Boaters have to navigate the water without the benefit of paved roads and road signs. However, buoys and beacons are two navigation aids that help travelers on the water find their way. Both are distinguished by shape, color, topmark, and light.
A buoy is an anchored floating device that gives boats information about the water in which they are traveling. Cylindrical buoys with a cone-shaped top are called “nuns,” while cylindrical buoys with a flat top are known as “cans.” There are six types of buoys, according to their purpose: lateral, cardinal, isolated danger, safe water, new wreck, and special. Lateral buoys are red and green, and they help to define an established route, like a road sign. They indicate where channels split, for example. Cardinal buoys in yellow and black help boats identify the safest route to avoid dangerous water. Red and black buoys, on the other hand, mark a specific danger so that boats can avoid it. A buoy with red and white vertical stripes indicates safe water, while a buoy with yellow and blue vertical stripes marks a new wreck. Finally, yellow buoys are used for a variety of other purposes, such as marking the presence of a pipeline.
Beacons are fixed, rather than floating, navigational aids. All beacons are categorized as major or minor. Major light sources are used for key navigational points on the water way, while minor light sources of lower intensity are located on or near the harbor, often to mark isolated dangers. Major lights include primary lights, which help boats make landfall or find coastal passages, and secondary lights, which mark harbor and river entrances. Lights can be distinguished by their flashing patterns, which help to determine their meanings.
Aids to Navigation Products are important not only because they help boaters navigate the water safely, but they also help to protect the environment and cultural heritage near a body of water. One organization that is dedicated to preserving shipwrecks in Canada, for example, uses navigation aids to protect the space where those cultural artifacts rest. Whole cities now lie beneath the water in some places, and buoys and beacons keep ships from damaging them by dropping anchor.