Understanding what the buoys mean

Fall season is just getting started and before you know it it’ll be time to start racing which means buoys … buoys everywhere. Buoys in all sorts of different colors scattered all over the place. If you’re unfamiliar with what they stand for then it can be easy to become confused and/or disoriented when trying to figure out where to go on your way to the starting line or worse, when you’re on the course.

RED buoys should always be on your port side (meaning the boat should be to the right of the buoy).

GREEN buoys should always be on your starboard side (meaning the boat should be to the left of the buoy).

YELLOW (or sometimes orange) buoys are used to indicate some kind of potential hazard, such as a log submerged under the surface of the water, a sand bar, etc. and can be on the left or the right. As they pop up you just have to adjust as necessary. In my experience they’ve also been used to mark stakeboat turns on the race course during head races.

WHITE buoys are used to outline the course, although they’re more commonly used during sprint season to mark the lanes than during head race season. Head of the Charles uses them though to separate the travel lanes and the race course.

Typically at the coaches and coxswains meeting the regatta officials will go over any buoys on the course with you and tell you what they mean but for the most part they should follow the nautical definitions fairly closely.

During sprint season, buoyed courses are set up using the Albano buoy system, which is the marking of the race course with parallel lines of buoys. The first time this was done was at the 1960 Summer Olympics on Lake Albano in Italy, where the rowing events were held. The course is, as we know, 2000m long with six 13.5m wide lanes that are separated by seven lines of buoys that are set 10-15m apart. For the first 100m and last 250m of most courses the buoys are red whereas the other 1650m are white.

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