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Light your ride: Illumination 101

by Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding 31 Jan 2020 03:51 PST
Light your ride and power management © Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding

Lighting sets the stage. A new generation of low-cost, low-power, weather-proof marine light fixtures and control devices is bathing decks, cabins and even hidden lockers, in beautiful movie-set quality lighting.

"Lighting has evolved into one of the highest priorities of our clients," says Doug Zurn, of Zurn Yacht Design, the Marblehead, Massachusetts-based marine design and engineering firm. "It's right up there with performance and timeless good looks."

In fact, navigation lights, deck floodlights, cockpit courtesy lights, submersible lights, interior accent lights and even those for stand-up paddleboards have led to a four-fold increase in the number fixtures found onboard. It is now common for a vessel, like the Lyman-Morse Hood 57, the 67-foot Lyman-Morse power cruiser Mad Max, or the 65-foot daysailer Anna to have more than 75 fixtures distributed throughout the vessel.

That's dramatically more lights per-foot than the average home.

LED: Lighting letters that matter

The history of lights afloat follows the history of lights on land: Tallow, wax, and animal fuels powered navigation and deck lighting into the 19th century. Fossil fuels and incandescent bulbs lit boats into the 20th. But today, it is light emitting diodes, or LEDs, that illuminate most vessels.

LEDs are cheaper and more durable than standard fixtures. They don't rely on thin electrically charged metallic filaments to make light. Instead, LEDs glow by fooling electrons into hopping gracefully across small chemical imbalances engineered into the molecular surface of a family of semiconductors called diodes. When diodes are tied to drivers, transformers, and control networks, they can emit light in all the possible colors of the rainbow with minimal lost heat. Marine LEDs are simply fixtures made to be impervious to the wind, dust, and water.

"LEDs have absolutely transformed the expectations of what can be seen and done onboard a boat," says Kinder Woodcock, northeast sales manager for Imtra, the New Bedford, Massachusetts-based marine parts wholesaler, who has sold and serviced marine lighting for decades. "Customers now expect full functionality in all areas of a boat. From the engine room, to the cockpit, and into the head."

Nothing but LEDs

Analysts expect the market for near-magical light emitting diodes to grow by a blistering 11 percent annually through the next decade. Innovation is expected to start in Europe, then flow to the American market.

But LED's exciting growth has introduced some new players and is changing how light layouts are discussed and specified. Established marine lighting makers like Aspect LED and Hella Marine are facing upstarts like Black Oak and Dr. LED. Both are offering interactive online resources to drive sales. Lumishore's submersible lighting configurator, Hella Marine's Lighting Designer app, and a new generation of lighting previsualization tools open up and make the conversations between boat designers, owners, and builders easier.

"Internally we make sure the lighting layout is balanced in the interior overhead panels and that they are placed appropriately for the obvious task," says Lance Buchanan, a project manager at Lyman-Morse who managed lighting for new builds like Mad Max, Peregrine and new Lyman-Morse Hood 57.

Builders caution that without careful oversight LEDs can cause issues: Poorly installed LEDs can cause radio interference; they can carry a directional polarity that reduces effectiveness. There is also a growing set of international regulations and U.S. Coast Guard rules that make lighting more complex. Some harbors are even banning some lighting, particularly for fishing.

Light without lamps

The LED wave on boats is only beginning to break: LEDs can glow more golden as they dim to emulate traditional lamps. Smartphones now remotely control lights. Ultrathin and flexible OLED lighting will make many fixtures disappear. Boats are emerging as ideal platforms for sustainable lighting by harnessing ambient light, through the emerging science of spatial lighting autonomy. (Perhaps, a topic for another day.)

Fairly soon, the best-lit boats may be notable for having no noticeable lighting fixtures at all.

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