Disclaimer: Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of these mnemonics, they are intended as memory aids, rather than as a substitute for other knowledge. In particular, the mnemonics for navigation lights and the "rules of the road" are simplifications and summaries, and the prudent mariner should not rely on them as a sole source of information. Study the rules first, and then use these mnemonics to help you remember them. Do not attempt to learn the rules by studying this Web page.
Note: this Web page was tested with Netscape Navigator 2.0 for Unix. If you see formatting that is obviously bogus, please e-mail me about it. Be sure to let me know what browser you use.
Formatting: definitions of terms are generally shown in emphasized text, unless they are also hypertext links. Mnemonics are shown in strongly emphasized text.
Copying: A number of people have asked permission to reproduce this page as handouts for use in boating classes. The short answer is "Yes, so long as I get credit and you don't make a profit." See the copyright notice at the end for a more legalistic phrasing. You don't even have to ask first, although I always appreciate getting e-mail letting me know, just because it makes me feel good to know that I'm helping the cause of boating.
Finally, a note for people who have questions about boating and terminology: I'm not an expert, I'm a beginner. I created this Web page to help myself. Please don't e-mail me with your questions, because I don't have the answers anyway. Thanks.
One of the most complex areas of boating is the light combinations used to indicate various types of ships at night. Luckily, there are also lots of standard mnemonics. Most of these were provided by Farnes Quinn and Steve Hodgson.
The most fundamental navigation lights are the running lights required on all boats over 5 meters. The basic running lights are white to the stern of the boat, red to port, and green to starboard. The colored lights are visible from forward of the boat as well as the sides. The three running lights may be mounted in a number of ways, separately or combined, high or low, but must always be masked so that you see the appropriate color from the each direction.
There are several useful mnemonics related to the color of the running lights. First, remember that port wine is red, so the red running light is on the left side of the boat. Second, you see stars in good weather, which is when you like to go out on the water, so green for go equals starboard (invented by Alistair Barclay). Third, stoplights (traffic signals) in most places show red when you should stop, green when you should go. The running lights and the right-of-way rules are arranged so that if you see another boat's port (red) running light and there is no other rule to tell you what to do, you should give way ("stop"), while if you see green, you should maintain course and speed ("go"). Red means stop, green means go.
A fourth mnemonic, suggested by Peter W. Meek, is Red Left Port. The image is of a red-headed sailor going to sea, where he belongs (not some nasty old port). This mnemonic has the advantage that it also serves for buoyage system "B" and for remembering that port is the left side of the boat.
In addition to the three-colored running lights used by all boats, a powerboat must show a white masthead light visible from the front. This light must be mounted higher than the running lights. Depending your angle relative to the powerboat, the masthead light might or might not appear to be in line with the visible running light, but it will always be higher. (From the stern, only the stern light is visible, regardless of the type of propulsion. This is because you aren't going to collide with a faster boat that's ahead of you, and if you're the faster one, you have to give way regardless of propulsion method. See the overtaken-wins rule in the right-of-way rules.)
To summarize, if you see , you're looking at the port side of a sailboat. Similarly, shows the starboard side of a sailing machine. means you're seeing somebody's stern, but you don't know whether it's power or sail. indicates the port side of a power vessel (note that the two lights won't necessarily be lined up as shown here). Finally, means you're seeing the starboard side of a power boat.
Mast lights are shown in addition to running lights to identify vessels more precisely than simply "I'm a boat." If a boat has no mast light at all, it's a sailboat (see above). (Note that a three-colored running light, as described above, isn't a "mast light" even if it's mounted at the top of a sailboat's mast, nor is the white masthead light shown by all power boats. Confused enough?)
Other, more complex mast light combinations indicate the operational status of the boat. They are usually, though not always, shown all-around:
Red over Red This boat is dead
(or "Captain's in bed" or "Captain's in the head," or "Captain's dead"). Two red lights in a vertical line indicate a vessel "not under command." In other words, when you see this combination, don't expect them to do anything to avoid you, regardless of what the right-of-way rules say. You should show these lights any time there is a circumstance, such as engine or steering failure, that prevents you from complying with the rules of the road. The preferred mnemonic was submitted by Dominick Orefice.
