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IALA Maritime Buoyage System

Prior to 1976. There was once more than thirty different buoyage systems in use world-wide, many of these systems having rules in complete conflict with one another.


Source: IALA

There has long been disagreement over the way in which buoy lights should be used since they first appeared towards the end of the 19th century. In particular, some countries favoured using red lights to mark the port hand side of channels and others favoured them for marking the starboard hand.

Another major difference of opinion revolved around the principles to be applied when laying out marks to assist the mariner. Most countries adopted the principle of the Lateral system whereby marks indicate the port and starboard sides of the route to be followed according to some agreed direction. However, several countries also favoured using the principle of Cardinal marks whereby dangers are marked by one or more buoys or beacons laid out in the quadrants of the compass to indicate where the danger lies in relation to the mark, this system being particularly useful in the open sea where the Lateral buoyage direction may not be apparent.

The nearest approach to international agreement on a unified system of buoyage was reached at Geneva in 1936. This Agreement, drawn up under the auspices of the League of Nations, was never ratified due to the outbreak of World War II. The Agreement proposed the use of either Cardinal marks or Lateral marks but separated them into two different systems. It provided for the use of the colour red on port hand marks and largely reserved the colour green for wreck marking.

At the end of World War II many countries found their aids to navigation destroyed and the process of restoration had to be undertaken urgently. In the absence of anything better, the Geneva rules were adopted with or without variation to suit local conditions and the equipment available. This led to wide and sometimes conflicting differences particularly in the crowded waters of North Western Europe.

In 1957 the, then, International Association of Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) was formed in order to support the goals of the technical lighthouse conferences which had been convening since 1929.

Attempts to bring complete unity had little success. Fresh impetus was given to the task of the IALA Technical Committee, by a series of disastrous wrecks in the Dover Strait area in 1971. These wrecks, situated in one lane of a traffic separation scheme, defied all attempts to mark them in a way that could be readily understood by mariners.

There were three basic issues to address:

i) the need to retain existing equipment as far as possible to avoid undue expense

ii) the need to define how the colours green and red were to be used when marking channels

iii) the need to combine Lateral and Cardinal rules.

To meet the conflicting requirements, it was thought necessary as a first step to formulate two systems, one using the colour red to mark the port hand side of the channels and the other using the colour red to mark the starboard hand side of channels. These were called System A and System B, respectively.

The rules for System A, which included both cardinal and lateral marks, were completed in 1976 and agreed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The System was introduced in 1977 and its use has gradually spread throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the Gulf and some Asian Countries.

FROM 1980. The rules for System B were completed in early 1980. These were considered to be suitable for application in North, Central and South America, Japan, Republic of Korea and Philippines.

The rules for the two Systems were so similar that the IALA Executive Committee was able to combine the two sets of rules into one, known as “The IALA Maritime Buoyage System”. This single set of rules allows Lighthouse Authorities the choice of using red to port or red to starboard, on a regional basis; the two regions being known as Region A and Region B.

At a Conference convened by IALA in November 1980 with the assistance of IMO and the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), Lighthouse Authorities from 50 countries and the representatives of nine International Organisations concerned with aids to navigation met and agreed to adopt the rules of the new combined System. The boundaries of the buoyage regions were also decided and illustrated on a map annexed to the rules. The Conference underlined the need for cooperation between neighbouring countries and with Hydrographic Services in the introduction of the new System.

FROM 2010. Although the maritime buoyage system (MBS) has served the maritime community well since its inception in the 1970s, after the 2006 IALA Conference in Shanghai, China, it was decided to review the system in light of changes in the navigation environment and the further development of electronic aids to navigation.

Worldwide consultation revealed that the fundamental principles of the MBS should be retained. However, due to changes in navigation practices and patterns, as well as innovations and technological developments, some enhancements to the MBS were needed.

Ideally, a unified marking arrangement would, in principle, be desirable for Regions A and B. All IALA Members view this change as impractical, detrimental to safety, and probably unachievable. However, with the aim of improving navigational safety, advances towards a global unified system can be achieved through adoption of common characteristics, such as consistent lighting rhythms, on port and starboard hand marks regardless of region.

