The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Cruising Sailboat Rig Wiring and Lighting Inspection

We have covered inspecting the mast, boom, and pole; as well as associated stuff like the chain plates and step; and the standing and running rigging.

Next, and while the mast is out of the boat, we definitely need to have a look at the wiring.

Let’s start with mast-mounted navigation lights and associated wiring, which, on most offshore cruising boats, will include a tri-colour masthead light incorporating an all-around white masthead (anchor) light, and a steaming light about halfway down the mast.

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More Articles From Online Book: Sail Handling and Rigging Made Easy:

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  48. Cruising Sailboat Running Rigging Inspection
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Matt Marsh

I’ll agree that 1-mile sidelights (eg. Aqua Signal 20 / 25), while they are well suited to small boats on inland lakes, are problematic for the kind of cruising boats we talk about here. If you read AAC, you should be fitting 2-mile side & stern lights, and by all means upgrade to 3 miles if you can afford the expense and the power consumption.

Rule 25(b) trilights are fundamentally an artifact of an earlier time. They were written into the COLREGS to allow severely power- and cost-limited sailboats to legally get by with just one bulb when they might otherwise have been tempted (or forced by their depleted batteries) to have none at all. I would not specify or install a trilight on a new or refitted vessel, if I could avoid it. The Rule 25(c) pattern (“red-over-green, sailing machine” on the mast plus regular sidelights and sternlight) is, I think, significantly superior in every way…. except for parts availability.

I’d strongly recommend putting a ferrite choke on the cable to any LED fixture, as close to the lamp as you can get it. That usually helps a lot with the RF interference. Fair-Rite #43 and #46 materials are good for the band that VHF is sensitive to.

Petri Flander

Hi, rule 25(c) lights seem to be doable with these Aqua Signal series 34 lights and a custom light support fixture.
Perhaps done with two slender vertical supports to minimize sector blanking, and round shelves where to put these lights.

If someone wants to have it all, then add NUC /Not Under Command (rule 3f) lights for JSD drifting. That’s two reds, over another, so bottom needs both red and green 360deg light, and one red to top. Add anchor light, and there will be four. More is more 🙂

Petri Flander

Oh well, if anchor light is positioned between those two reds, we have then RAM / Restricted Ability to Maneuver, too. Even merrier…

Rob Gill

Hi Petri, probably in jest and you know this (but some won’t), cruising boats can’t be “restricted in their ability to manoeuvre” as per the Regs. This is limited to power driven vessels that through the nature of their work only, are restricted in their ability to manoeuvre.

In much the same way that a powerboat that turns off its engine and drops fishing lines over the side right in front of me sailing, does not become a “fishing vessel” but remains a power driven vessel underway (my pet hate).

Of course if a cruising boat or powerboat become not under command, they can display not-under-command lights or shapes. Like John, I think having the all-round reds on the masthead isn’t really workable, since to get enough separation so the two reds are not seen as one light (which would confusing) is difficult to achieve.

Super-yachts seem to place the reds on two spreaders vertically above each other, but I don’t like the idea of attaching anything to our spreaders.

I have two small-boat battery powered all-round LED nav lights to hoist up our signal halyard. Not super-bright but the best thing I can work out right now.

Anyone got a better solution?

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and Matt,
I agree about staying with a good bright tricolor light. I have done a fair amount of nighttime sailing in the US and I read my colregs, but it was not Europe that I saw my first red over green and I was quite confused until sorted out.
If memory serves, among recreational sailboats, it was the “gold platers” who had the red over green, not the production and smaller vessels.
I have been using AquaSignal light for years without any RF problems, the tri right up near the VHF antenna.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
have not done a squelch test in a while, thanks for the reminder. Being settled in my equipment, I tend to only get activated when I notice something awry or new.
. I lean away from using land-based equipment for comm tests as it is too powerful. Especially CG rigs. The following suffers from not knowing the quality of the other boat’s equipment, but, if all goes well, can give an indication that all is well at season onset.
I wrote the following a while back
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Antenna problems are common in vhf installations and grow on the boat insidiously, often without anyone noticing in this day and age where cell phones are so ubiquitous: same with AIS. Most everyday vhf transmissions are under 5nm and are possible even with a corroded coax terminal. It is when you want to reach out 25-30nm and beyond (most likely not an everyday call but an emergency) that a little corrosion interferes.
At the beginning of the season, find a boat going in the opposite direction and set up a sked where you talk every 10 minutes or so and record distance apart as shown by AIS. Use the handhold also. Log where the signal gets scratchy and when it drops out for both the vhf and AIS. If there is cell phone contact, it may be that AIS lasts longer than vhf and you can continue to record AIS functioning. (If really energetic, play with different tx power levels to get a sense of the difference they make.)
Now there is a base line for the future and an indication of present functioning. If there is the thought that there might be a problem, repeat with another boat. Remember, the problem may have been the other boat’s problem.
Using the CG for radio checks is largely pointless and has to be a bother for them. It is pointless as their equipment for both rx and tx is so powerful that it would mask problems in your equipment unless they were really egregious: in which case, they would have been noticed already.

