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.

99 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).

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