The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

There’s A Light…

[A quick note from John:

I could certainly do with a break from Person Overboard articles and discussion, and I suspect that many of you may be feeling the same.

Sure, safety stuff is important, but it’s easy to get so immersed in it that we forget that offshore sailing is really very safe and, most important of all, a lot of fun.

And there is no one better than Colin to remind us all of how truly wonderful cruising is. Read on to see what I mean.]

We live in a world of convenience aboard boats nowadays. A flick of a switch and the saloon is flooded with clean bright LED light.

But back in my youth I sometimes sailed aboard leaky old gaffers, which (as often as not) had only one engine battery, and what light there was emanated from smoky oil lamps mounted on bulkheads or on the saloon table.

Inconvenient, yes; healthy, maybe not—I don’t much miss them below decks. But, at the same time, they shed a warmth and mellow light that adds to the sense of human companionship bestowed by good malt whisky on a cold, damp and tired crew sated on adventure.

So aboard every boat I have subsequently owned there has always been at least one oil lamp in the locker.

I justify this eccentricity through the feeble pretence that it’s there as an emergency anchor light, but the truth is actually far more whimsical. It’s that the warm, yellow glow from that little oil lamp lends a magic to the night air in a silent, remote anchorage in a way that no other source of light could ever do.

To sit for one quiet moment in peaceful reflection, lubricated with a glass of red wine, basking in its glow, sets the day to rest in the very best of ways. The mind wanders back to the days when all this wonder was new to me, and before too long friendly faces around a smoky saloon table all those years ago gently invade my thoughts. Some long departed, others simply much missed, I love to share these wild places with them.

That lamp has been a source of comfort in anchorages from Africa to Brazil, and now here in the Bras d’Or Lakes in Canada. These days I restrict it to deck use alone for health reasons, but for all the modern conveniences of instant light I would never sail without it.

An oil lamp on a modern aluminum expedition boat—you couldn’t make it up.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Colin, now comes the interesting question: Are there any lamps specially worth considering? Or is it just the average oil lamp from the Chinese 1€-shop down the road?


Jo (who’s at the moment looking for a cockpit light to suspend from the struts of the bimini)

Dick Stevenson

Hi Colin & Jo,
Thanks for highlighting a piece of gear that, while I am clear that few or no boats need an oil lamp, I am also clear that, if I see an oil lamp on a vessel, it is likely I will feel at home on it.
I have not considered our oil lamp to be enough (or any) of a health hazard to only use in the cockpit. It has actually been a good bit of time since I was in a climate warm enough to choose to be in the cockpit after nightfall.
Ours is primarily used to provide a warm glow in the saloon when socializing during and after a nice dinner. At those times any electrical light just seems a bit over-powering. And, in addition to the warmth of good friends, there is a surprising amount of heat generated by our small gimbaling bulkhead lamp, well appreciated on cool nights.
And Jo, Weems and Plath may have taken some hits lately, but they do have much in the realm of traditional nautical gear, most of high quality: oil lamps in particular.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy


Hi Colin
Couldn’t agree more about the cosy quality of the light these emit. Another advantage is that by mixing a little citronella oil into your fuel they help keep the mozzies away.


Thank you Colin. You took me back some 30 years to late autum sails up the back rivers of New Jersey aboard my little 24 ft gunkholer. Nestled below in the amber glow of an oil lamp, swinging at anchor on a first frost night, I felt quite adventurous. It was a simple boat for a simpler time. Now, as I ready my Blue Jacket 40 for a solo to Bermuda, I have a check list of to-do’s that is dizzying. Safety gear? Check. Satphone? Check. Add third reef? Check. Install whisker pole? Check. Oil lamps? Check. Yes, two small Weems and Plath gimbled lamps in each cabin. My horizons have expanded since the back rivers of Sourh Jersey, but the same flame burns bright.

And, thank you John for a much needed rest from the underlying tragic consequences of a POB gone wrong. While the subject must not be ignored, at times I wondered why anyone in their right mind would venture offshore. Colin’s piece brought it all back in focus.

Jim Evans

Oh yes, that oil lamp. I have one that’s been on my boats for I can’t remember how long, across the Atlantic a couple of times, and it was only a cheap Chinese one to start with. A new wick or three and it works as well as it ever did, a bit leaky, a bit smoky, excellent for mozzie control, and great for those days when I sail off the anchor and back on and rely on 30 watts of solar to run the autopilot and radio.
It’s the perfect accompaniment to a warm beer from the non-existent fridge, and the light is inadequate for reading but ideal for dreaming.

Alastair Currie

Warm beer, the only way it should be drunk and a proper ale to boot!

Alastair Currie

A nice piece of writing for the image it conjures up. I have an oil lamp for an anchor light and a small oil lamp for saloon light both just for the heck of it because I like stuff like that. I also have LED lamps all-round just in case anyone thinks I am a luddite! 🙂

John Harries

Hi All,

Just so you know that he is not ignoring all of these great comments, Colin is traveling at the moment and probably not connected. Nor should he be, since he is on holiday (vacation). Normally I would have waited until he returned to publish this piece, but it’s such a nice antidote to safety stuff that I simply couldn’t resist.


Currently having no own boat and confined to chartering I am always taking our oil lamp with me. There’s just nothing over a cuddly evening in a nice bay at anchor with the oil lamp in the cockpit and a glass of red wine in the hand!

Marc Dacey

I have a gimballed miner’s lamp for the bulkhead, a hanging cabin lamp made on a tall ship for over the saloon table, and a good quality hurricane lamp from an Amish concern. With the right ventilation and the best quality oil, they are great sources of light and mystery. Plus, potentially, a way to be lit in the foretriangle when all else fails.

David B. Zaharik

Great comments and a wonderfully written piece Colin.

I am currently having a Boreal 47 built and one of the things I did was request incandescent lamps with shades in the saloon to provide softer light. Although I have never used an oil lamp below, I have used candle power, small tea light candles in a glass & brass container and they truly do provide a warmth of light that LEDs, or previous halogens, certainly do not. I really like the idea of an oil lamp in the cockpit… with citronella to ward off the buggers… the image of a glass of wine (full body) conjures such a relaxing glow and brings back many memories of evenings at anchor with family and friends. Thanks for the tip.


Gave me a warm smile, and a little tear.


I wonder if oil navigation lights are still made. Anyone know? I have periodically thought that that as a set of emergency nav lights for my 55 year old wooden boat, and perhaps one as an anchor light, oil and brass would be a nostalgic touch.

Carl Johanson

David, the Dutch company Den Haan Rotterdam, DHR (, makes not only cabin lamps for lamp oil but also what is called emergency navigation lights for lamp oil. I guess the navigation lights are of the same high quality as the cabin lamps.


We do love the lamp light on a cold northern evening. A note regarding the comment about a smokey lamp: we only use pure paraffin oil for cleanest and long lasting burn. Avoid those cheap “lamp oils”!

Dick Stevenson

Hi Jayne,
I could not agree more. Early days I bought the lamp oil sold at the US hardware stores until someone gave the same suggestion. It took some looking, but one can find the paraffin you are referring to and it makes a big difference. The smell went from something mildly un-appealing to the appealing smell of candles. The other thing that helps is trimming the wick for a good clean burn.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Bill Robinson

There is a German company called Toplicht that sells many great oil lamps, and a whole range of traditional boat gear, at reasonable prices too. To back up my LED lights, I have 5 Den Haan lamps, and a brass Tilley pressure lamp too. I love them!