A buoy is a marine navigational aid that floats atop the water. They can come in a broad range of shapes and sizes, such as cones, short cans, tall cylindrical spars, pillars, and more. Despite this, in North America, cones and cans are the most common types. Beacons function identically to buoys, but rather than floating on the water, are fixed to the sea floor. Unlike buoys, beacons do not typically vary in shape. Though the long poles that keep the beacon upright do not allow for much variation, they make it easier to add lights or signage to the structure. For example, depth and speed limit signs are commonly attached to beacons. In this blog, we will cover the main types of buoys, beacons, and lights.
Before we begin, keep in mind that, for the purposes of this blog, each time we use “buoy,” we are referring to both buoys and beacons. The two most commonly-encountered buoys are port hand or starboard hand buoys. Starboard hand buoys mark the right (starboard) edge of a channel when you are moving upstream or entering a harbor. They are distinguished by their cone shape and distinct red coloring. Not all starboard hand buoys will be cone-shaped, but all will be red. Port hand buoys are small green cans or pillars that will mark the left (port) side of a channel when moving upstream. Understanding both of these buoys will make marine navigation safer for you and other boaters, especially in unfamiliar waters.
In addition to marine navigation, buoys are also used to serve as a warning. These are known as hazard buoys and warn boaters of hidden obstacles that could damage their vessel. Hazard buoys come in varying colors, each one representing a different danger. For example, orange and white cylindrical capsules can indicate danger, specific rules for moving within the area, or general information. A buoy with an orange diamond represents danger and notes that you should watch out for hidden, underwater outcroppings. These buoys will generally include text to inform the boater what type of danger is present (rocks, sandbar, etc.). Furthermore, if that orange diamond has crosshatches, it means the area is not safe and you should turn around as soon as you see it.
In addition to color codes, buoys can have numbers. Starboard buoys are even-numbered, while green buoys are odd-numbered. This numbering system provides a clue of which direction your vessel is going; numbers ascend as you move away from land and descend as you move closer. Finally, apart from colors and numbers, buoys have flashing lights. Not only are lights added to be more visible at night, but the interval and frequency of light flashes, as well as the color, denote the meaning of a buoy. These meanings can vary, so for effective marine navigation, you will likely need a nautical chart of the area to understand the lights you see on the water. On such a chart, each buoy marker will have a corresponding light display abbreviation to indicate the type of flashes the light emits. Having a good understanding of buoys and beacons will make navigation both easier and safer.
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