that cannot be mistaken for any signal authorized elsewhere in these Rules, or may direct the beam of her searchlight in the direction of the danger, in such a way as not to embarrass any vessel. Any light to attract the attention of another vessel shall be such that it cannot be mistaken for any aid to navigation. For the purpose of this Rule the use of high intensity intermittent or revolving lights, such as strobe lights, shall be avoided.

  • Bill Attwood Apr 25, 2017, 2:56 pm

    Hi Enno,
    I agree absolutely, and now have an AIS class B fitted; I wouldn´t like to sail without it. However, in mid ocean not all ships seem to have their AIS switched on, particularly in SE asia. Some of the bulk carriers travelling between Australia and China don´t seem to have quite the professionalism that one would hope for. Some of the VHF conversations we had with them seem to indicate that their knowledge of Colregs was sketchy: “we can only see your green light, why don´t you have a red?”. 😉
    Yours aye,
    Bill

  • Colin Farrar Apr 29, 2017, 10:24 am

    We have an Aquasignal model 34 LED tricolor mounted 4″ from the VHF antenna. This unit is new to us, so it has seen only a handful of overnight, near-shore sails. We noticed no interference on VHF voice or AIS. One nice feature: it takes only a few seconds to unscrew the light’s retaining collar and unplug the entire light housing from the base, for winter storage (or failure).

  • Salmón May 4, 2017, 3:09 am

    Hello all, The best light I have ever used was a tricolor anchor light combination like this:

    http://www.k2wlights.de/index.php?id=3&L=1

    it looks like you get them with another “label” as well:

    http://www.toplicht.de/en/shop/lampe-leuchte-und-laterne/positionslampen-und-navigationslichter/led-positionslaternen/led-positionslaternen-messing-pb-580

    Mine used to be installed on my wooden folk boat and served me well for some years until I sold the boat. My current boat is equipped with Aqua Signal 34 lights. They seem to be all right but can’t even come close in terms of quality and design. The only reason I use them is that I use red over green instead of a tricolor in the masthead. I only could get those from Aqua signal at that time of installation and they are really reasonable priced so it would even be worth to carry a spare in terms of accidental mechanical or power surge damage. I would never change back to tricolour again!!!
    I was very lucky to hear about the same issues you have while on the yard refitting my boat, so I didn’t go for the lopo lights 🙂

  • Salmón May 4, 2017, 3:16 am

    RFI from LEDs is somewhat likely with recent VHF units as they have no insulated earth/ground but used minus instead. A proper use of the antenna shield and/or insulation of the antenna’s mast mount (as on aluminum boats) could solve RFI problems.

    • John May 4, 2017, 8:15 am

      Hi Salmón,

      We tried both those options with the Lopo and it did not fix the RF. Also all the other manufactures mentioned seem to have the problem cracked without the need for special installation precautions.

      • Salmón May 4, 2017, 3:32 pm

        Hi John,
        I expected that you would have tried all options but found it a useful tip for other readers. Anyway unfortunately it seems like the marine industry is taking RFI issues too easy.
        My refrigerator produces horrible RFI problems. Sarcastically the manufacturer offers a non RFI kit for it. Why don’t they install it straight away?

        • John May 4, 2017, 4:29 pm

          Salmón,

          I totally agree. As soon at Lopo started with the “you need to fix your boat’s wiring so our light will work” I knew we had a problem. Over the years I have learned to identify such behaviour as a huge red flag.

  • Dino Kubik May 8, 2017, 10:12 am

    Re Experience with TriColour Mast Head, Opinion, and 2 Questions

    Experience… We are very happy with a NASA Supernova Combi Tri and Anchor L.E.D mastlight ($C 270 Pounds 140) over three season of sailing around Campobello Island, NB and four season of storing it over the winter still on a horizonal mast. The simple two wire connection powers the Combi light as a tricolour light or as an anchor light using a rotary switch is supplied with the Combi light. Reliable and visible in our limited experience. We use the Tri-colour when under sail but not when motoring (see question below). The anchor light is impressively bright and rates as one of the brightest in a anchorage. We are 28 feet long.

    Opinion….We follow a “Correct Navs on at all times” policy that is written on the pre-departure check and why not? We are fully LED-ed and the future life of these lights is longer than my own. So why would you not run LED Navs in the day? Are people with LED Navs saving the bulbs for their wedding night or looking forward to leaving them to the kids in the will? Maybe people are too embarrassed so be showing concern for safety? What do you do?

