Picture this: you’re out on the ocean when something in the distance hoves into view. And as you get closer, you realize that the object in question is a black-and-red buoy. It’s quite the sight. But what does this mean? Why is it there? Well, it signifies that you’re in a dangerous spot.
Intriguing, right? Mind you, the red-and-black buoy isn’t the only marker that you’ll find in the ocean. In fact, there are several more peppered throughout our seas, with each one signifying something different. They come in a variety of shapes and colors, too, to make them stand out.
And here’s the thing – regardless of your experience on the water, you’ve got to know what each of these buoys mean. This mostly applies to sailors, but sea swimmers should familiarize themselves with the floating objects as well. There may come a time when they spot one as they’re paddling!
Simply put, the buoys are essentially the traffic signs of the ocean. Yet instead of displaying words, numbers or symbols, it’s all about the colors. Imagine jumping in a car and not understanding what an important marker means. Things could get pretty dangerous. A similar scenario in the water multiplies that danger a few times over.
But once you come to understand the buoys, your time traversing the ocean will be a lot easier. Then again, we know you’re thinking, “Where do we start?” That’s fair. After all, it does seem a little daunting at first. Don’t worry, though. We’ve got you on this one!
So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the meaning of each buoy you’ll likely spot around America and Canada. To kick things off, we’ll start by focusing on a white-and-red beacon. Thanks to the latter color, you might confuse this with the red-and-black buoy, yet they’re completely different.
The white-and-red object is referred to as a “fairway buoy.” If you see this one in the ocean, don’t panic. It’s not a sign of danger! Instead, it indicates that you’re in the middle of what’s deemed “safe water.” So not only is there no hazard in this location, but the surrounding area should be free of hazards as well.
In truth, it’s the buoy that you want to spot when you’re traversing offshore channels and the like. But going back to the colors, they’re positioned in a certain way. Yes, the red and white covers the upper section of the fairway buoy via upright lines. As for the middle, it’s mostly white with a bit of red sitting at the top.
Anyway, what’s next? Well, let’s move on to another red buoy. Unlike its earlier counterpart, though, this one doesn’t sport a second color. It’s called the “starboard hand buoy.” Now if you’re not too familiar with seafaring lingo, starboard refers to the right-hand side of a vessel. You’ve probably heard it plenty of times in movies without realizing it!
So yes, the starboard hand buoy is positioned on a water channel’s right as you move seawards. It essentially signifies the border of that particular area. And if the bright red shade wasn’t enough to get your attention, the large object could also have some other features fixed to it.
For instance, the buoy might sport a light at the top – useful for sailors traveling during hours of darkness. In those cases, the bulb must be red so it matches up with the marker’s core color. The floating guide could have some reflective tape stuck to it too. You can probably guess its shade!
On that note, it’s time to switch our focus to the other side of the water channel. Opposite to the starboard hand buoy is the “port hand buoy.” By this stage, you’ve no doubt figured out that port refers to the left in seafaring jargon. As for the shade, this one is completely green.
Much like the starboard hand buoy, the port hand marker signifies the border of the water channel, only this time its left-hand perimeter (assuming you’re making progress through the water bow-first). And unsurprisingly, the light and tape situation is also the same. They’ve got to be green. Pretty simple to understand, wouldn’t you say? It’s not as confusing as you might’ve feared.
Well, things are about to get a bit more complex. You see, there’s another green buoy in the water, but it serves a slightly different purpose to the port hand beacon. To highlight the variance between the pair, this one has an additional color adorning its upper section: a dash of red.
Unlike the fairway buoy, though, this second color doesn’t have equal standing with the first. The red strip makes up only a single horizontal stripe. Plus, when it comes to the tape and light, they need to be green, not red. So what’s it called? This particular floating guide is known as the “port junction bifurcation buoy.”
You’d find this marker most useful if you were traveling inland through a water channel away from the open sea. Its purpose is to guide you up the “preferred” path. Now here’s where it can get a little confusing. Given that the marker is called the port junction bifurcation buoy, you’d think that it would send you to the left.
That’s not the case, though. Because this marker is essentially indicating the left-hand edge of the preferred route, you actually need to head right of it, and pass with the floating guide to the left of your vessel. Still with us? Good. It might seem unorthodox, but it’s important to remember! And of course, the opposite side has its own guide which serves a very similar purpose. The color scheme isn’t too different either.
So that brings us to the “starboard hand bifurcation buoy.” It’s largely red with a horizontal green stripe near the top. Again, any extras need to match the former shade. As for its role in the water, it’s exactly the reverse of its port counterpart. But as you’ve probably guessed, the marker tells sailors to head left of it, keeping the floating guide on your right.
Buoys of that type, along with the standard port and starboard hand guides, can be found in places such as the Hudson River in New York. Yet they’re not in the water all year long. To explain more, a member of the United States Coast Guard spoke to TV channel FOX 5 News in April 2019.
His name was Lieutenant Torrey Jacobsen, and he was in charge of the Coast Guard vessel Katherine Walker. Jacobsen said, “In the winter, the river freezes over. It can be two to three feet thick of ice. [But] we still want mariners to get up the river safely, so we put in what [are] called ice buoys.”
