“Remember: red, right, return,” my Dad reminds me, as he lets me shakily steer his lobster boat. I have to stand on my tiptoes to see out the window, my eyes glancing nervously from the Fathometer to the large red buoy that bobs to my right. I make sure to keep it there when entering the harbor.

“Those are the road signs of the sea,” he informs me. “You’ve got to obey them.” 

It has been that way since 1848, when Congress began taking steps to regulate and professionalize buoys in U.S. waters. Before then, buoys had only been placed and maintained by private owners, and were often too small, hard to see and made from cedar or juniper poles.

Those early buoys were impractical. Now, we have universal colors, required numbering and our buoys can weigh up to 23,000 tons. 

Six major types of buoys live in our oceans today. The most common are simple “nuns” and “cans.” Whistle buoys and bell buoys warn mariners with sound, and light buoys, once run on oil and now on compressed gas, act as floating lighthouses.

One thing that never occurred to me as I fretted over driving my father’s boat was how these markers got there in the first place.

In the 1950s there was a small fleet of Coast Guard ships out of Portland known as the “Buoy Snatchers.” These were mostly retired war ships, ranging from firefighting boats to deep-sea tugs. The pride of the fleet was the Laurel, a 180-foot diesel-electric beauty. 

“Cutting in,” or setting a buoy, was difficult and precise work, especially in the 1950s. It took weeks of preparation and waiting on the perfect weather before one could be established. The exact position of where the buoy would go had to be found using an azimuth circle with sextant angles, and the ship had to be steadied enough to stay there.

First, the buoy would be lowered into the water, and then the concrete sinker would be released. As the heavy chain would slither off the deck and down to the briny deep, the Coast Guard men apparently always ran for cover. 

Once set, these buoys had to be tended. In the 1950s, the nearby lighthouse keepers would help out. Now that work is in the hands of the Coast Guard, which keeps these beacons welded, painted and serviced. 

Some buoys in particular have become well-known. Off the coast of Port Clyde floats the “Old Cilley Bell.” This buoy is outfitted with an enormous antique church bell, with no striker inside of it, but several outside, chiming loudly when the water is the slightest bit moved. Local lore says there was a shipwreck off of Old Cilley Ledge in the 1930’s,which inspired the placement of this bell. Old Cilley Ledge has not had a wreck since, a nod the buoy’s necessity.

Buoys have also become part of the fabric of coastal life. Whether fisherman fondly name them (like Port Clyde’s “Roaring Bull” buoy), teenagers use them as diving boards, or little girls timidly skirt around them during their first time behind a boat’s wheel, buoys will always be our watery protectors. Silent and all-enduring, they bob humbly while saving lives everyday.

Just as long as you keep to the right. 

Dora Thompson of Rockland is a journalism student at the University of Southern Maine. She drew on issues of The Maine Coast Fisherman from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, donated to the Island Institute, for this story.