    Question…. Re: Running both the mast head tri-colour and deck level steaming navigation lights when motoring in heavy radiation and convection fog or heavy mist. We spend August on Campobello Island and deal with these elements almost daily. More than once on what is called the Quoddy River, Friar Roads, Western Passage or Head Harbour Passage we have seen only a the top of a sailboat’s mast or the bridge of a freighter due to the fog or mist. Am I wrong to think that running, at the same time, a masthead tricolour and deck level bi-colour/stern light when sailing does not fit under the ColRegs? Same for running the masthead tricolour at the same time as the steaming set up of a bicolour bow/white light steaming/stern light while motoring?

    Enjoying the website,

    Dino
    LM 28 Pilothouse Sloop

    • John May 9, 2017, 8:19 am

      Hi Dino,

      Thanks for the information on the Supernova.

      As to your question. The COLREGs are very clear. You may only use your masthead tricolour when sailing and alone without deck nav lights of steaming light. As soon as you put the engine in gear, even if you continue to have the sails up, you must turn off the tricolour and revert to deck level navigation lights and a steaming light.

      I know one often sees recreational boats with all of the above lights on together, but they are universally treated with derision by commercial mariners and, if they were to have an accident, things would not go well in court. I even suspect that there could be insurance consequences since going against the COLREGs could, I would think, be interpreted as gross negligence.

  • Paul May 8, 2017, 6:43 pm

    Hi Dino,

    Regarding your “question”, it’s probably worth recapping the Colregs sailing yacht light requirements, which you seem to be well aware of anyway.

    You are correct that the Colregs specifically say that you cannot run a masthead tri-colour at the same time as the 3 deck level lights (port, stbd, stern). A sailing yacht under 20m in length may replace the deck level 3 lights with a masthead mounted tri-colour, but they must not be run together with the deck lights.

    If you wish to run both deck lights and mast lights whilst under sail for the additional visibility reasons that you mention, then the Colregs cater to that by saying that you can mount an all-around (360degree) red light over an all-around green light at least 1m apart near the masthead, and run those in conjunction with your deck mounted 3 lights, when sailing. This gives you both the low level and high level visibility, and I believe it makes it much easier for commercial shipping to know exactly what you are (“red over green, sailing machine” is known by all commercial Masters), and it’s the only light combination which can ONLY be a sailing yacht under sail. It’s what we do on our 46ft yacht, and is in my opinion a “no brainer” given modern LED lights.

    When under propulsion by engine, a sailboat becomes a power boat under Colregs, regardless of whether you also have sails up or not. This means that you can no longer use the tri-colour light option nor the all-around red over green option, and must use the three deck mounted running lights, plus a forward facing white steaming light at a raised height (most sailboats put this about 2/3rds of the way up the mast, but Colregs doesn’t specify this. Ours is at the masthead as it’s part of the anchor light, and that gives a little more long range visibility, and means it isn’t shielded by the sails if we have those up).

    A lot of people in this thread have commented on wanting to run masthead tri and deck lights at the same time and have lamented that Colregs doesn’t allow it. But, in my opinion, the masthead red over green all arounds are a better option which is prescribed in Colregs and has more positives. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t use this configuration in our modern LED world as it just makes sense and isn’t that hard to implement.

    Cheers,
    Paul.

    • John May 9, 2017, 8:44 am

      Hi Paul,

      I agree that the green and red make sense. That said, in many places, particularly Maine, thick fog with a sailing breeze is rare, so I’m not sure I would go through all of the work to install them if I were in Dino’s shoes.

  • Charles L Starke May 8, 2017, 7:23 pm

    Can someone suggest models of the red and green sailing machine lights? I haven’t seen these in catalogs. Do we need to mount a pair of each 180 degree lights on both sides of the mast?

    • Paul May 8, 2017, 8:31 pm

      Hi Charles,

      We used two 180 deg lights of each, port and starboard. I did seek advice from various sources (USCG and RYA) regarding the gap between the lights and whether they would appear as 2 lights of each colour from certain angles, but the responses were that was a minimal issue and from a distance they’d appear largely as one light.