An alternative, submitted by Alistair Barclay and taken from A Small Boat Guide to the RULES OF THE ROAD by John Mellor, is Two reds equal too dangerous to command.
Red over Green Sailing machine
(or "sailing is keen"). Note that this is the less-used of the two sailboat lighting combinations. Most sailboats identify themselves by the lackof a white masthead light visible to 22.5 degrees abaft the beam. Don't assume that lack of red-over-green means it's under power!
Red over White Fishing boat lights
If the fishing gear extends over 150 meters (492 feet) from the boat, an all-around white light must indicate the direction.
Andy Oliver has suggested another mnemonic for this: They are fishing for red salmon. A Small Boat Guide to the RULES OF THE ROAD by John Mellor has a third alternative, They are stopped over a white fish (submitted by Alistair Barclay).
Green over White Trawling tonight
Note that this is different from the general fishing lights.
Andy Oliver has suggested another mnemonic for this: They may trawl up a piece of green seaweed. A Small Boat Guide to the RULES OF THE ROAD by John Mellor has a third alternative, White fish under green sea (submitted by Alistair Barclay).
White over White Short tug/tow in sight
A short tow is under 200 meters (656 feet).
White over White over White Long tug/tow in sight
A long tow is over 200 meters (656 feet).
Red over Red over Red Rudder Rubbing Rocks
This refers to a vessel constrained by her draft. It applies only under the international rules.
White over Red Pilot ahead
A pilot boat, waiting for "customers," displays this combination so that boats needing a pilot will be able to find it. Pilot boats also display this combination when waiting to pick up a pilot who is finished with a customer. (The customer boat displays it normal running lights, as appropriate.) Thanks to John Browning for providing the correct information here.
An alternative mnemonic, submitted by Alistair Barclay and taken from A Small Boat Guide to the RULES OF THE ROAD by John Mellor, is White hat over red face. Dominick Orefice has suggested "Pilot in bed" as an alternative.
Red over White over Red Red When Restricted
A vessel showing this combination is restricted in its ability to maneuver. Stay away! Examples include vessels servicing navigation marks, cables, pipelines; vessels dredging, surveying, or carrying out under water operations (such as dive boats); any vessel engaged in servicing, replenishing, or transferring cargo or persons; or any vessel launching or recovering aircraft.
This is from A Small Boat Guide to the RULES OF THE ROAD by John Mellor and was submitted by Alistair Barclay.
An alternative, invented by myself, is Red over White over Red / Rudder Might be Dead. This rhymes, but isn't quite accurate (a vessel with a truly dead rudder is Not Under Command, Red over Red).
Boats can also show stern lights to help identify them. These are only visible when you are behind the boat. Some stern light combinations include:
Yellow over Yellow A pushy inland fellow
This refers to the stern lights of a tug pushing a barge, under the inland rules only. Improved by Rod McFadden.
Yellow over White My towline is tight
This refers to the stern lights of a tug towing astern. (Improved by Jim Woodward.)
Lights are also used to control passage through bridges and locks. So far, I only have information for the European lock system, submitted by Ray Battersby. More will be added as time and knowledge permit.
This entire section was written and submitted by Ray Battersby.
Traffic-Light control signals are commonplace at the entrances to European ports. These are generally of the form, Red, White (Yellow) and Green, vertically arranged and often with other lamps in parallel. Because of the need to identify inbound and outbound traffic, they don't use a simple Red = Stop, White (yellow) = Prepare to Move and Green = Go (as for road traffic - that would be too simple and too easy to remember!) but a combination.
However, by studying the Silk Cut Almanac, I have found that the following rules apply:
NOTE: Although the above matches the official interpretation in terms of your own rights of passage, using this abbreviated interpretation, a sharp lookout for other shipping movements (especially from the opposite direction and from astern) is strongly advised.