Charles Starke MD

Does anyone have brand and model for bright, led, no vhf Interference, 360 degree red and 180 degree green navigation lights for red over green?

Charles L Starke
s/v Dawnpiper

John Cobb

Wouldn’t you need “all-around” lights in both colors? In other words, 360° for both?

Charles Starke MD

Hi John
I could not figure out how to install an all around green 1 meter below the red at the top of the mast.
Charles L Starke
s/v Dawnpiper

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Hi Charles,
this website (, unfortunately only in german, has a discussion on red over green, and if you scroll down approx. 2/3 there is information and images how the author solved this challenge.

Ernest E Vogelsinger

😀 right, but this is less due to the red over green installation than the 3 (!!) antennas in closest vincinity (1/2, 1/4, and a short one that is possible GSM?)
The 1/2 and 1/4 (VHF and AIS?) will definetely disturb one another, and there is no reason whatsoever to mount a GSM at the mast top…

Norman Poulsen

Hi John,
I’ve had LED nav lights by Marinebeam on my Hylas 44 for 5 years and am very happy with them. Very bright, watertight to IP67, no RF interference (both per the manufacturer and my own squelch test), and under $100 for a bicolor light or a white stern light.
Norm Poulsen

Eric Klem

For what its worth, I have seen 2 implementations of red over green. The first is to have standoffs going out from the mast to a light so that there is a single light for each color. This picture of R/V Westward shows it if you look most of the way up the foremast, there are actually 4 lights there. This method is a lot of weight aloft, gives places for gear to foul and has a large obstructed sector. The other method is to have 180 degree lights on either side of the mast but I have never actually seen lights made for this. The implementations I have seen have used lights with >180 degree width and just figured that it would appear as a single light if you could see both sides at once. This is again a lot of stuff aloft and it is hard to keep the lights from being obstructed by sails so still not great. I suppose that putting it off the top of the masthead would be better for visibility but to get a reasonable vertical separation would add a ton of weight and windage all in the wrong spot.

For boats with small jibs or that are large, traditional lightboxes are my favorite implementation. This means that you have lights that are high enough off the water that you don’t need 2 sets of lights depending on whether you are steaming or just sailing. The typical implementation is something spanning 2 shrouds with a light mounted to it to keep it from rotating around as shrouds tend to twist. I also think that on some rigs you could implement this at the lower spreaders. Unfortunately, for a lot of boats with giant overlapping sails this just isn’t a viable option as the lights will often be obscured. We have deck level lights and a tricolor and switch between as we see fit but I readily admit it is not perfect but I don’t see a practical better solution. I have had more than 1 occasion in a tight channel where another boat has suddenly turned at us and a quick shine of a spotlight on our sails plus some attention getting with other lights and the danger signal got them turning the other way really quickly.


Matt Marsh

Yes, lamp makers *should* include RF filters in their products. When they don’t, a $4 choke is often an easier and quicker fix than ordering $300 of new lights.

Everyone knows sailboats can carry a tricolour, but how many people know what a tricolour means when it’s the only thing they can see? Viewed from half a mile astern, it’s just a white dot at an indeterminate range. They’re explicitly meant as “if you’d otherwise have none at all, then this is the bare legal minimum” and, if we can afford the better solution listed in rule 25(c), we should use it. Commercial skippers will all recognize it, and any recreational ones who can’t figure it out weren’t going to follow COLREGS anyway.

Stein Varjord

Hi Matt and all,
I’ve also turned into a hater of the tricolor and a strong supporter of the red over green, (accompanied by the deck level nav lights, of course). The reason being that the latter setup gives a much longer realistic interpretation distance, much better precision and way longer distance of detection. The reasons are: Minimum 3 times more light locations, minimum 3 times more lit area and more colours.

The red over green is used by every larger sailing vessel here in the Netherlands. Most of them are traditional vessels and they sail most of the time when out of the harbour. That configuration is well known here, but few small boats use it. All commercial sailors in the world are obliged to know what it means.

