What are Buoys and Beacons?

While marine vessels are less constricted in their range of operation as compared to other forms of travel such as automobiles, there are still plenty of rules and guidelines that should be followed to maintain safe operations on the open water. Similar to the traffic lights and stops that dictate how we drive, buoys, beacons, and lights are the primary navigation tools that assist vessels in their operations. Such items can come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, many having distinct meanings that can be very useful for proper navigation. In this blog, we will provide an overview of the buoys, beacons, and lights that serve marine navigation, allowing you to better understand how to conduct safe operations on the open water.

In general, a buoy is a type of marine navigational aid that is designed to remain afloat on top of the water. While buoys can come in a large variety of shapes and sizes, they typically are shaped like cones, pillars, cans, or tall cylindrical spars. Beacons, on the other hand, are similar to buoys, albeit connected to the ocean floor. Beacons typically do not vary in shape, regularly coming in the form of long poles that are situated upright. With their construction, signs and lights may be attached to the beacon to convey a message or warning to vessels. As both structures serve important roles for marine navigation and can come in a variety of common types, it can be useful to familiarize yourself with the more standard variations.

The channel buoy is one that may come in the form of a port hand or starboard hand buoy, both of which serve to indicate the edges of a channel for safe traversal. Starboard hand buoys are typically relied on when moving upstream, allowing the navigator to avoid the right edge of a channel. Such buoys will almost always be conical and red to differentiate themselves from other types. The port hand buoy, meanwhile, is painted green and serves to mark the channel’s left edge. By using such indications, a vessel may traverse unfamiliar waters safely by maintaining a position between the two as they move up or down a channel.

As shallow waters and oceans may contain numerous hazards which pose a risk of major boat damage, buoys may also serve to warn vessels of potential dangers. Depending on the type of risk, the buoy may differ in its design and coloring. Orange and white capsules are typically for more general danger indications, or may be used for safe traversal. Orange diamonds on buoys are much more important to watch out for, indicating an underwater outcropping such as rocks, shallows, or a sandbar. If there is a crosshatch over the orange diamond, then the area is unsafe for vessels and one should turn around.

Buoys and beacons both may be numbered, often having either even or odd numbers to dictate which direction the vessel is traveling. Additionally, lights are also common to buoys and beacons as well. Such lights are typically colored and may match the paint of the buoy so that vessels may discern their intended meaning even in low light conditions. As there are many types of buoys that each convey different information, it can be useful to familiarize oneself with such variations to maintain safety when on the water.

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