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How to Calculate the Distance to the Horizon

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on March 1, 2020. In

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How to Calculate the Distance to the Horizon

Have you ever been out on a leisurely cruise and suddenly wondered, “How far it is to the horizon?” Or maybe your destination is a port that has a lighthouse and you wonder “How far away will I be when I see the lighthouse?” (Well, you’re in luck, even if you are a sick unit that thinks of these sorts of things – so are we.) We have the answer!

Of course you can find tables that do the calculation for you in numerous navigation books, almost every book that talks about passagemaking, the Coast Pilot, almanacs, etc. But what if you didn’t have any of these references onboard? How could you calculate the distance to the horizon or the “distance off” if you know the height of an object?

It’s simple, really. If you want to know the distance to the horizon you simply have to know your height of eye. That is the distance that your eyes are off the surface of the water.

If you’re in a jon boat, that would probably be about three feet (if you are sitting like you should be in a jon boat). Of course, if you were in a jon boat you probably wouldn’t care how far the horizon was.

Anyway, I digress. If you are on the tuna tower of a sport fishing boat you may be 15, 20, 25 feet above the surface of the water.

Once you know your height of eye you simply plug that into the following formula:

1.17 times the square root of your height of eye = Distance to the horizon in nautical miles

For example, if your height of eye is 9 feet above the surface of the water, the formula would be:

1.17 times the square root of 9 = Distance to the horizon in nautical miles.

1.17 * 3 = 3.51 nautical miles

If you want to calculate the distance at which an object becomes visible, you must know your height of eye and the height of the object. You then do the same calculation for your distance to the horizon and the object’s distance to the horizon and add the distances together. For example:

You have the same height of eye of 9 feet so your distance to the horizon is still 3.51 nautical miles. You’re approaching a port that has a lighthouse that is shown on your chart to have a height of 81 feet. Using the same formula you would find that 1.17 times the square root of 81 (1.17 * 9) = 10.53 nautical miles (the light house can be seen 10.53 nautical miles over the horizon)

By adding the two together: 3.51 + 10.53 = 14.04 nautical miles, you should be able to see the lighthouse when you are 14.04 nautical miles away.


 

Given the Height of Eye, Compute the Distance to the Horizon

Height of eye (specify units): (Decimal)
feet meters
Distance to the Horizon:
(Nautical Miles)
(Statute Miles)
 


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6 Comments

  • John Wells on February 24, 2020

    Where does the 1.17 come from?

    Reply

  • Somerset on May 14, 2020

    The formula for distance from an object the other side of the horizon is totally in correct. Buildings of different heights would have a horizon that overlapped yours so you would be double counting

    Reply

  • t zevo on August 16, 2020

    Why does the national weather service state (max) visibility at 10.00 miles?
    Are they figuring that by some formula which “given” is eye level height higher than standard 6 ft. tall person?

    Reply

    • Craig on January 27, 2021

      On a clear day you can see St Kitts from St. Martin, but often the amount of water vapor will limit the distance and the light reflected off the vapor is greater than the light reflected off the island; the reason you can’t see stars in the daytime.

      Reply

  • Robert Gillies on August 23, 2020

    This formula is more accurate. Verified with Autocad on model earth with 3,958.8 mile radius.

    Formula
    DH =1.22459√h

    where DH is distance in statute miles.
    h is height in decimal feet. eg 5′-8″ is 5.677

    https://sites.math.washington.edu/~conroy/m120-general/horizon.pdf

    Reply

  • John Wells on April 4, 2021

    Robert Gillis is correct.
    If you convert his coefficient to Nautical Miles, it is 1.06, not 1.17.

    Reply

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