Anyway, if somebody doesn’t know what type of vessel those lights indicate, that’s totally fine. They can see the vessel easily. They can interpret its distance and course way better than with a tricolour, since the deck level running lights and several separate lights are better for that. They would guess that the extra masthead lights might indicate a warning; give way. No more info is needed. Without understanding the lights, any other person on the water still has a way better tool for making good decisions.

If we don’t want to have the red over green at the mast head, that’s also totally fine. Just dump the tricolour and use only the deck level lights. However, the much used red/green combo at the bow is as poor as a tricolour. It’s also not possible to keep a correct setup for steaming, since the red and green should be aft of the steaming light. Luckily some boats have proper separate running lights.

Anyway, this setup also uses almost no power these days and it’s a dramatically better tool for understanding your position and course. In poor visibility and/or significant waves, we should also have some light higher up, for improved detection distance, as well as better judgement of distance.

The tricolour has several serious problems that cannot be fixed. The main ones are caused by the single light spot and zero distance between segments. That makes it completely useless for detecting the vessel course or distance. If we see a tricolor at all, which is certainly hard if the visibility is limited, we’ll almost certainly gravely misjudge the boat position and course, unless we can actually see the boat itself.

This lousy performance is certainy the sole reason for loads of dangerous situations every year. So, as mentioned, I positively hate tricolors. The reasons for tolerating them disappeared at least 20 years ago. It’s high time to retire them. I seriously think they should be forbidden.

There’s no need for a complicated setup to get the red over green lights. Put a 360 degree red light at the top of the mast. Put a 180 degree or so green light on either side of the mast about a metre down. Connect them together on the tricolor wire. Rename the switch on the panel. Done. Alternatively, have an ON – OFF – ON switch with steaming on one side and sailing on the other. We could probably manage to get fun functions with all kinds of light signalling up there, but I think I’d keep it simple.

On a similar note: I know it won’t get too much applause, but I also have a dislike for masthead anchorlights. I think this light is once again a remnant of long passed times and tiny boats. I’ve witnessed and heard of several crashes in anchorages. One tiny light far up in the sky is an extremely poor attention aid in an anchor spot. When manoeuvring in tight quarters, we just don’t look towards the sky… Put several LED lights much lower, preferably lighting up areas of the actual boat. It uses almost zero power anyway and is waaaay better for avoiding crashes. As mentioned, I think the dangerous tricolours should be forbidden, while masthead anchorlights, on the other hand, should just not be trusted, if we care about our boat.

While I’m ranting about lights, let’s bring on one more: As I spend much time driving boats on one of the most traffic dense waterways of the world, Het Ij in Amsterdam, I know how hard it is to see a big ship at night on the backdrop of the city lights. Even worse when the ship also has similar lights onboard. I’ve several times seen a 100 metre long ship on the AIS that is a couple of hundred metres away, but not been able to spot it with my eyes, standing outside. Totally invisible and very dangerous for the abundant leisure craft that have far less tools than I have. The running lights of those big ships are tiny specs that are often not visible until the ships bow has passed you. That’s an indisputable system fail.

The rules about light intensity and lit area seem to be hopelessly outdated. It’s easy to give those lights a dramatically higher output and a far bigger lit surface. I also think private boats would benefit from having that, but on commercial vessels it should be mandatory. I have no illusions that my rant here will have any effect on that, but when it comes to the tricolour, the red/green combo bow light and the masthead anchor light, I have much more hope that I can contribute slightly to making their burials happen sooner. 🙂

Gino Del Guercio

John, re roller furler booms, we have five years full time cruising experience on our Brewer 44 with a roller furling boom. We have a Liesurefurl and wouldn’t leave home without it. Let me know if you’d like our perspective.

Michael Beemer

I think we all agree with testing the VHF. While the discussions about underway testing are great, each time a new cable is installed it should be tested before putting up the mast. We have a Tech Tip video we produced at our school – all our technicians learn how to do a simple SWR text – you don’t need to have an electrical engineering degree to do this, or the old $500 Bird watt meter. You can something suitable inline for $59-$75. The test will verify that all of your signal is getting to the antenna and not lost along the way, reflecting back. Check it out:

Also, we not only recommend the RG-213 larger cable for sailboats because of the distance, I spend the extra money for low-loss LRM400 cable, really good stuff.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Michael,
Agree to go with LRM400 and look forward to the video.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Alastair Currie

One area of concern for deck step mast electrical connections (or keel stepped masts with cable transits above deck) is the deck transit device. A poor deck transit can cause water to contaminate any connections below deck and ruin an otherwise good electrical installation. I have used swan necks, deck glands (pre drilled and self drill) and all have failed eventually and allowed water to penetrate (the swan neck was physically damaged by a sheet). The type I use now works very similar to a dorade box and for over 10 years has kept water out of my saloon headlining, mast cable termination box. It has the added advantage of a large transit hole so I don’t need to remove any plugs or connectors when removing my mast. It has been stood on, hosed on, scrubbed, buckets of water sloshed over it, you name it, and it has not leaked a drop.

