Navigation Lights


In the late 19th and early 20th century, navigation lights became mandatory for almost all vessels at sea. Today almost all powered vessels are required to have three basic lights:

1) On the Port (left) side of the bow, at 22.5 degrees dead straight is a red light. All ships must pass each other portside to portside, just like driving on the road in Canada. 

2) On the Starboard (right) side at the same degree is a green light. The green and red lights communicate a vessel’s travelling position. They also instruct vessels on how to pass each other to avoid collision.

3) The third light is a white light that can be seen from 360 degrees and from at least 2 miles away. Usually this light is placed high on the mast or above the cabin deck

Lights and Signals

Proper use of lights and signals is an important part of safe navigation. Navigation lights and signals convey not only where a vessel is but what the vessel is doing.

The diagram on the left illustrates some key navigation lights.

Navigation Artifacts

Signal Lantern
VMM Item Number: 1972.340.1a

Signal lantern with a candle holder made by Bulpitt Sons Ltd. in Birmingham, England in 1915.

Fresnel Lens
VMM Item Number: 2019.999.512

This clear glass Fresnel lens would have been placed over a light source. This lens design was often used in lighthouses and searchlights as it can concentrate light into a narrow beam. It was made by Perkins Marine Lamp and Hardware Company in the 1900s.  


Rescue Light
VMM Item Number: 1992.0071

United States Coast Guard approved “Rescue Lite.” Manufactured by A.C.R. Electronics Inc. in 1982.



Masthead Lantern (fore steering light)
VMM Item Number: 1973.373.8j

Brass lantern body from the west coast vessel Harold Dollar via Pacific (Coyle) Navigation, a towing salvage company. Made in 1915 by the Chance Brothers and Company.  


Port and Starboard Signal Light

VMM Item Number:

This signal light was used on on the Fraser River in the 1920s. It would have been placed near the centre of the ship’s bow. The colours help signal the direction a ship is travelling.

VMM Item Number:

This is a manual foghorn from the 1926 vessel Lorna D

Designed by Langara Design Formation students Aaron Phillip, Ana Rivera, Brooke Dunbar, Lara Torres and Zoey Nguyen in collaboration with the VMM curatorial team