Buoys and Lights

Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 28 November 2022, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.

There is an entire category of nautical vocabulary dedicated to keeping a ship in safe waters, and not aground or on the rocks. Resting upon or touching the sea bottom is referred to as a grounding, which is one of the worst outcomes for a ship, sometimes leaving a vessel high and dry until the tide comes in, or not able to continue at all. Touch and go describes a grounding that is minor, where the ship is able to continue its progress. Intentional grounding may be referred to as beaching, done so a vessel may load and unload (as with a landing craft), or possibly to prevent a badly damaged vessel from sinking.

When a ship enters coastal waters, it is important for the Officer of the Watch to pay attention to the aids to navigation that are specifically intended to assist in determining a vessel’s position or safe course, or to warn of dangers. Buoys are used to mark navigable channels, hazards to shipping, and anchorages. In Canada we use the pronunciation “boy” and not the American “boo-ee.”

When traveling up channel, Port hand buoys are coloured green, marked with odd numbers, and should be kept on the port side. Starboard hand buoys are coloured red, marked with even numbers, and should be kept on the starboard side. A bifurcation buoy marks the division of a channel. Fairway buoys indicate safe water. Cardinal buoys indicate safest water using the cardinal points of a compass (north, south, east and west). Some buoys are distinctly shaped for visual identification such as a square shaped can buoy, or a cone-shaped nun buoy, resembling a nun’s habit

Light buoys display a light to be visible at night. Bell buoys are designed to be heard when visibility is diminished and include a bell with hammers that clang with wave action. Most buoys have a radar reflector, a diamond-shaped metal accessory meant to boost the amount of energy returned when painted by radar.

A beacon is a ­fixed aid to navigation. Maybe the best-known type of beacon is a lighthouse, which is a tower, or physical structure designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses. Some are picturesque structures familiar to RCN sailors such as Fisgard Light at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour, or lighthouses on Georges Island and Maughers Beach in the entrance to Halifax Harbour.

Every left-coast sailor knows the sight of Race Rocks Light, located on Race Rocks just off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Built in 1860, and constructed of granite quarried in Scotland, it was one of the first lighthouses built on the west coast of Canada. Soon after the light went into service, the distinctive black and white stripes were painted on the tower by the first lightkeeper George Davies. The stripes, meant to improve its daytime visibility, remain to this day. The name Race Rocks refers to the tidal race which swirls past the collection of islets at speeds of up to 8 knots. Due to the treacherous waters, vessels steer clear, making it a quiet respite for sea birds and seals.

You will find over 4000 examples of Jackspeak in my book Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).

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