There is no doubt that GPS is one of the greatest navigational tools invented to date. Sextant sales and nautical chart sales have plummeted. (“Dead reckoning?-What’s that, Mate!”) It’s so easy to get around the bay, coastal waters and beyond with the entry of longitude and latitude, or going into ‘’saved points” of favorite destinations whether it be a port or wreck, and “Viola” you’re there. Whoa! Hold up there sailor! Not so fast! There is still value in knowing the basics of seamanship and a major part of that are buoys and markers.
Although there remains little evidence of the types of buoys and markers from ancient civilizations due to millenniums of exposure to the elements, you can bet the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans and other ancient civilizations didn’t sit back watching their galleys run aground or miss their destination time after time without developing some type of inshore navigation system. You don’t build great empires with your ships stuck in the mud or crushed on rocks. We do know that they were smart enough to build grand lighthouses like the Colossus of Rhodes and the lighthouse at Alexandria. We can therefore justifiably assume they had systems of buoys and markers to identify danger zones and help to arrive at destinations. It’s not a stretch to imagine floating baskets or barrels attached to rope or chain and an anchoring stone to be used as a danger or waypoint markers during this time. Poles or tree branches could also have been used to identify shallows and channels.
The origin of the word “buoy” has roots in the early Dutch language. The Dutch were masterful mariners as were the English who quickly added the word to their language. There is no historical record of who invented the buoy but the first written mention of them in use is from a medieval mariner manual from 1295 AD. Titled “La Compasso Da Nivigore” which was a guide to navigating Iberian (Spanish) Mediterranean waters into the Guadalquivir River which made Seville, Spain’s only major port.
Later medieval writings mention floating markers on the river Meuse running through parts of today’s Belgium, Rotterdam and Holland which at the time were all Dutch. Being fine mariners they championed the use of buoys and markers in other European countries such as the German states, England, France and Italy. This allowed deeper draft ships to enter shallower ports and rivers safely and helped to expand western trade. Before this system, one entered these coastal areas gingerly at your own risk with a crewman taking soundings with a marked rope and weight cast upwards of the bow and calling the depths back to the captain. It was at best an inexact form of navigation and made healthy profits for the locals when a ship grounded and had to be unloaded of its cargo to be refloated.
These original buoys and channel markers where just cruder versions of our own. First, they used large chunks of wood or small anchored rafts. Floating beer and wine kegs are first mentioned in 1358 AD, and were called “Tonnen”. As charts became more detailed, numbers and other identifiers were added to more easily indicate a ship’s position. Seeing these floating barrels may have “wetted” incoming crews to the joys of drinking and carousing in port. Poles marking shallow points or edges of channels were numbered and in some counties carved to indicate position. As sea trade increased in the Renaissance, the number of buoys and pole markers increased tremendously both in Europe and in their far-flung colonies in the Americas, India and the Far East. It would be presumptive to not imagine that the far east Empires of China, Japan and others did not have navigation systems of their own but as western colonialism expanded so did the European system.
Barrels soon gave way to more sophisticated buoys that were made specifically to endure river, bay and sea conditions over a longer period of time. The Germans and Dutch deployed conical buoys called “Seetonnen” that were twice the size of barrels and were watertight. By 1460 AD ships were being designed specifically to tend the buoys in German waters. The English were late in buoy tending by 300 years and the United States launched its first tending vessel Shubrick in 1857.
Earlier in America our system of navigational aids were very localized to particular communities near rivers, bays and inlets. The locals had their own methods of keeping themselves from running onto a sandbar or ending up on the rocks. Then, President Washington advocated for adopting a unified buoy system as he did for lighthouses. His first buoys were three that he authorized for the Chesapeake Bay and later copper plated ones for Long Island Sound. Slowly, an entire industry in navigational buoys developed and experiments began on “bell buoys, wave sound and lighted” to aid America’s ever increasing position as a trade and naval power.
The buoys we now use are derived from watertight metal buoys developed in the 1830’s by Britain called “Cans”, with a flat top painted green, and “Nuns” which were conical tapered painted black. These were slowly adopted in America but there was no standard buoy and channel marking system here until 1850 when red cone markers were numbered with even numbers for starboard returning to port (“red right returning” in the USA and “green right returning” in Britain). Black cans with white stripes were added to port but the color later gave way to today’s green. Most have thick foam rings around them should your gel coat make contact with one.
Many modern ocean buoys are functioning with solar panels, durable long-term batteries and electronics. They can be positioned out at sea sending back wave action and heights, storm warnings and weather information. Inshore, they mark the entrances to our inlets, bays, rivers, harbors and safe channels and continue to give us our location should your GPS fail. That’s when your chart comes in handy.
Today there fewer and fewer channels markers on piles. You still see them in some places with either a red triangle or green square nailed to the top. I can see the day when these will completely disappear replaced by modern buoys. But I know of one place that will never change their way of boating to their bay homes in an almost inaccessible corner of an island in the Long Island’s Great South Bay. You sneak into their skinny channel by lining up your bow to where an old try pot stood on a dock for years.
You hug the bog until you come to a large old tree limb stuck in the bay bottom. There on the top is tied an old hat and more than that I am sworn not to say.
C. 2018 Mark C. Nuccio All rights reserved.
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