Hello buoys!

Get­ting to know the colours, shapes and mean­ing of nav­i­ga­tional marks is es­sen­tial for safe pas­sage in your boat

Sea Angler (UK) - - Contents - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy by Dave Lewis

Learn how to nav­i­gate your boat safely.

Nav­i­ga­tion buoys are put in place to as­sist a boat’s helms­man make safe pas­sage to and from a port, har­bour and es­tu­ary, or along a par­tic­u­lar stretch of coast­line. They in­di­cate both safe water, namely the deeper chan­nels, and the lo­ca­tion of haz­ards, which might in­clude sand­banks, reefs, iso­lated pin­na­cles of rock, and even, on oc­ca­sion, wrecks – all good fish-hold­ing marks. With few ex­cep­tions, buoys are po­si­tioned to as­sist com­mer­cial ship­ping. In­vari­ably, they are used in the vicin­ity of a haz­ard, so on many oc­ca­sions those craft mak­ing pas­sage will, to some de­gree, be re­stricted in their abil­ity to ma­noeu­vre.

An­glers, and other boaters, must pay due con­sid­er­a­tion when an­chor­ing or oper­at­ing within close prox­im­ity to any des­ig­nated ship­ping route, and not in any way im­pede the pas­sage of other ves­sels. Us­ing a charted nav­i­ga­tion buoy as a con­ve­nient moor­ing point is il­le­gal.

The buoy­age sys­tem in use around the coasts of the Bri­tish Isles and Europe was de­vised in 1979 at a con­fer­ence of the International As­so­ci­a­tion of Light­house Au­thor­i­ties (IALA) and is known as IALA Sys­tem A. Next time you are out on your boat, take a closer look at the var­i­ous buoys you en­counter and, regardless of how fa­mil­iar you might be with an area, men­tally work out what they are in­di­cat­ing.

Of course, nav­i­ga­tion buoys are at their most use­ful when you are un­fa­mil­iar with an area, espe­cially in re­stricted vis­i­bil­ity and at night, and ex­act de­tails of their lo­ca­tion, the haz­ards they in­di­cate and their light­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics can be ob­tained from a chart.


The gen­eral di­rec­tion of buoy­age, as des­ig­nated by Sys­tem A, leads from the open sea head­ing in­land, and the most com­monly used mark­ers are known as lat­eral buoys. These are coloured red or green, and in­di­cate ei­ther the port or star­board side of a des­ig­nated chan­nel; red to port, green to star­board.

When head­ing into har­bour or through an es­tu­ary, you should keep the red mark­ers on your left, port side, and the green mark­ers to your right, the star­board side.

Of course, on a small an­gling boat, and de­pend­ing on the state of tide, you might well have suf­fi­cient depth of water to run safely out­side of a buoyed chan­nel, but un­less you are thor­oughly fa­mil­iar with the area, it is al­ways ad­vis­able to stick to the des­ig­nated route.

Oc­ca­sion­ally when nav­i­gat­ing a nar­row chan­nel, there will be a line of port and star­board hand mark­ers po­si­tioned at fre­quent in­ter­vals ei­ther ad­ja­cent to each other or, al­ter­na­tively, through the chan­nel. Of­ten, though, there will just be one buoy, with the next one lo­cated many hun­dreds of yards, or even a mile or more away. Ba­si­cally, the tighter and more spe­cific the chan­nel, the more mark­ers you should ex­pect to find, espe­cially when head­ing into a com­mer­cial port or har­bour.

In ad­di­tion to be­ing able to dis­tin­guish lat­eral mark­ers by colour, these buoys can be iden­ti­fied by their shape, which, when viewed at dis­tance and into the colour-bleach­ing glare of a low sun or poor light, is of­ten eas­ier to iden­tify than colour; port hand mark­ers are bar­rel shaped, star­board hand mark­ers are con­i­cal.

A good way to ac­quaint your­self with this sys­tem is to re­mem­ber the phrase: ‘There is no red port left in the bar­rel’, and to think of green star­board mark­ers as be­ing Christ­mas tree shaped.

Lat­eral buoys can be named or num­bered, and top marks can be used to dis­tin­guish them; a can is used on a port hand, and a small cone on a star­board buoy. At night they can be eas­ily dis­tin­guished by a coloured light, red on a port buoy, green on a star­board, which can flash in any rhythm.

From an an­gling per­spec­tive, lat­eral mark­ers can be used to lo­cate the deeper chan­nels, as well as rel­a­tively shal­low ground to ei­ther side. De­pend­ing on the time of year and the area you are fish­ing, as well as other key fac­tors, such as the make up of the seabed, you can use this in­for­ma­tion to help de­ter­mine which species of fish you will most likely catch in that area.


The next most com­monly en­coun­tered type of nav­i­ga­tion buoy is known as a car­di­nal mark, and named after the four main car­di­nal points of a com­pass – north, south, east and west.

A car­di­nal mark buoy in­di­cates which side of that buoy is the safe, nav­i­ga­ble water. A north car­di­nal buoy in­di­cates safe, deep water lies to

the north, an east car­di­nal buoy in­di­cates there is safe water to the east, and so on.

