Canadian Aids to Navigation and Charts

We’re still figuring out Canada’s system of buoys and navigational aids, which seem at once very smart and very dumb.

Their cardinal buoys are simply brilliant. They consist of two large black cones atop a pedestal. The arrangement of the cones tells you which side it is safe to pass on. Of course from a great distance, the cones look like triangles. But, unlike a flat sign, they convey the same message from any point that you view them.

But Until you learn these messages by heart they scare the living daylights out of you. (Come to think of it they are only daylight markers so navigating them at night is simply unthinkable.)

Here is a short primer to be committed to heart by the wise mariner or any fan of elegant symbology. If the two cones point upward, it is a “north cardinal buoy” and passage is only safe on the north side. If the two cones point downward, you need to stay south of the buoy. If the top cone points up and the bottom points down, the message is pass to the east of the buoy. If the top cone points down and the bottom cone points up, safe passage is only to the west; two triangles with their points touching look more like a “W” than an “E” right? Well, you get the idea that this is pretty consequential.

Most aids to navigation are white pillars on land, rather than buoys. The top part of the pillar may be red, green or white, They look like miniature light houses. They seem to date back a few years but now most have solar charged lights.

Of course, there are also buoys shaped like our buoys in the US: green flat-topped “cans” and red pointy “nuns”. Usually, at least often enough to be dangerous. So when we we entered Nanoose Bay straight into the setting sun, we took the cone shaped buoy to be a red. When we were right on top of it, we saw it was green.

Even worse, “red right return” into port is not consistent at all. Not just the usual big port little port stuff we have to work out down here (Is this set up for a boat going north to Port Townsend or south to Seattle?). No, it’s more of mess in Canada. Entering the rock studded Baynes Channel leading into Victoria’s notorious Oak Bay Marina forces you to leave green buoys on starboard!

We managed to get some Canadian mariners arguing whether “red right return” applies at all. The conversation ended when one of them pointed out that in New Zealand, it’s green right return.

Nigel Calder is not helpful here apart from pointing out that the colors used in Region B are the opposite of those used in Region A, which includes the US.

Nor was Calder helpful on ranges; he doesn’t say a single thing about ranges! We discovered this as we waited for slack to get though the very narrow but straight Chatham Channel. Fortunately, Canadian ranges are exactly like those with which we’re familiar on the Columbia River. You line up the black stripes on the red range markers at one end and head for the aligned black stripes on the range markers at the other. You just need to pirouette from bow to stern with your binocs while keeping a steady hand on the tiller.

Unlike the US authorities (which seem more interested in Homeland Security than the safety of mariners) Canadian Coast Guard requires that mariners have paper charts on board. As I learned from Nigel Calder, paper charts are essential and any electronic navigation systems should be seen as supplementary. The requirement is also an excellent source of revenue for the Canadian Hydrographic Service; so many ordinary navigators using them might be an impetus to accuracy, readability and frequent updating.

That said we found our share of discrepancies. There were rocks at the south entrance of Laura Cove that remain above water at high spring tide but which show only as drying rocks. And two of the three buoys you need to cross the Comox Bar were not on our chart at all. Next year we’ll get on the Internet and arm ourselves with updates before departure.


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