People who have done their boating in New Zealand or received their boating education here, may not know it, but they’re programmed to respond to the IALA Region A buoyage system.

After all, nothing could be simpler. Green lights and buoys are left to starboard, the same side of your vessel as the green starboard navigation light – so it’s just leave green to green… right?

And just to make sure, we all parrot the “no RED PORT LEFT in the bottle” mnemonic to help remember which side the red light goes on.

IALA is the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities, an intergovernmental body which has a membership of about 80 countries. Representatives from these countries meet regularly to discuss changes to navigational aids.

Most of the world complies with IALA Region A, except for the Americas and US territories), Japan, Korea and the Philippines which comply with IALA Region B which is a mirror image of Region A.


That may sound chaotic, but it’s a far (and civilised) cry from 1957, when IALA was formed in an attempt to standardise international buoyage and beaconage.

Some countries who were engaged in hostilities would change the buoyage around their coastlines to confuse their foes.

In those days the Royal Navy Hydrographic Office produced most of the world’s navigational charts and it must have driven them crazy. Even in the early 1970s there were 30 separate systems for safe pilotage and it took two collisions in the Dover Strait off the United Kingdom to kick-start attempts to standardise systems of buoyage.

First MV Brandenburg hit the wreck of the Texaco Caribbean off Folkestone and sank and later another ship, Niki, hit the same wreck. The death toll for both collisions was 51.

So IALA set to and instituted the current systems, though attempts to have a single global rule were stymied by the USA which adopted its own system, Region B. Most of their main trading partners followed suit.

In Region B waters, red marks are left to starboard entering a channel and green to port, though most Americans, including the US Navy and US Coastguard, have discarded ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ for the simpler ‘left’ and ‘right.’ “RED RIGHT RETURNING” they chirrup.


For someone raised on Region A, it can be very disconcerting. Every little part of your experience and training screams to leave the green marks to starboard, but try it and you’d be sailing into a flotilla of outbound vessels. Outward bound is more comfortable – at least the channel markers are on the right side.

During a several-year stint working as a delivery skipper in the US, I once took a job delivering a Roberts 54 ketch south for the winter. A friend and I did the job and one very hot day we spent about 10 hours motoring down canals of the ICW (Intra Coastal Waterway). Very little navigation was called for and we sipped cold beers to maintain a healthy fluid intake.

Just on dusk we arrived near Jacksonville, a delta area with a busy commercial port and various US military bases. The channel ahead was lined and dotted with a galaxy of lights: flashing red, green, white and fast-flashing orange and blue.

It was all quite beyond my intellectual acuity at the time, so I decided to pull out of the channel, anchor and go to bed. A red lateral marker appeared out of the gloom, so I gingerly motored past it into shoal water and dropped anchor, had grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner and went to sleep.

Within what seemed like minutes the interior of the boat was lit by bright lights and the sound of big diesels roaring and propellers rotating close at hand.

Clad in my underpants, I stumbled into the cockpit and held my hand up to shield the glare. “You are trespassing on US Government property….move on….move on….move on!” A stentorian voice barked. Beyond the lights I could make out the menacing black outline of some sort of warship and I imagined 30 or 40 marksmen training their weaponry on me.


When all that stands between you and indecency is a pair of underpants – and you’ve been roused from your bunk by zillions of candlepower – your powers of resistance fade right away.

We started the motor and picked up the anchor while the gunboat backed away and kept the US government’s spotlight trained on us. That completely obliterated any night vision we might have had, but it did enable me to read the number on the red buoy so I could nip down to the chart and lay off a compass course to take us out of this nightmare.

With the power of hindsight I could see that I’d pulled in behind the red marker thinking that I’d found a nice safe anchorage out of the channel – when in fact I’d managed to anchor in mid-channel.

Most buoyage systems are laid and maintained by local harbour authorities or port companies under Maritime New Zealand supervision, and in the direction of tidal flow.

A buoy is a floating mark attached to the sea floor by chains, whereas a beacon is a fixed structure. In some places, the colour of a mark might have been changed to white by the guano deposited by roosting seabirds…or to brown by rust. To help counteract this, most lateral (channel) markers have top marks – an inverted triangle (cone) to starboard and an upside-down bucket (can) shape to port.

IALA has also been instrumental in the introduction of AIS (Automatic Identification System) and its newest buoy was introduced in 2006 to mark recent wrecks and hazards. It is characterised by vertical blue and yellow stripes and, as far as I know, has yet to make an appearance in New Zealand.

It will likely cause some confusion when it does! BNZ