Regarding VHF antennas, I have had good experience, UK, Scottish weather – windy, wet and cold, with Metz Manta 6, 34″ antennas, for over 10 years now. I also use a clear, silicon self fusion rubber tape which when pulled tight as it is wrapped around the cable to antenna plug, jams against itself because of its high tenacity. It is better than self amalgamating tape as it can be unwrapped and doesn’t get sticky or leach residues.

Alastair Currie

It does come with foam strips that are glued onto the underside of the arches. They do compress but eventually stay deformed, so need to be replaced. I added a foam strip to the base, directly below the cover tunnel. Thinking further on what you said about green seas, a foam block inside, two halves, above and below the cables, that compresses around them when the lid is closed, would be a more secure solution than only the thin strips. Or maybe a block of foam in the deck penetration hole around the cables as the last barrier. Both easy to do for improved security. Thanks for the input.

Kevin Dreese

By the way, all these inspection articles seem to be a brilliant way to market the Adventure 40. Get out quicker and safer with greater piece of mind than having to do all this work on a used boat (even one from a great yard). 🙂

These articles do make me wonder about all the couples out there sailing long distances (eg YouTubers) on their first boat after maybe one week of paid training. They seem happy and safe but maybe it’s just luck. Ignorance is bliss for sure… until something happens in the middle of the Atlantic.

I watched a video of a couple that bought their first boat for $3k and the keel wobbled in their hands… they fixed that themselves and refitted the boat. They sailed that boat for years now through Norway, Russia and Iceland. All without sinking but in a storm I would still be wondering about that first project fixing the keel myself. LOL

Matt Marsh

Part of it is that we generally design boat structures and mechanical equipment to fail gradually, rather than suddenly and catastrophically. Cars are designed with a similar philosophy: when your wheel bearing wears out, the wheel doesn’t suddenly fall off, it just makes nasty sounds and vibrates and gets slowly worse until you can’t put up with it anymore.

A sailboat can keep on going with a lot of damage and with a lot of failed systems. Doing so routinely is not immediately catastrophic, it just increases the probability that something catastrophic *might* happen.

Dan Perrott

“Also, make sure the conduit holding the wires is still properly attached to the mast”
I wondered what the best method of reattaching the conduit is (or installing new)?
I think ours is partially detached, however there are no signs (rivets or screws) that it’s attached to the mast anywhere.

Rick Hearn

1. I recall seeing a mechanical wind indicator that a machinist had made out of all stainless. Not sure if it was eagle proof but I thought it was a great idea. As is the spike (which it also had).

2. I dealt with LMR400 cable in a previous line of work. Never heard it referred to as LRM. John you said Stan disliked LRM because of the foam dielectric. I don’t have Stan’s book, does he refer to it as LRM or LMR?

3. I didn’t see mention that cables entering the mast would benefit from having a drip loop. I’ve always done this.

4. If the hole in the mast for the wire is just bare aluminum and your idea of adding shrink wrap is to prevent chafe, isn’t that only delaying the chafe? Heat shrink is softer than cable covering. I guess if you are advocating frequent inspections and de-stepping regularly this isn’t a problem. I’ve seen rubber grommets used.

5. John you mentioned AquaSignal lenses were replaceable. I’ve only ever seen lenses for the larger size 40 and up, not the 25 for example. Are they available for smaller sizes? Source?

6. In terms of RF generation by LEDs, you mentioned never having had an issue with AquaSignal. I know MarineBeam in the US makes excellent LEDs. Have you used them/heard of them?

Marcelo Pires

Hi John

I finished my complete mast rewire last summer, and it was a somewhat easy job but took way too long – because the mast was horizontal all the wires had to be carefully routed/pulled inside the mast to avoid bunch ups and getting stuck.
The old mast did not have a conduit, so I installed one of PVC electrical conduit piping by drilling two 1/8” holes every 3 feet, one to insert a wire hanger to pull the conduit against the mast and the other for the aluminum pop rivet. Worked pretty well.

