I believe in buoys. Specifically, I believe in navigation buoys, brightly-painted steel cylinders the size of a corncrib that the Coast Guard sets afloat in coastal waters around the country. When I take my sailboat out on Long Island Sound, I steer by them.
Buoys that mark a hazard are red and black. Buoys that mark a channel are red or green, or sometimes red and green, with a band of one color painted over the other in a mysterious but significant order. Sometimes the bands are painted vertically, making the buoy look like a piece of snapped-off candy cane. “Can” buoys are like enormous beer cans pinched into fins at the top to reflect radar better. “Nun” buoys are shaped like the wimple of a sunken Carmelite. Lit buoys have a square, steel tower on top with a light that flashes at discrete intervals that are coded onto my nautical charts. A buoy labeled “GR ‘A’ FL (2+1) G 6s” on the chart should have a green stripe painted over a red stripe, to show that the preferred channel is to the right; a light that flashes green, with two quick flashes and one long flash, repeated every 6 seconds.’ Like Hester Prynne, it should wear the letter “A,” though most buoys have numbers. The system is complicated, but it seems nobody’s come up with a better one — and the government has been making navigation charts since 1807 when Congress and President Jefferson founded the Office of Coast Survey for that purpose.
Today, the charts have a printed warning telling me NOT to believe in buoys, or at least not to trust them exclusively. It’s notorious that buoys get moved around a lot, not only by the Coast Guard ships that service them, but also by storms. Hurricane Katrina displaced hundreds of buoys to new and fanciful locations where they became a hazard instead of a help. Buoys have been known to sink. Ice and bird droppings can damage their lights. In the Pacific, sea lions lounge on them, causing them to list at odd angles. The wind and current pull them away from the concrete sinkers they’re anchored to, so even if there’s been no storm, their position is never exact.
Part of the reason I believe in buoys is because they make no claim to ultimate authority: they aren’t God-given; they were placed by humans. They don’t embody an abstract principle or a mathematical law; they merely represent the Coast Guard’s best guess about a point of the earth’s surface that’s covered by water. And they don’t claim their meaning is self-evident. Their colors, forms, lights and numbers have to be carefully observed and decoded before they mean anything at all.
Although the Office of Coast Survey lays claim to being the nation’s oldest scientific bureau, I don’t think navigation buoys have much to do with science. Instead, they have to do with history: the buoys mark shoals and ledges that have trapped ships since Colonial times; their existence today represents the painfully-gained knowledge of generations of mariners and our present-day resolve not to make the same mistakes our predecessors made. Like every statement made about the past, however, they are provisional and approximate. They must be regularly re-visited and, if necessary, re-positioned. For this reason, a navigation buoy is always a waypoint, never a destination. I steer by them but not for them. When I reach one I can head toward the next one in the series or I can set off on a whole new course. The buoys’ gate is not straight and their path is not narrow. They advise me without constraining me.
Navigation buoys are incidents on a vast, gently-curving sheet of water that ultimately forms a sphere. They’re not perfect — but I believe in them.
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