Then, once the warmer weather rolls in, the ice buoys are replaced. Sounds pretty simple, right? Switching the markers shouldn’t be that difficult. Well, in truth it’s not as easy as you might think. The floating objects tip the scales at roughly 10,000 pounds each. Yes, you’re reading that correctly!
As a result of that, it requires a real concerted effort to swap these monstrous buoys out. Jacobsen continued, “We have an incredible crew of 24 people aboard here, and it takes all 24 of them really to get the job done. Out on deck, there’s usually about six to eight people that are physically doing all the work.”
Keeping that in mind, how long does it take for the buoys to be switched? Surprisingly, it’s a pretty speedy process. Yes, the crew can usually swap each beacon within a 30-minute timeframe. Not bad at all! Every buoy needs to have a large chain affixed to its base, which itself is connected to the riverbed.
It’s a fascinating process that highlights the kind of work the Coast Guard does out on the water. Sailors certainly appreciate it. Anyway, let’s get back to focusing on the buoys’ meaning. What comes after the five guides that we’ve spoken about already? Another four, actually – known as “cardinal buoys.”
This group of buoys are each referred to as north, east, south and west. Their purpose is to guide you towards the “safest” area when you’re on the water – usually the deepest section of a channel, waterway or sea. A very different role to the ominous red-and-black beacon! So, using the north buoy as an example, that floating object will tell you to head in the aforementioned direction.
But here’s where it can get tricky. The four cardinal buoys share the same color scheme, albeit with slight variations. Yes, much like the port and starboard markers from earlier. The shades in this instance are yellow and black. To clear up which is which, we’ll look at the northern guide first.
This particular buoy is completely black in the upper section, with yellow filling out the middle. Its southern counterpart utilizes the exact same set-up, yet the shades are flipped. So the yellow’s on top and the black’s in the center. Nice and simple so far then. That’s about to change, though.
When it comes to the east buoy, the entire exterior sports a black shade. Mind you, it has an identical design to the port and starboard bifurcation guides, meaning there’s a horizontal yellow stripe midway through its upper section. And the western beacon flips the colors again. That’s a lot to take in!
If you’re struggling to remember all that, though, there is another way to identify the cardinal buoys. Each one has its own light sequence, generated from a white bulb. The northern signal utilizes a steady stream of dashes with no breaks in between. As for the south, that gives off six short flashes and one prolonged dash.
Moving on to the east buoy, that uses three short dashes on a loop, while the western guide has nine. Like we said, it gets tricky! But what’s next in the line-up? The red-and-black guide? Well, we’ve got one more beacon to analyze prior to that, and it’s a bit different to the previous nine buoys.
This one is called the “cautionary buoy,” and it’s entirely yellow. As the name suggests, the marker is utilized to warn mariners of certain dangers in the water. For example, a race might be underway in that area, or aquafarming work could be going on. Simply put, they’re spots from which you should steer clear.
Sticking with that idea, the moment has finally arrived. Yes, it’s time to take a closer look at the forbidding red-and-black buoy. As we noted earlier, this beacon is also a sign of concern – but are there any specifics? In truth, its name will give you a better understanding of its purpose.
This marker is called the “isolated danger buoy.” If you spot it in the ocean, you’ve got to be extremely careful. The signal highlights that an unseen risk is in the vicinity. So that could range from a group of rocks to a sunken vessel hiding under the sea. So naturally, you’d be well advised to keep your distance.
As for the buoy’s actual look, it follows the same design as the east and west cardinal beacons. It’s largely black, with a horizontal red stripe upon its upper section. In terms of lights, the isolated danger guide needs a white bulb, while the tape has to be an identical shade too.
There’s just something about black and red in combination, right? They practically scream “warning” and “danger.” Then again, that hasn’t stopped some people from getting pretty close to the red-and-black buoy. For instance, a YouTuber named Jeroen Elout went diving around one in the Philippines, documenting the results in February 2019.
In the video, the sheer size of the buoy comes into focus – we can’t forget its 10,000-pound weight! So Elout dives below the giant beacon and gives us a look at its base. We can see the chain attached to it as well, running down to the bottom of the water. To say it’s long would be an understatement.
This doesn’t deter Elout from following the chain until it reaches its end, though. The metal link is connected to a stone block on the floor, almost like an anchor. Looking at that, you’d never have to worry about the buoys drifting away! After getting up close, the YouTuber eventually returns to the surface.
That was quite a view, wasn’t it? But did anyone notice the amount of muck that had accumulated at the buoy’s base? It was absolutely covered. So that brings us to an intriguing point – are the beacons ever cleaned? Indeed they are, and the process is incredibly fascinating to watch.
The Popular Mechanics YouTube channel shared a video in the past which highlights how the Coast Guard freshens the buoys up. To begin with, they lift the giant marker out using a crane, placing it on board. Then, the crew starts to cut away parts of the older chain link, attaching new sections in their place.
From there, the crew get scrubbing. The lights are also given a check, while an unfortunate person has to get inside the “air tube” at the bottom to clean that too. Once that’s done, the buoy is then dropped back into the ocean. What an effort! Anyway, when it comes to identifying the different beacons now, you shouldn’t have a problem…