By Bob Trapani, Jr.
“The modern buoys would probably have seemed magical to the navigators of the past centuries. What, for instance, would Henry Hudson, on entering the “mouth of that land,” have thought of the floating buoy far out to sea, which automatically turns on its own light at sunset and extinguishes it at daybreak?” – Francis A. Collins, Sentinels Along Our Coast, 1922
The public’s perpetual affection for the regal lighthouses that stand along America’s vast coastlines is deeply rooted within a benevolent mission that speaks of enduring vigilance. These beacons of the sea never fail to conjure up countless images of strength, safety, romance and mystery as they inspire the landlubber and safeguard the seafarer. Yet this deep-rooted admiration for lighthouses seldom translates into a similar appreciation for the shining sentinel’s little brother – the lighted buoy.
The mission of the lighted buoy – a sort of miniature lighthouse, is quite similar to its taller counterparts in that it too shines a light, and often sounds a fog signal as well, to help safeguard navigation. And just like a lighthouse, a lighted buoy is a proven lifesaver for those who go down to the sea. But despite these favorable comparisons, there remains a deep chasm that separates the lighthouse and lighted buoy when it comes to the public’s ability to understand and respect these dancing lights of the sea.
It is true that the lighted buoy doesn’t possess the stately presence of a towering lighthouse, nor is it adorned in a colorful or elegant daymark. And no, its guiding light doesn’t carry near as far on the horizon as that of a lighthouse, but these warriors of the sea are extremely valuable nonetheless. Ask any old salt, fisherman or professional mariner who makes a living on our nation’s waterways, or a recreational boater who has been saved from a sea-borne calamity by the presence of one of these floating beacons, and each will tell you that the lighted buoy is a good friend.
Despite their humble appearance, which often contains a healthy dose of sea growth on its rugged hull and a spattering of bird guano throughout its tower, the lighted buoy has secured a rightful spot in the annals of America’s maritime heritage. In fact, lighted buoys have one up on the lighthouse when it comes to navigational value – they can and have gone where lighthouses dare not venture. “Lighted buoys play an important role in marking wrecks, shoals and hazards in places were fixed structures and markers are not viable options,” says BMC Mike Baroco, Jr., USCG (retired). “Many offshore shoals and hazards in areas heavily traveled by mariners warrant a constant sentinel, and lighted buoys fill that role.”
BMCM Dennie Dever, USCG (retired) echoes this sentiment, noting “Buoys are the most versatile element of any ATON scheme. There are some places where fixed aids, i.e. daybeacons or lights on pilings are adequate. But for those numerous places where channels perpetually change, or the water is too deep, only a buoy will do. So locations that require buoys can be the more challenging areas to navigate.”
Dever goes on to say, “A lighted buoy usually marks the entrance to a channel, an obstruction, a turn, or a bifurcation (or "intersection" for the landlubbers). Lighting these risky areas makes them more obvious at night, and illustrates a visual picture to confirm the information on the nautical chart that all prudent mariners use. In an age where boaters spend more time gawking at their electronic chart plotter than looking out the window, a carefully placed lighted buoy proves that seeing is believing, especially at night, or in fog, rain, or snow.”
As many people know, an aid to navigation like a lighthouse doesn’t protect mariners with its guiding beam just under the cover of darkness. These sentinels also warn and guide the mariner during daylight hours as well by showing a distinctive daymark, which consists of the tower’s color-scheme and construction design. A lighted buoy performs the same function as BMC Baroco points out, saying, “They offer a visual aid that can be easily identified during both daylight and darkness, and they offer a larger target for radar to acquire than unlit buoy hulls.”
The practicality of a lighted buoy is an invention that is only 124 years old, as the first permanent lighted buoy, which was lit by compressed gas, finally became a reality in 1882. Today, lighted buoys are illuminated by solar power and range in size from the massive 9 x 35 seagoing steel buoy that possesses a focal plane of 20 feet, 7 inches and weighs 18,500-pounds, to the small foam buoys that weigh between 115 to 1,100-pounds depending on their size.
A side note that is worth mentioning when touching on buoys is the uncanny ability to serve as a “magnet” for all types of muck & mire that inevitably affixes itself to the hulls of these floating markers – lighted or unlighted. BMC Baroco, who served aboard the USCGC HORNBEAM in the 1980s, recalls this inherent buoy trait from his days of working “traffic lights” of the sea. According to Baroco, The "tube" or counterweight on the larger lighted whistle buoys is hollow, which permits sea growth to enter these tubes. As might be expected, the sea growth could get rather severe between inspections.”
Baroco went on to say, “Shooting the tube, as we called it, was one of the more, least desirable jobs on the deck of a buoy tender. Needless to say, whoever had the cleanest rain suit, or coveralls – usually the new guys, normally received this ‘lovely’ task. But out of courtesy more than a few times, yours truly took a dive into the tube to speed up the evolutions...had to run out of new folks at some point you know!”
These dancing lights of the sea bob and dip in choreographed fashion on the whim of the winds and tides, all the while remaining on station to send out the light for those seafarers seeking the nautical knowledge that their color, number and light characteristics convey. Lighted buoys, much like wave-swept offshore lighthouses, also take on the terrifying tempest, ravaging ice floes and on occasion, the frightening impact of a passing vessel that strays off course and collides with the floating guidepost.
Through it all, the lighted buoy remains the all-important ‘little brother’ to America’s majestic lighthouses. These mobile and sturdy navigational aids shine their guiding lights in the trenches, where storm-driven air meets the power of turbulent seas in an effort to protect mankind – a mission that cannot be carried out by a lighthouse – but only the humble lighted buoy.
Created: September 2006
BMCM Dennie Dever, USCG (retired) recounts an incident when a lighted buoy was a lifesaver...
“There is a real classic case from circa 1984 when a clammer from Rockland survived on a buoy in Penobscot Bay more than 27 hours after his boat sunk. It goes something like this:
A guy left the Rockland area in a 14-foot aluminum boat to go clamming somewhere nearby and the wind blew up and began swamping his boat. The clammer pulled up to a lighted whistle buoy and climbed on just as his boat sank. He then climbed up into the radar reflector area and squatted there in the meager shelter, burning a strip of rubber from his boots every now and then for warmth...another reason to wear Jonesport Sneakers and carry a lighter. The CGC Point Hannon out of Jonesport ran search patterns for some time with no results. During the crew’s final efforts to locate the lost man, the Point Hannon ran the channel once again, but this time they looked closely at buoys as well in the unlikely event that the missing person had climbed on to one. Sure enough he had.”
Author’s Note: An Associated Press report dated January 18, 1984 notes that the clammer – Robert A. Curtis, once aboard the buoy, “removed his boots and used his teeth and hands to rip apart the strips of rubber,” which he periodically burned for warmth. The report goes on to say, he then “Crawled into one of the tiny wedge-shaped compartments on the buoy (the radar reflector area) and ‘balled myself right up’ inside.” Curtis is quoted as saying, “The buoy kept twisting and turning, so I was in the wind about a third of the time I was out there. It snowed almost the whole time and the air was wicked cold and I was wet (a wind chill factor of below zero).
In this case, a lighted whistle buoy, the Coast Guard’s determination and keen awareness and a Downeast clammer’s perseverance and ingenuity combined to bring about a happy ending to what could have easily been a tragic situation.
“The improvement in lighted buoys, and the resulting great increase in their use, has been of immense value to shipping.” – USLHS Commissioner George Putnam, Sentinels of the Coast, 1937
Photo by William Marshall