There are two buoyage systems used in the world, named "A" and "B". Buoyage system "A" is used in Europe, Asia, and Australia, with the exception of Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. System "B" is used elsewhere, notably including all of the Americas. The two systems use opposite color codes.
In both systems, the buoys also have coded shapes, called cans and nuns. A can is a simple cylinder, like an oil can. A nun is conical, with the name being reminiscent of the pointed hats worn by some orders of nuns. In both systems, cans appear on the left when returning from sea to port, nuns on the right.
In both systems, green buoys are given odd numbers and red buoys are even. The numbering starts at "1" at the mouth of the harbor or river, and increases from there.
The following two mnemonics, submitted by David H. Shaffer, may help remember the numbering scheme in the IALA "B" system:
The mnemonics given below are for buoyage system "A." Be sure to learn the right mnemonics for your area!
The mnemonics given below are for buoyage system "B." Be sure to learn the right mnemonics for your area!
There are many sound signals used in situations of limited visibility (i.e., fog), and when two ships need to agree on the maneuvers necessary to avoid collisions (see the right-of-way rules below). Most of these signals are quite hard to remember, and there didn't seem to be any mnemonics for them, so I invented some to help me out.
For collision avoidance, there are two systems. On inland waterways, intention/agreement signals are used. On international (offshore) waters, actual rudder actions are signaled. Fortunately, although at first glance the two systems differ, both actually use the same effective meanings for signals. So all you have to remember is that on an inland waterway, if somebody toots at you, you need to agree by repeating the same pattern back at them, and if you toot, don't change course until you get agreement. If you disagree, give the danger signal. Inland uses intention/agreement, offshore signals rudder operations.
In sound signals, a short blast has a duration of about 1 second; a prolonged blast is 4-6 seconds.
When you are approaching another boat head-on (more or less), the first two mnemonics below give the same information: turning to port will cause the other boat to pass on your starboard side. This simplifies things: since both mnemonics refer to a double blast, you can just memorize that fact, and know that the other direction is the single-blast case. Note: If you are exactly head-on, or very nearly so, the COLREGS prefer that you turn to starboard (single blast).
Blast twice short, Turn to port
Double blast, Starboard pass
A double blast always means that you are turning (COLREGS) or will turn (inland waters) to port. This means that you will pass the other boat on your starboard side.
Three in turn, Power astern
This indicates a boat that is slowing or stopping to avoid risk of collision.
Blast quick five To stay alive
This is the danger signal, to be given if you think there is confusion or imminent danger of a collision.
Navigation often requires relatively complicated arithmetic. The most common is compass corrections: converting between true directions and a compass reading.
There are a number of minor variations on this mnemonic, but the differences aren't important.
(Before you call me or anyone else sexist, note that virgins can be of either sex. If you think virgins make perfectly fine company, please remember that it's just a memory aid, not a politico-religious philosophy. In any case, I'm just quoting other people. Don't send me flames. Sheesh!)
The rules for who has the right of way are complex. The basic rule, of course, is General Responsibility: notwithstanding any other rule, you're not supposed to run into other people or things. That ought to be obvious.
For recreational boaters, a commonly-observed practical corollary is "tonnage has the right of way": stay out of the way of big boats, because even if you're technically right, you're going to be the loser in a collision.
Nevertheless, there are rules about who goes first, and you ought to know them. Since they're complex and lengthy, I invented a mnemonic to help recall them.
(Note: I've tried to summarize the essence of the COLREGS here. If you think I've gotten things wrong, you're welcome to e-mail me and set me straight. I'll appreciate it if you do, and I'll correct this Web page as soon as possible after I'm corrected.)
However, note that this mnemonic is a simplification of the rules. I'm not trying to codify every word of the COLREGS, I'm just trying to help you remember the most important points. Please don't nitpick. On second thought, please do nitpick, because I care a lot about details, but please don't get upset if your particular nit never makes it into this Web page.
The mnemonic below doesn't cover the situation where two similar boats are approaching (nearly) head-on. In that case, it is preferred that you alter course to starboard, so that you pass port-to-port (red to red, so that both are the give-way vessel; thanks to Paul Atterton for pointing this out). "Stay to the right and you'll be right," but the general-responsibility rule still overrides everything else.