The most significant changes in the 2010 revision are the inclusion of aids to navigation used for marking recommended by IALA that are additional to the floating buoyage system previously included. This is aimed at providing a more complete description of aids to navigation that may be used. It includes the Emergency Wreck Marking Buoy, descriptions of other aids to navigation specifically excluded from the original MBS, and the integration of electronic marks via radio transmission. With regards to aids to navigation, the changes provided by this revision will allow the emerging e-Navigation concept to be based upon the marks provided by this booklet.

Thus, the IALA Maritime Buoyage System will continue to help all Mariners, navigating anywhere in the world, to fix their position and avoid dangers without fear of ambiguity, now and for the years to come.

Continuity and harmonization of Aids to Navigation Marking is to be encouraged by all competent maritime authorities.

General principles of the System. The responsibility for safe navigation resides with the mariner, through the appropriate use of aids to navigation in conjunction with official nautical documents and prudent seamanship, including voyage planning as defined in IMO Resolutions. This booklet provides guidance on the Maritime Buoyage System and other aids to navigation for all users.

The IALA Aids to Navigation system has two components: The Maritime Buoyage System and other aids to navigation comprised of fixed and floating devices. This is primarily a physical system, however all of the marks may be complemented by electronic means.

Within the Maritime Buoyage System there are six types of marks, which may be used alone or in combination. The mariner can distinguish between these marks by identifiable characteristics. Lateral marks differ between Buoyage Regions A and B, as described below, whereas the other five types of marks are common to both regions.

These marks are described below:

LATERAL MARKS. Following the sense of a ‘conventional direction of buoyage’, lateral marks in Region A utilize red and green colours  by day and night to denote the port and starboard sides of channels respectively. However, in Region B these colours are reversed with red to starboard and green to port.

A modified lateral mark may be used at the point where a channel divides to distinguish the preferred channel, that is to say the primary route or channel that is so designated by the competent authority.

CARDINAL MARKS. Cardinal marks indicate that the deepest water in the area lies to the named side of the mark. This convention is necessary even though for example, a North mark may have navigable water not only to the North but also East and West of it. The mariner will know it is safe to the North, but shall consult the chart for further guidance.

Cardinal marks do not have a distinctive shape but are normally pillar or spar. They are always painted in yellow and black horizontal bands and their distinctive double cone top-marks are always black.

An aide-memoire to their colouring is provided by regarding the top-marks as pointers to the positions of the black band(s):

North: Top-marks pointing upward: black band above yellow band;

South: Top-marks pointing downward: black band below yellow band;

East: Top-marks pointing away from each other: black bands above and below a yellow band;

West: Top-marks pointing towards each other: black band with yellow bands above and below.

Cardinal marks also have a special system of flashing white lights. The rhythms are basically all “very quick” (VQ) or “quick” (Q) flashing but broken into varying lengths of the flashing phase. “Very quick flashing” is defined as a light flashing at a rate of either 120 or 100 flashes per minute, “quick flashing” is a light flashing at either 60 or 50 flashes per minute.

The characters used for Cardinal marks will be seen to be as follows:

North: Continuous very quick flashing or quick flashing;

East: Three “very quick” or “quick” flashes followed by darkness;

South: Six “very quick” or “quick” flashes followed immediately by a long flash, then darkness;

West: Nine “very quick” or “quick” flashes followed by darkness.

The concept of three, six, nine is easily remembered when one associates it with a clock face. The long flash, defined as a light appearance of not less than 2 seconds, is merely a device to ensure that three or nine “very quick” or “quick” flashes cannot be mistaken for six.

It will be observed that two other marks use white lights; Isolated Danger marks and Safe Water marks. Each has a distinctive light rhythm that cannot be confused with the very quick or quick flashing light of the Cardinal marks.

ISOLATED DANGER MARK. The Isolated Danger mark is placed on, or near to a danger that has navigable water all around it. Because the extent of the danger and the safe passing distance cannot be specified for all circumstances in which this mark may be used, the mariner shall consult the chart and nautical publications for guidance. Distinctive double black spherical top-marks and Group flashing (2) white lights, serve to distinguish Isolated Danger marks from Cardinal marks.

