|From Scientific American, September 1892- Coast Guard Archives|
To the landsman, buoys are homely, rotund objects bobbing awkwardly in waterways and making monotonous racket with their ceaseless clanks, gongs, and whistles. Their colors and shapes give them the appearance of castaway circus clowns, but these ponderous seamarks are critical for safe navigation.
More than 50,000 buoys serve our nation’s waterways. Most direct marine traffic, but buoys also collect weather and ocean data, mark fishing grounds, and assist in salvage and rescue operations.
Though lackluster in appearance and seemingly uninteresting, they are revered in poetry and art. Rudyard Kipling gave a poignant tribute in his poem, The Bell Buoy:
I dip and I surge and I swing
In the rip of the racing tide,
By the gates of doom I sing,
On the horns of death I ride…
Buoys were the first waterway markers America, preceding lighthouses and lightships by many years. They were made from simple floating objects, such as logs, bottles, and casks. Private citizens, mariners, and merchants saw to their placement and maintenance.
|Buoy for the Panama Canal 1915-Collection of Klaus Huelse|
The shipping channel into Philadelphia was the first waterway to be marked with government funds. Wooden spars, sheathed in iron for protection, were placed in the Delaware Bay and River about 1760 and paid for jointly by the Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania colonies. The buoys had to be removed from time to time to dry out and regain buoyancy.
A few years later, buoys were anchored in other major harbors, such as New York and Boston. The Virginia House of Burgesses was so concerned for the buoys it placed in the Chesapeake Bay in 1767, it made tampering with or removing them a crime punishable by death.
About 1850 iron buoys first appeared. Compartmented for floatation, they proved more durable than wood. Ships sometimes hit them. Buoys susceptible to collision were equipped with jagged rings of sawteeth capable of severing tow lines if barges became hung up on a skipper's misjudgment.
|Bell buoy, 1900-U.S. Lighthouse Society|
|A bell buoy off Cape Cod.--Author Collection|
|Workers for Trinity House, England's service for navigational aids, repair a buoy. Note the light on top and the bell inside the cage.--Trinity House Photo|
Bell buoys with their distinctive motion-sensitive monotone bongs also appeared in seaways about 1850. Gong buoys went a step further with a melodious series of four tones that sounded randomly. Whistling buoys, invented in 1871, used the water’s up and down motion to manufacture compressed air and force it through a whistling head.
Mariners cheered, but not everyone liked the sounds. A women's club in Atlantic City in the 1880s complained about a whistling buoy that sent its calls landward when the wind was right: "The tone of its cry suggests approaching gloom, and conjures up visions of the ghost of Father Neptune and all the dead men at the bottom of the sea."
They thought the buoy put a damper on tourist gaiety. Yet, some noted that its call was a good indicator of rain when carried on an east wind.
|Buoy ready for the Suez Canal--Mimarlik Muzesi|
|Partridge Island bell buoy, New Brunswick, Canada. The Partridge Island Lighthouse can be seen in the background.-- Author Collection|
|Buoy on display on the waterfront at Port Alberni, British Columbia--Author Photo|
Can buoys and nun buoys, named for their shapes, were introduced shortly after the Civil War. The first lighted buoy went into service in New York Harbor in 1881 with an oil lamp it its top that burned for several days before its fuel reservoir had to be refilled. A decade later electric lighting was installed in the same buoy with cables laid from a mainland power station. The cables snapped too often, so the troublesome system was abandoned.
Success came in 1904 when acetylene gas was used to light buoys. It worked through the action of seawater on calcium carbide, which produced gas for the flame. Scientists later compressed the gas in tanks placed inside the buoy. A single fuel tank could light a buoy for about a year.
As buoyage was undergoing vast improvement, world governments realized a standardized classification system was needed to bring order to busy shipping lanes. England established the first standards to be accepted internationally. Black buoys were designated as port side markers and red buoys as starboard markers for ships entering harbors.