This mnemonic gives the "order of priority," with the most important first. To use it, find yourself and the other boat on the list. The boat which comes first has the right of way, and is the stand-on vessel. If you both fall in the same category, then either the category itself tells you what to do (e.g., sailboats beat powerboats), or you must continue down the list. The mnemonic is "Generally, anchoring our red tugboat diligently minimizes surge loads." It is interpreted as follows:
This is an important one for sailors, of course, but note that there are a number of situations listed above where sailors must still give way.
Alistair Barclay sent me a different mnemonic, taken from A Small Boat Guide to the RULES OF THE ROAD by John Mellor: The mnemonic is "Nuclear restrictions constrain fishing and sailing, people say." It is interpreted as follows:
There are lots of weather mnemonics to help you predict and analyze the weather. Unfortunately, my best source at the moment is copyrighted (Reed's Nautical Companion, which I highly recommend anyway, though I must admit a slight bias because the people there have been very nice to me). So I'm limited at the moment to a few things that I can be sure are in the public domain. I'll expand this as I can.
WARNING: Remember that most of these weather rhymes are rules of thumb, collected over the centuries before we had supercomputers to help with weather foreguessing (oops, forecasting). They are useful guides, but as in all areas of weather, there are no certainties. Don't complain to me if they are less than 100% accurate.
Red sky at morning, Sailors take warning. Red sky at night, Sailor's delight.One of many classics. I learned this when I was a kid. I don't recall the mechanisms that make it true, but a colorful dawn means bad weather, while a colorful sunset means that tomorrow will probably be great sailing. Here's to red sunsets!
Ways to guess the depth, based on water color. This is useful in the Caribbean, among other places. The mnemonic goes from shallowest to deepest. It was provided by Steve Hodgson.
Brown brown, run aground, White white, you might, Green green, nice and clean, Blue blue, run right through.
I don't think anybody has any trouble picking a chart of the appropriate scale out of a pile, since it's pretty obvious whether it covers just a harbor or the whole ocean. But a lot of us have trouble with naming the damned things. Here's a helpful mnemonic which I picked up from The Practical Pilot by Leonard Eyges: Small scale, small detail; large scale, large detail. So a large-scale chart is the one you'd ask for if you needed to enter a harbor.
By the way, The Practical Pilot is the best book I've ever read on the subject of pleasure-boat navigation. Where Dutton's has advice on steering a battleship or tanker through a narrow channel (fascinating, but not something I ever expect to do), Eyges shows you how to tell whether that's one island or two on the horizon. My favorite coastal-navigation book!
The most basic terms in boating are those used to describe parts and directions on the boat. Most of these don't have or need mnemonics. (Do you really want to learn 50-odd different little rhymes just so you remember that the back of the boat is called the stern?) But a few have some handy mnemonics.
A third option, suggested by Peter W. Meek, is Red Left Port. The image is of a red-headed sailor going to sea, where he belongs (not some nasty old port). This mnemonic has the advantage that it also serves for remembering the colors of running lights and the codes for buoyage system "B".
The name "port" derives from the fact that steering was originally done from the right-hand side of the boat (see starboard, so the other side was put to the dock or "port".
Incidentally, the word starboard comes from steerboard, because originally the rudder was just a board held on the side of the boat, and most steersmen were right-handed.
Andy Oliver also points out that "leech" is a corruption of "lee edge" (say it fast).
Do powerboats have parts? :-)
These mnemonics were compiled, organized, and occasionally invented by Geoff Kuenning. If you have additions, or if you would like me to try to invent a mnemonic for a particular situation, please send me e-mail about it.
Copyright 1996, 1997 Geoff Kuenning. All rights reserved. Mnemonics not marked "original" are not covered by this copyright, although the descriptions of such mnemonics are still covered. Permission is granted to reproduce and/or disseminate this material in any form when used for non-profit or educational purposes, so long as authorship is properly credited and this copyright notice is maintained intact.
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