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