Typ­i­cally, you will find car­di­nal marks po­si­tioned around haz­ards in­di­cat­ing the safe­wa­ter side associated with the ex­trem­i­ties of a bank or reef sys­tem, or a shal­low-water wreck.

Car­di­nal marks are tall bea­cons, and are coloured black and yel­low. They al­ways fea­ture a top mark con­sist­ing of two cones, which, in ad­di­tion to the colour cod­ing, helps ac­cu­rate iden­ti­fi­ca­tion when viewed from a dis­tance.

These top marks are easy to dis­tin­guish and re­mem­ber. A north car­di­nal buoy will have both cones point­ing up­wards, and a south car­di­nal has both point­ing down­wards. A west car­di­nal buoy has the cones po­si­tioned with their apexes or points to­gether, look­ing like a wine glass; re­mem­ber ‘Wine glass for west’. Fi­nally, an east car­di­nal mark has the cones po­si­tioned with the bases to­gether.

With a lit­tle prac­tice, re­mem­ber­ing the colour cod­ing is easy. Ba­si­cally, the apex of the cones points to­wards the black sec­tor of the buoy; on a north car­di­nal mark where the cones point up­wards, the black sec­tor on this buoy is at the top, while on a south car­di­nal mark it is at the bot­tom. On a west car­di­nal mark the apexes point to­wards each other, so the black sec­tor is in the mid­dle of the buoy, with yel­low both above and below, while an east car­di­nal mark is coloured black at the top and bot­tom, with yel­low in the mid­dle.

Night­time recog­ni­tion of car­di­nal buoys is achieved by in­di­vid­ual light char­ac­ter­is­tics. These lights flash in clearly de­fined groups and vary no­tice­ably be­tween the dif­fer­ent types of buoy to avoid pos­si­ble con­fu­sion. A white light is used on a car­di­nal buoy.

In or­der to re­mem­ber them, think of the face of a clock, with north at 12 o’clock, south at six o’clock and so on. East is at three o’clock, and the lights on an east car­di­nal buoy are ei­ther a quick or very quick group of three flashes. West is at nine o’clock, and the light on a west car­di­nal buoy is a quick or very quick flash­ing group of nine flashes.

South on a clock face would be at six o’clock, with the light on a south car­di­nal buoy con­sist­ing of ei­ther a quick or very quick group of six flashes, which in this case is al­ways fol­lowed by a long flash to fur­ther aide pos­i­tive recog­ni­tion. Fi­nally, north on our clock will in­di­cate 12 o’clock, and the light se­quence is ei­ther a con­tin­u­ous quick or very quick flash­ing of 12 or more flashes.


Coloured yel­low, spe­cial marks can be any shape, and if they have a light it will be yel­low.

Spe­cial marks are used for var­i­ous pur­poses and in­di­cate, for ex­am­ple, ar­eas set aside as dump­ing or spoil grounds, the lo­ca­tion of sub-sur­face ca­bles or pipe­lines, fir­ing ranges, a des­ig­nated an­chor­ing area, or for a va­ri­ety of recre­ational pur­poses. I know of sev­eral dump­ing or spoil grounds that, as a re­sult, are pro­duc­tive fish-hold­ing ar­eas. As al­ways, all rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion can be ob­tained from a good chart.


The safe-water mark is a tall red and white bea­con and is used to in­di­cate that there is safe water all around, or to in­di­cate the be­gin­ning or cen­tre­line of a chan­nel.

Usu­ally, safe-water buoys are fit­ted with a top mark con­sist­ing of a red ball, and the light, if it has one, will be white and flash­ing ei­ther as an oc­cult­ing or isophase group, Morse Code let­ter A – one short fol­lowed by a long flash, or sim­ply a long flash ev­ery 10 sec­onds.

Oc­cult­ing is where the flashes of light last for longer than the sep­a­rat­ing pe­ri­ods of dark­ness, while an isophase light con­sists of equal pe­ri­ods of light and dark­ness.

For the an­gler, a safe-water mark in­vari­ably means a deep-water chan­nel, so, as al­ways, lo­cal knowl­edge must be used to de­ter­mine what fish are likely to be caught in the area.


Fi­nally, we have the black and red iso­lated dan­ger mark. This buoy also has safe water all around it, but, as the name im­plies, it is lo­cated di­rectly on top of an iso­lated dan­ger, which might be a wreck or a pin­na­cle of rock; both ob­vi­ous fish-hold­ing marks.

An iso­lated dan­ger buoy has a top mark con­sist­ing of two black balls and, if lit, two white flashes iden­tify this buoy.

Keep the green mark­ers to your right, the star­board side...

...and the red mark­ers on your left, port side

A south car­di­nal buoy has both cones point­ing down­wards

The safe-water mark is used to in­di­cate that there is safe water all around

Spe­cial marks are al­ways yel­low and can be any shape

A north car­di­nal buoy has both cones point­ing up­wards

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