      We ended up mounting them on a thin aluminium pole above the mast which also houses our wind instrument at the top. It’s not the strict 1m separation between red and green, but about 60cm which I figure is fine. Some people would worry about the extra weight and windage at mast-top from our approach, but our yacht is a 35 year old cruiser, so it didn’t concern me.

      We used Lopolight’s 180deg lamps, but I’m sure others do them also. This was back in 2010 and we haven’t had any issues thus far.

      Perko do a single fitting red over green which could sit atop your mast like a tricolour, but it has virtually no separation. I’d imagine it’d do an adequate job, but the only version I see is non-led: http://www.perko.com/catalog/category/navigation_lights_under_20_meters/product/895/

      Cheers,
      Paul.

    • John May 9, 2017, 8:41 am

      Hi Charles,

      Most large yachts I see that are set up this way use 4 lights, two either side of the mast, so I think that should work, and also means you can easily get the mandated separation. (If memory serves it’s 1 meter minimum, but do check the COLREGs to be sure my aging memory is not failing us.)

      This configuration on the sides of the mast is what I would do. That said I have not researched the lights available.

      • Charles L Starke May 9, 2017, 8:49 am

        Thanks, Paul & John.

      • Marc Dacey May 9, 2017, 11:57 am

        Given what already lives up there, I think I would much prefer 2 x 2 180 degree lights on the mast sides near the top than a metre-tall pole with two all-around lights, which I think would be subject to movement and wear and “whip”. I would also definitely want LEDs because I could run slimmer wires, very much a consideration for yet another long wire run up the mast. Until the new trilight breaks, however, I’ll see if others migrate to this red-over-green solution, which I’m starting to like.

    • Eric Klem May 9, 2017, 12:15 pm

      Hi Charles,

      I have 3 implementations of this which shows that there is no perfect way.

      One implementation is to put them vertically above the top of the mast which is best for visibility but adds air draft and potential space issues.

      Another implementation is as discussed with 2X 180 degree lights. Unfortunately, this has interference issues with the sails assuming you are not reefed.

      Finally, I have seen several tall ships with them offset to the side of the foremast. The implementations that I have seen are 1 or 2 long offset brackets although I suppose mounting to a shroud could work too. This still has issues with sail interference and has an added blind spot from the mast that decreases as you move the lights further away.

      Eric

      • Charles L Starke May 9, 2017, 12:31 pm

        Thanks Eric.
        Certainly not very simple with picking light fixtures and placement, and then rewiring mast and switches. Maybe on my next boat but I hope to keep this one until I’m 110!
        Best wishes
        Charles
        s/v Dawnpiper

      • John May 10, 2017, 7:01 am

        Hi Eric,

        Thanks, a good summary of the issues. I guess, given the challenges, I would probably not bother converting from a tricolour on an existing boat. That said, I would give it serious thought for a new boat.

  • Taras May 19, 2017, 9:38 am

    Here is a very interesting article in Dutch website – they tested different Tri-color lights and also tested VHF interferrence.
    https://www.zeilen.nl/aan-boord/vaartips/driekleurentoplichten-test/

    You can use Google-translate to read it, but diagrams are understandable.

    • John May 20, 2017, 7:32 am

      Hi Taras,

      Thanks for the link. Looks interesting after a quick scan. I will have a closer read with googles assistance.

  • Terry Thatcher Jun 22, 2017, 6:10 pm

    John, we have the same set up as Enno–Aqua Signal tricolor and a led bulb we bought at a chandlery. Don’t know the manufacturer, sorry. We have run the tricolor for probably 100 to 120 nights so far on our current cruise. No outages.If it is producing rf problems, I don’t notice them. We successfully transmit and receive AIS from a mast top vhf antennae and transmit and receive vhf radio signals from the same antennae. I know I receive AIS from many dozens of miles away, but cannot tell you how far my signal goes out to other vessels. At least 5 or 6 miles, given my radio contacts with others, and I assume more. My antennae is about 6 inches from the tricolor.

    • John Jun 23, 2017, 8:06 am

      Hi Terry,

      Thanks for another data point. By the way, I believe there is a report kicking around somewhere on the internet that says that using LED bulbs in lanterns designed for incandescent does not work that well and that lights so fitted don’t comply with the regs. This may not be still true, but worth checking.

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