For the last couple of years I have been helping to teach the Canadian Power and Sail Squadron boating essentials course during the winter. One of the segments that I have taken on is the “Aids to Navigation” as I like the way there is a logical system to identifying marks. Of particular delight to me is the cardinal buoy system with north, east, south and west marks with their associated colours, topmarks and flashing lights. There are tricks to aid the sorting out of these marks and helping to remember the key characteristics. The only problem is that until two weeks ago I had never actually seen a cardinal buoy. Of course I had poured over the charts and could (with great authority) tell students where they might be encountered and what they looked like. There are a few in Northumberland Strait – East end of Pictou Island and East Point, for example. Speaking with my mind unblemished by fact I was sure to be an expert. [For the uninitiated it is necessary to know only that each of the four points of the compass has its own buoy which tells where the safe water is. At an east cardinal buoy one should keep to the east.]
On the race through Northumberland Strait around Pictou Island and up into the Gulph of St. Lawrence to the Magdalen Islands I had a chance to remedy the gap in my knowledge but as we passed the east end of Pictou Island I was busy plotting a course and wondering when the spinnaker would be hauled up on the heaving deck and set free of its bag and so I hardly took note of the buoy as we passed it. After more than five hours of an almost dead downwind spinnaker run East Point was in sight and with a slight correction in course we swept by it at about 10 knots. I had my little video camera and took a bit of footage as we passed – to the possible irritation of at least one crew member. And sure enough, about three miles from the lighthouse hooting in the sunset was NDN an east cardinal buoy with its characteristic top marks, its unique colour scheme and its distinctive light flashes. Except….. with the sun behind the mark I couldn’t make out the colour scheme. It was supposed to be black-yellow-black but there seemed to be a stripe of yellow at the bottom so perhaps it was yellow-black-yellow…. And there seemed to be no topmark with its points opposed as illustrated in many a diagram … And the sun was still so bright as to make the light inoperable. Well, I knew it was an east cardinal buoy but had I come upon it unexpectedly instead of expecting it I would have been (forgive the expression) “at sea”.
On our return leg two days later, passing with the sun still a little above the horizon things were a more certain. The hooting was still there. It was clear that there was no topmark at all. It was equally clear that one could be easily confused by the colour scheme. It was black-yellow-black but the coast guard in their infinite wisdom had decided to use yellow paint for the hull of the buoy so really it was black-yellow-black-yellow. It was also clear that the light flashes could be in any sequence at all but I wasn’t going to be able to see them until the sun set and we were far away.
All in all, a reminder that it is easy to talk about things that one knows little about. Perhaps my next class in the basic boating course will at least have the benefit of a little “show and tell” about how one shouldn’t rely too much on one’s expectations of how things on the chart will look on the sea.