SAFE WATER MARKS. The Safe Water mark has navigable water all around it, but does not mark a danger. Safe Water marks can be used, for example, as fairway, mid-channel or landfall marks.

Safe Water marks have an appearance different from danger marking buoys. They are spherical, or alternatively pillar or spar with red and white vertical stripes and a single red spherical top-mark. Their lights, if any, are white using isophase, occulting, one long flash or Morse “A” (● -) rhythms.

SPECIAL MARKS. Special marks are used to indicate a special area or feature whose nature may be apparent from reference to a chart or other nautical publication. They are not generally intended to mark channels or obstructions where the MBS provides suitable alternatives.

Special marks are yellow. They may carry a yellow “X” top-mark, and any light used is also yellow. To avoid the possibility of confusion between yellow and white in poor visibility, the yellow lights of Special marks do not have any of the rhythms used for white lights.

Their shape will not conflict with that of navigational marks. This means, for example, that a special buoy located on the port hand side of a channel may be cylindrical but will not be conical. Special marks may be lettered or numbered, and may also include the use of a pictogram to indicate their purpose using the IHO symbology where appropriate.

MARKING NEW DANGERS. “New Dangers” are newly discovered hazards, natural or man-made, that may not yet be shown in nautical documents and publications, and until the information is sufficiently promulgated, should be indicated by:

marking a new danger using appropriate marks such as; Lateral, Cardinal, Isolated Danger marks, or equally;

using the Emergency Wreck Marking Buoy (EWMB).

If the competent authority considers the risk to navigation to be especially high at least one of the marks should be duplicated.

The Emergency Wreck Marking Buoy has blue and yellow vertical stripes in equal number, with a vertical/perpendicular yellow cross top-mark, and displays a blue and yellow alternating light.

Marking of a new danger may include use of a Racon coded Morse “D” (- ●●) or other radio transmitting device such as automatic identification systems as an Aid to Navigation (AIS as an AtoN).

Marking of a new danger may be discontinued when the appropriate competent Authority is satisfied that information concerning the “New Danger” has been sufficiently promulgated or the danger has been resolved.

OTHER MARKS. Other Marks include lighthouses, beacons, sector lights, leading lines, major floating aids, and auxiliary marks. These visual marks are intended to aid navigation as information to mariners, not necessarily regarding channel limits or obstructions.

-Lighthouses, beacons and other aids of lesser ranges are fixed aids to navigation that may display different colours and/or rhythms over designated arcs. Beacons may also be unlighted.

-Sector lights display different colours and/or rhythms over designated arcs.

The colour of the light provides directional information to the mariner.

-Leading lines / Ranges allow ships to be guided with precision along a portion of a straight route using the alignment of fixed lights (leading lights) or marks (leading marks), in some cases a single directional light may used.

-Major floating aids include lightvessels, light floats and large navigational buoys intended to mark approaches from off shore.

-Auxiliary Marks are those other marks used to assist navigation or provide information. These include aids of non-lateral significance that are usually of defined channels and otherwise do not indicate the port and starboard sides of the route to be followed as well as those used to convey information for navigational safety.

-Port or Harbour Marks such as breakwater, quay/jetty lights, traffic signals, bridge marking and inland waterways aids to navigation.

SOLAS CHAPTER V, Regulation 13 – Consolidated edition 2004


Establishment and operation of aids to navigation

1. Each Contracting Government undertakes to provide, as it deems practical and necessary, either individually or in co-operation with other Contracting Governments, such aids to navigation as the volume of traffic justifies and the degree of risk requires.

2. In order to obtain the greatest possible uniformity in aids to navigation, Contracting Governments undertake to take into account the international recommendations and guidelines* when establishing such aids.

3. Contracting Governments undertake to arrange for information relating to aids to navigation to be made available to all concerned. Changes in the transmissions of position-fixing systems which could adversely affect the performance of receivers fitted in ships shall be avoided as far as possible and only be effected after timely and adequate notice has been promulgated.

* Refer to the appropriate Recommendations and guidelines of IALA and to SN/Circ.107, Maritime Buoyage System.


SOURCE: International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities