How To Light Your Boat Like A Pro

led deck lights

Great Boat Lighting Is Everything

As the sun drops below the horizon your wife smiles and looks at you with eager anticipation. You smile back, reach over, and turn on your boat lights.

“Oh wow! That’s awesome!” you hear from your friends behind you.

You’ll never get tired of hearing that.

It’s the same reaction you get every time somebody sees your boat lights for the first time.

Yes, people have seen LED boat lights before. But what they haven’t seen is boat lighting done with all of the careful planning given to a fine home or Broadway show.

Lighting as an Afterthought

Your boat wasn’t always a showpiece like this. When you first bought it the lighting seemed like an afterthought. Probably because some of the lights didn’t work at all and the rest were dull and uneven.

Lighting the Deck

Deck lighting should allow you to move around the deck safely. Most boats use courtesy lights for ambient light and spreader lights for task lighting. But because your courtesy lights were spread out too far they created bright and dark areas on the deck. Eyes can’t adjust to the difference in the light making anything in the shadows a tripping hazard. Spreader lights put a lot of light on the deck, but they are way too bright to use all the time.

Lighting the Cockpit

Downlights give even illumination in the cockpit for performing tasks. Unfortunately, the white light from your downlights destroyed your night vision when you were trying to drive so they had to turned off. Only one courtesy light was being used in the cockpit for ambient light on the deck.

Lighting the Cabin

Your boat cabin lights were another sore spot for you. Cabin lights should give an even coverage of light all around the room. But yours created bright spots and shadows that made your cabin look more like a dungeon than a cozy place to relax.

Downlights provide both ambient and task lighting in boat cabins. Downlights placed over tables add task lighting. Wall lights are mounted next to seating areas as task lighting for reading. Mount light strips under cabinets as task lighting for cooking and food preparation.

Your boat lighting was in bad shape. You knew you had to make a change. So you decided that your next project was to change all of her lights to LED.

Lighting That Changes Everything

LEDs were the obvious choice for your boat lighting.

  • LED lights are much more efficient than incandescent lights using 90% less energy. You can add more light without worrying about draining your battery.
  • LEDs won’t heat up your cabin as an incandescent will. You’ll be more comfortable in the summer.
  • They come in many styles. You can get the exact look you want.
  • Their small size lets them fit almost anywhere.
  • They are bright, come in many colors and can be dimmed.

You set three goals for your new boat lights.

  1. Your boat must be safe to use.
  2. The lights must let you see when eating, reading, or doing other tasks.
  3. Your boat must look awesome.

The big question was where to put the lights to meet your goals.

So you asked an old friend who is an architect for some advice.
“Make a lighting plan,” he said.

What’s a Lighting Plan?

Lighting designers have been using lighting plans as a tool for over 150 years.

London theaters created the first lighting plans in the 1860s when the Limelight was first used. It focused attention on different objects on stage, set a mood and created drama.

Electric light began taking over the lighting of homes and buildings in the 1890s. With it came advances in the way lights are used. Lighting designers began using layers of light to allow people to move around safely and to focus light on areas for cooking, eating and reading.

Light could be used to accent art or draw attention to interesting objects. A bright light made an area warm and inviting while a low-level of light made them cozy and romantic.

Boat Lighting Plan

Of course, there are differences between lighting a boat, lighting a home, and lighting a theater. But one thing remains the same. Layers of light are used to make your boat safer, more beautiful, and easier to use.

  • Ambient lighting makes the boat safer to use and sets a relaxing mood.
  • Task lighting allows you to see to cook, pour a glass of wine, or read. Combined with ambient lighting it helps define different areas of the boat.
  • Accent lighting to add style and create contrast.

Boat lighting can be broken down into three areas. Navigation lighting, cabin lighting, and deck lighting.

Navigation Lighting

Navigation lighting is all about being safe on the water. This is a subject that has been covered many times on the web so I won’t go over it here. If you want to learn more about navigation lighting visit

ambient lighting
LED light strips are hidden under cabinets on each side of the cabin to create blue ambient light.

Cabin Lighting

Ambient lighting supplies most of the light in the cabin. In the past, overhead lights were the main source of ambient light. Today, LED strip lights can be hidden under cabinets, benches, or in recessed areas of the ceiling to supply ambient light. Light reflected off of walls and other surfaces create a relaxing glow throughout the cabin.

Task lighting is used when eating, cooking, reading and performing other tasks.

Task lighting should be added above tables and sitting areas with ceiling lights and wall sconces. Under-cabinet lights can be used above food prep areas. Diffused light strips placed above and on either side of a mirror provide good illumination for shaving or putting on makeup.

Accent lighting can be used in cubby holes and cabinets to add visual interest. Courtesy lights are an easy way to add accent lighting.

Layers of light create a relaxing atmosphere.

LED light strips and a courtesy light are set to blue. Downlights over the bench are set to white and dimmed. Downlights in the cockpit are set to red and dimmed.

Deck Lighting

LED strip lights can be hidden under gunnels or under seats and under the lip of a console to provide ambient light. Courtesy lights can be used to add ambient light in areas that don’t have a place to add strip lights.

Task lighting on a wide-open boat deck is hard to do. Spreader lights are the best option when lots of light is needed. Downlights attached to an arch or tower can provide task lighting for tables and sitting areas. Courtesy lights should be used to light steps and narrow passageways.

Accent lighting for boat decks comes in many forms. Underwater LED lights illuminate the water in a beautiful glow that turns heads and attracts fish. Speaker lights and cup holder lights can add an extra punch of light and color to your deck. Cubby holes can be lit up using short lengths of strip lights or courtesy lights to add even more accent.

Cockpit Lights

Courtesy lights provide ambient lighting under the helm and in walkways.

Downlights are used for task lighting. They must be able to produce at least two colors. White for when you need to see to perform tasks, and red to preserve night vision when under power. All cockpit lights must be able to be dimmed.