Buoys – what are they and what are they used for?

Buoys are floating objects anchored at specific locations to assist maritime navigation and safety in oceans, lakes, water channels and rivers. There are various different types of buoys, each with its own purpose.

Harbour masters, mariners and other seafarers have relied on navigation aids for safe sea journeys for centuries. The history of buoys dates back to the 13th century. Their design over the years has developed from a basic wooden raft into today’s high-tech maritime tools.

History of buoys

The first buoys were used in the Guadalquivir River in Spain in the 13th century, according to the 1295 mariners’ handbook, La Compasso de Navigare. The guide contained details of sea routes and approaches for boats around the Iberian Peninsula.

Basic buoys that were simply wooden rafts were used to direct vessels attempting to access Sevilla. A buoy was recorded on the nautical chart, Lo Compasso De Navegare, detailing Mediterranean Sea routes in 1296.

Thirty years later, historical literature detailed the use of buoys in the Zuider Zee, a North Sea bay used by ships sailing to Amsterdam and other European ports. These comprised a hollow drum bound with iron bands and secured by chains tied to a heavy stone.

While the early buoys provided a navigational service in daylight hours only, experiments began in the 19th century to find other ways of highlighting the buoys’ location, even at night. Bell buoys that made a clanging sound as they moved in the waves were developed.

Patented in 1876, US Lighthouse Society member John Courtenay’s groundbreaking whistle buoy contained a hollow tube with a whistle attached on top. As the buoy moved, air was forced up the tube and produced a whistling sound.

Uses of modern buoys

The capabilities of today’s modern buoys have far exceeded their predecessors. The three different types of buoy are used for navigation, mooring and data platforms. They guide and warn seafarers, mark the position of a submerged object and moor vessels before they drop anchor.

Two international systems mark channels and submerged hazards. Both systems use buoys of standardised shapes and colours to highlight safe passageways. In addition, special-purpose buoys including anchor buoys, cable buoys and race buoys have various uses.

Mooring buoys differ from other types, as they are a point where vessels can be tied up. The mooring buoy is secured to a group of permanent anchors by a heavy chain. It is a connecting link between the boat and the anchors. A moored vessel needs less space to swing with the tide and wind than a vessel at anchor.

The purpose of data buoys is to support, power and protect a number of sensors that measure water conductivity, depth, temperature, pH, chlorophyll A, dissolved oxygen and turbidity for scientific purposes.

Solar light-up buoys

The latest 21st-century innovations include solar light-up buoys to aid navigation. Solar power is used to light the buoys, which are made in a variety of colours. The rechargeable solar light engine illuminates several bright LED lights so the buoy can be seen after dark.

They can be used to mark the location of a pier or dock. Their bright LED glow means they are visible for up to half a nautical mile away. The solar sea buoys are a fine example of modern marine technology. They are an eco-friendly option due to being solar-powered.

The latest buoys have come a long way since the wooden raft structures of the 13th century, but one thing remains the same: they are still the road signs of water more than 700 years after their invention.

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