Additional color codes came later ― white for anchorages, yellow for quarantine areas, green for dredging and surveying operations, white with a black band for fish nets, orange and white stripes for special hazards, horizontal red and black stripes at junctions, and vertical red and black stripes for mid-channel markers. Number identification also was added, with even numbers on the entering starboard side and odd numbers on the entering port side.
|Sea lions love to bask on buoys. They can be cranky about leaving when the Coast Guard arrives to service a buoy. This buoy is on the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and Alaska.-- Wikimedia Commons Photo|
|Uruguay featured a buoy on a postage stamp.--Courtesy of Lighthouse Stamp Society|
|A container ship passes a buoy near Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean. Birds are a major problem for buoys. They perch and foul buoys with guano. --Wikimedia Commons Photo|
There were a few exceptions to the color coding for buoys. The "Star-Spangled Buoy," a 4200-pound red, white, and blue nun bobbed about for a brief time in 1914 in the Chesapeake Bay where Francis Scott Key penned our national anthem. And in 1927, a colorful reception committee of buoys flanked the channel into Baltimore Harbor when Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis returned home by ship.
Today’s International standards have changed very little. The new system still adheres to "red on right returning..." but green buoys have replaced black ones. Buoy voices are produced, for the most part, by solar-powered timing mechanisms that are constant and reliable.
Some modern buoys boast the latest technology. Large navigation buoys, or LNBs, were developed by the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1960s. These 10-ton behemoths are 40-feet in diameter and dangle on 12,750-pound anchors. Complete with lights, fog signals, radiobeacons, and radar reflectors to intensify their "blips," LNBs require maintenance only once every six years. They have replaced lighthouses and lightships at a number of dangerous places, including the approaches to New York Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.
Marine weather buoys also are critical to navigation. The sophisticated NOMAD — short for Navy Oceanographic Meteorological Automatic Device — is the tough hurricane buoy, able to survive severe weather at sea. The durable Discus Buoys are built to take the pounding of ice in cold waters. Both types send offshore weather information to NOAA's environmental satellites, which relay the data to ground-based stations networked with the National Data Buoy Center in Mississippi.
|The Coast Guard buoy tender Walnut was photographed with her crew working on buoys at Pago Pago, Samoa. Buoy work is dirty and dangerous. Coast Guard Photo|
|The Coast Guard buoy tender Sycamore sets a buoy at Valdez, Alaska. Coast Guard Photo|
|A buoy near Loon Island in Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire. Note the solar panels and the buoy color, yellow for research. Photo by NOAA|
Maintenance of buoys is done largely on site by Coast Guard buoy tenders — round-hulled vessels with hydraulic hoists and a low platform that serves as a hauling and work area. The old joke about the fisherman who could only count to seven because he had lost three of his fingers easily applies to buoy crews. Routine maintenance is heavy and dangerous work done either in the water or on deck after a buoy has been pulled. Tenders also respond when buoys break their moorings and drift off-station.
Some two-thirds of the world’s navigational aids are buoys — no small responsibility for objects relied upon by everything from small pleasure craft to cruise liners to giant tankers. These humble aids get little press for their useful service, but for those whose safety hinges on their guidance, buoys are indispensable.
|A buoy lies beached on Little Cumberland Island following a storm. Heavy seas can break buoys from their anchors and wash them great distances or ashore. Cumber land Island Lighthouse is seen in the background. Photo by Ralph Eschelman.|
|Buoys are huge, as evidenced by this image of a man next to a beached buoy. Wikimedia Commons Photo|
|In far northern and southern waters, ice can cause havoc for buoys. The two pictured were found adrift together off Alaska. Ice pummeled both and set them adrift. How peculiar that they found each other--companions in suffering! Coast Guard Photo|
|Another northern buoy shivering in icy waters.--Coast Guard Photo|
To learn more about buoys, get my book, The DeWire Guide to the Lighthouses of Alaska, Hawai'i and U.S. Territories. It contains a bonus chapter on buoys. Of course, the guide also profiles many lighthouses in the Pacific, including a few whose tales have never before been written. O buoy!!! Just call me a buoyophile!
You'll the DeWire Guide on Amazon. Or, you can contact me for an autographed copy--$25 including shipping.
Who can identify the lighthouse on the cover?