Buoys fascinate me. Yes, buoys, not boys, though I am fond of boys too. Some people pronounce buoy and boy the same, but I say buoy like the name of the famous rocker, David Bowie, or the knife maker, Jim Bowie.
A skein of fishing buoys hangs on the fence separating my property from my nearest neighbor. I found them washed up on a beach, their yellow and red paint scheme showing signs of a well traveled life. I also have a wind instrument hanging at the end of my driveway that gongs mournfully, replicating the warnings of a famous buoy in Camden Harbor, Maine, not far from where I lived in the early 1970s. My research file on buoys is filled with stories, history, lore, and hundreds of images; I snap photos of buoys wherever I go. My favorite is a red buoy I photographed from a ship while traveling the Baltic Sea from Gdansk to Hel Peninsula to visit the Hel Lighthouse. It was a windy, bouncy trip, as the picture below shows. Seabirds flew off the buoy just as I raised my camera. The sight of this old friend, so far from my home in Puget Sound, was a reminder of how ubiquitous is the humanitarian effort to keep the seaways safe.
Buoys don’t get much press, but they should. Any object that hides most of itself underwater, yet provides critical guidance and warning, serves as a platform for seals and sea lions and birds (not to mention castaways—see my article “Rescued by a Buoy” on www.jacksjoint.com/buoy.htm), and is at the total mercy of the sea…well, let’s just say it deserves big kudos. I wrote several articles about buoys for boating and sea magazines back the 1980s-90s. Mail from readers echoed my appreciation for these humble navigational aids. I discovered I wasn’t the only person with an odd affection for buoys.
When my recent book, The DeWire Guide to the Lighthouses of Alaska, Hawai’i and the U.S. Pacific Territories, was nearly done, the book designer/editor told me there was extra space and asked if I had anything unusual to add. Buoys—of course! The book hit stores in September 2012 with a special section devoted to buoys. My editor called it a "Bonus Section." Buoys are the unsung traffic signs of the sea, and I am glad to give them some much-deserved credit for the work they do. I’ve already received mail from a Hawai’i reader who was not only glad to have the profiles of Aloha lighthouses, but thrilled with the buoy section too.
This makes me feel less self-conscious about my buoy obsession. Others are attracted to these rotund, comical, but essential marine traffic signs too. Just last week I traveled across Puget Sound to Seattle in one of our state’s green and white car ferries—the Hyak. We passed several buoys. I knew to watch for the red one off Orchard Point and the fish pens. It's the Orchard Rocks Lighted Buoy #6. It flashes red every 2.5 seconds. It usually has some fish-fat sea lions parked on it. Word gets around quickly on the ferry when the pinipeds are on this buoy, and people rush to the port side to see them. The picture below is of a buoy in Alaska. It's a Coast Guard photo. Sometimes the Coast Guard crews that tend buoys have to fight off the sea lions. They can be quite aggressive, and they think the buoys belong to them!
Cheers to the U.S. Coast Guard for keeping these vital aids positioned and working properly. Buoy tending is hard work, but the modern vessels that handle buoys are well-equipped with low work decks, huge engines, and stout cranes. They maneuver easily too. I’ve had tours of several of them—the Mallow in Honolulu, Hawai’i and the Henry Blake in Everett, Washington. I even had lunch with the skipper on the Henry Blake, a delicious meal of roast chicken, dinner rolls, scalloped potatoes, and mixed vegetables. There was cherry pie and ice cream for dessert and plenty of coffee. I complimented the mess hall cooks. The crew eats well, and they need the calories for the heavy work.
Most buoy tenders carry botanical names, an old tradition carried over from the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. I love the idea of burly, black-hulled ships with rough and sometimes rowdy crews being named for flowers and shrubs and trees. Imagine going to a tavern on your off-duty time and telling the bartender: “Yeah, I work on the Daffodil.”
A newer class of tenders are named for famous lighthouse keepers. Henry Blake was the first fulltime keeper of New Dungeness Lighthouse on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Anthony Petit was in charge of the crew at Scotch Cap Lighthouse in the Aleutian Islands in 1946 when a tsunami destroyed the station. (The Anthony Petit is pictured below.) His namesake ship is now operating out of Ketchikan. The Joshua Appleby, named for the keeper of Sand Key lighthouse who died in the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846, is homeported in Miami. The ladies are justly represented too. Katie Walker works out of Bayonne, New York and honors a 4’ 10” energetic little woman who kept Robbins Reef Light in New York Harbor for some forty years. The Abbie Burgess in Rockland, Maine remembers the bravery of a lightkeeper’s daughter, and the Ida Lewis in Newport. Rhode Island recalls the heroic rescues of “America’s Grace Darling.” Ida Lewis, who died at Lime Rock Light, Newport in 1911 is credited with dozens of rescues.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that buoy is from: “Middle English boye, probably from Middle Dutch boeye; akin to Old High German bouhhan sign — more at beacon. First Known Use: 13th century.”
And then, there’s the verb "to buoy," which ought to have its own blog entry. I can list a hundred things that buoy me through life….
Moby Dick has a scene with a life buoy thrown overboard to a drowning crewman who fell from the crow’s nest while looking for whales. (It always surprises students of history to learn that one in three seaman died from drowning in the heyday of whaling, and few sailors could swim in those days.) Oddly, the life buoy thrown out from the Pequod, a wooden cask on a rope, sinks and itself drowns. The heavily tattooed Queequeg offers his coffin for a buoy and it is quickly nailed shut, tethered, and prepared to be tossed into the sea. Captain Ahab sees this strange turn of events and extracts a metaphor from it. I’ll let you read the rest of the chapter to learn the nature of Ahab’s musings and if the unfortunate man overboard is saved.
A few poets have given tributes to the lowly buoy, including Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The Bell Buoy.” Kipling was well-traveled and spent much time at sea. He loved lighthouses too.
Today, while "Googling" buoys, I found the animated poem below posted on www.everyport.net. There was no author listed. It seems a good way to end this blog post. After all, buoys are rather comical—
A little buoy had come of age
And reached a fairly awkward stageHe wanted to go out at night
Which gave his folks an awful fright
His mum told him he must stay putAnd keep his rope tied to his foot
He wasn’t made to run away
But warn ships entering his bay.