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How Can You Recognize a Commercial Vessel Towing At Night: Easy 10 Ways

Updated: May 28

How Can You Recognize a Commercial Vessel Towing At Night

Looking out at night on the open sea can be a annoying task. It is difficult to distinguish between vessels, and even more so when one of them is towing another vessel. Now the fact is, how can you recognize a commercial vessel towing at night that could be bearing down on you?

Fortunately, there are several ways to do this. You can appreciate the activity in your vicinity by noticing the vessel's shape, navigation lights, and additional clues, such as a towing light or line. Or, use technology like horns, whistles, radar, and AIS to get more information about the towing vessel.

So don't let the darkness intimidate you, keep reading for a more detailed explanation about recognizing a commercial vessel towing at night.

How You Can Recognize a Commercial Vessel Towing At Night: 10 Ways

Towing Lights on Commercial Vessels

Knowing how to identify a commercial vessel towing another vessel can be invaluable if you are out on the open sea at night. By being aware of these vessels' different lighting patterns and shapes, you can ensure a safe navigation experience.

To help you become more familiar with the distinct visual characteristics that identify a commercial vessel towing at night, here are some unique guidelines:

01: Look For the Shape of the Vessel

A commercial vessel towing a barge or other cargo at night will typically appear as a longer, more rectangular silhouette. This is due to the towed cargo’s size and width.

If you are uncertain whether or not you have spotted a commercial vessel towing, look for variations in the typical boat’s shape or size as well as additional lights that may be visible.

02: Observe the Navigation Lights

Commercial vessels are legally required to display navigation lights when out at night. A white light should be visible at the front of the vessel, a green light on its starboard (right) side, and a red light on its port (left) side.

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) also state that "a power-driven vessel underway shall exhibit two all-round masthead lights in a vertical line." Pay close attention to these navigational lights if you suspect you have seen a commercial vessel towing.

03: Watch for a Towing Light

A yellow towing light indicates that the vessel is towing and may be restricted in maneuverability. If you spot this yellow towing light above the white navigation light at the front of the vessel, you will likely have seen a commercial vessel pulling a barge or another cargo.

Also, it is crucial to remember that some countries may have slightly different rules concerning what constitutes “towing” versus “pushing,” so it would be wise to familiarize yourself with those regulations if necessary.

04: Watch for a Towing Cable or Line

When searching for signs of commercial vessels towing at night, check to see if a cable or line connects the two vessels. The towing vessel's lights may illuminate the cable or line and should be visible from a distance.

Look for any cables extending between two vessels and note if their movement patterns appear different than other nearby vessels.

05: Look for a Slow-moving Vessel

When looking for a commercial vessel that is towing at night, it is crucial to look for vessels that are moving slowly and steadily. Typically, this means that the vessel will be traveling at a much lower speed than other vessels in the area.

This can be easily recognized due to the slower movement of the water around the vessel and its wake being generated behind it. Also, it is essential to note that commercial vessels are typically larger than recreational boats and so this should also make them easier to spot.

06: Listen for Horn or Whistle Signals

When navigating at night, sound signals can be used to recognize a commercial vessel that is being towed. Generally speaking, these vessels will signal their presence and movements with one long blast followed by two short blasts.

The sound signals emitted by these vessels should be louder than those from recreational boats due to their size and power output. Also, commercial vessels must signal their presence even if they are not actively navigating; thus, listening out for any signals can help you identify a tow situation.

07: Use Radar

For those with access to radar equipment on board their vessel, this can provide another way of detecting nearby towed commercial vessels when navigating at night.

Using the radar’s “scan mode” feature, it is possible to detect larger vessels in an area that could indicate a tow situation. But, it is essential to remember that radar should be combined with other visual and auditory cues to ensure safe navigation.

08: Use AIS

You can leverage AIS technology to recognize a commercial vessel being towed at night. AIS is an automated system that provides vessel information such as position, speed, and heading.

Electronic receivers can pick up this data, allowing you to identify passing tows without inspecting them visually. In addition to providing vessel information, AIS also shows essential details such as the vessel's name, type, and destination, which can help you confirm it is indeed a towed vessel.

09: Watch for Changes in Direction

If you are trying to identify a commercial vessel towing another vessel or object at night, you also may look out for any sudden changes in direction or unusual maneuvers.

It is important to note that the towed vessel may not follow the same course as the towing vessel, so it is essential to be aware of any rapid changes in heading or sudden turns. And pay attention to any signals the towing ship sends, such as radio transmissions and sound signals.

10: Look for a Smaller Vessel in Tow

At night, take note of any vessels that appear to be much smaller than those around them. Commercial vessels often tow smaller objects behind them, making them easier to spot when looking out for potential towed vessels.

Look for navigation lights and other features on the small vessel to help identify it as a towed object. Communication signals from the main vessel can also help confirm it is indeed being towed by another vessel.

Learn to Identify Towing Commercial Vessels Easily at Night

Learn to Identify Towing Commercial Vessels Easily at Night

Recognizing a commercial vessel towing another ship in the dark is not impossible if you take note of certain details, such as its shape and navigation lights. And you may also find clues from observing any slow-moving vessels nearby or looking out for the presence of a tow light or cable line.

With practice and patience, identifying a mid-size or large commercial vessel doing some nighttime towing will become second nature. Have a safe voyage.

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