1) VHF Coax: I purchased LMR 400UF (from Times Microwave) and I am happy I did, no noticeable signal loss, it takes a lot less space, easier to route inside the boat and is lighter, the UF stands for ultra-flex and it allows for a smaller radius on the bends.
2) Tricolor: The wire block connection points at the base of my Aqua Signal tricolor rusted out and I could not agree with the high price to replace it. I have read several good reviews about the Optolamp tricolor ( and I purchased one – it will be used for the first time this season, seems to be a good product.
3) Wire gauge. Since all the lights up there are LED, there is a temptation to use smaller gauge wire to save weight, cost etc., but in my opinion, doing that will stress the thinner wire due to its long length which is only held at one point at the top. I believe there will be stretching over time, so I did not reduce and used 16 gauge for all lights.
Thanks for the tip on testing the lights with a 9-volt batt, I did not know that could be done.

Alastair Currie

When sailing, I am a fan of the combined navigation lamps at the masthead aka tri-colour. In big seas they certainly make the boat visible for longer compared to deck level navigation lamps. Close to shore, in waters back lit by shore lights, switching to lower lights is the more visible option. Both these points have been supported by Masters of commercial vessels sailing around the Solent and Dover, regarding visible tracking of small boats, inshore at night. I don’t think on small boats, the power saving argument has went away. Many small boats have plotters / laptops, cool boxes, instruments, powered up that somewhat cancels out the benefits of LEDs, and not all small boats have the space to add extra battery capacity, and for many small boat sailing is also low cost sailing. Hence, for me, the combined lamp at the masthead is just fine and not an old fashioned concept, but rather a pragmatic solution offered by the IMO for small yachts.
From my extensive sailing experience in coastal waters, at night, in some big fleets of yachts, I am convinced that delineation of lamp arcs is clear with a “tri” or “bi” lamp.
The UK Marine Coastguard Agency issued a guidance note in 2009 on the matter of navigation lamps, clarity and visibility, linked below: –

They are pretty clear that lamps should be as specified by the OEM, so that puts the kibosh on after market LEDs fitted to lamps designed for incandescent bulbs. In addition, LEDs must either have a change out plan in line with the maximum usage hours as specified by the OEM, or an alarm if the LED luminosity reduces below that required by the COLREGS. Guidance notes are not law or regulations, but they are considered as part of the hierarchy of controls: law, regulation, guidance.

Clara Kelley

LMR-400-DB has a bend radius of 1″, LMR-DB: Watertight cables with an inert flooding compound injected in the braid to completely eliminate the possibility of any water migration
with a 10 year warranty! I had to contact the company, Kevin Moyher, to verify the product would work on our sailboat.

Mark Bigalke

John, as always nice to read your thoughtful articles. I would like to provide our experience with our Goetz Marine, custom carbon fiber in mast furling system powered with an electric Hood roller furler. Since our purchase of the Cherubini 44 Ketch in 2009, we have logged about 40,000 miles on a 9 year circumnavigation. The main mast was installed in 2001 by the previous owner due to a bad shoulder, and carbon fiber material as it would have approx. the same weight as the original aluminum mast.
1. First day yard worker unfurled sail without outhaul tension, 10 min. to unjam, minimal sail out(2 ft of foot) at the time..
2. Flooded the motherboard during layup in Caribbean, 4 weeks of manual operation until replaced . $1,000.
3. ATF leak from seal during winter layup. $600 to have repaired this spring.
4. Pending $2000 rehab of system this next winter.
5. Less mainsail shape controls, slightly less sail area due to no roach for the obvious reasons. Mizzen is full battened. Sail area to displacement of 19.3, thus still performs adequately for our cruising life.
The Good:
1. Can furl and unfurl on ANY point of sail without altering course. Includes ,carefully , dragging sail across spreaders.
2. Wavelength hoves to with just the mainsail, no head sail required. Titrated sail area in 50 knot and well over 60 knot gales.
3. On watch crew who have never sailed before, can take watch and furl and unfurl mainsail with changing wind strength on offshore passages.
4. Our hard dingy, with solar panels on top can be on cabin top as we do not need access to deal with clew reefing lines etc.
5. I achieved back to back 200 mile days solo sailing from Brasil during Covid craziness as I could maintain proper sail area easily.
6. Mast was struck by lightening during layup in Panama with NO damage. The two neighboring boats had extensive electronics damage. We have a lightening protection system. It worked.
Thanks for your good work.