Thursday, October 4, 2012

Splitting the Greens

To guide us "home", our clubhouse is equipped with nav lights.

On the eve of the oldest and largest in-water sailboat show in the world -- the United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis – that is the figurative starting gun for hundreds of cruisers heading south for the winter, it is timely to review a basic of navigating: marked channels. After all, many of the cruisers will follow the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) all the way to Florida, and the ICW is nothing more than one long marked channel.

How do sea gypsies, saltwater vagabonds and hedonistic wanderers of the ocean  know how to go where they are going? Many don't care; they just don't want to sink on the way to where they end up. The rest of us rely on paper charts, navigation software and chartplotters along with GPS to plan where we want to go, how we want to get there and to know where we are along the way. [The art of navigating with a sextant, a valuable skill, is all but extinct.] In our local water, in good weather, navigating by sight can work fine once you know the location of the main hazards. Even then, you need to know how to read channel markers.

As many of you may know, and all mariners should know, channels are marked with red markers (even numbers, if numbered) and green markers (odd numbers). The guiding lay principle for which color marks which side of a channel is “red right returning” which means that a mariner keeps the red markers on the right (starboard) when returning from sea. Naturally, the full rule is a bit more complicated as exceptions are clarified. For example, when traveling the ICW, the red is on your right when heading toward Miami, but green is on your right when heading toward New York. Although it probably helps for you to know for your own purposes whether you are going or coming, the protocol for colors of channel markers is not dependent upon your destination.

When channels splinter off a major body of water, the rules can seem confusing (good time to consult a chart), but most often it is only a case of stranger in a strange land. The Whittaker Creek channel presents an excellent excuse for confusion with an out-of-area mariner (though the results I will describe occur almost as often with locals) who is heading north toward New York and, immediately prior to entering our channel, has just followed more than fifteen miles of ICW keeping the greens on the right. Note that the Whittaker Creek channel begins in the Neuse River, and the “red right returning” maxim does apply.

Within fifty yards of the stern of our boat are three channel markers, all green.  When approaching, the first marker is a green can (5A) followed by a flashing green beacon (5) and then an unlit piling (7).These three form and mark the corner where the long narrow northeast run of the channel turns northwest.

But here’s the thing. A tired mariner, presumably unfamiliar with the locale, who has been keeping greens on the right, approaches a well-marked right angle corner (even more clear if he/she refers to their chart), and the can before the flashing beacon calls like a siren to be taken on the right side like so many greens on the ICW that day. The welcoming can invites the mariner to gaze beyond to the symmetrical temptation of a flashing beacon so close to another green piling, the two standing like the paired uprights of a goalpost, a true destination, a successful landfall after a long day motoring the ICW. The logical tactic? Split the greens like a fourth quarter field goal.

Nope. Not here. Not ever. [Excluding private markers and those outside the US.] There is no such navigational maneuver as following a channel by splitting the greens (or the reds for that matter). Each color marks a single side of a channel.

The corner where captains “split the greens” on Whittaker Creek (#7 to left of arrow). The channel is right of the can and #5 beacon (to right above). The boat in the photo is aground; it was heading out (greens on starboard) when the captain decided to split the greens. One of the lucky ones, he rescued himself, but for others Towboat is only a few hundred yards away. [Note: boat name is obscured to protect the captain.]
Regardless of size or make of boat, power or sail, regardless whether you are heading south or north on the ICW, there is never a reason to steer between two green channel markers (or two reds). Yes, any of us can make a mistake, but this one is marked. It is not like slipping out of the channel onto a shoal. With even a light crosswind or crosscurrent, it is easy to believe that you are maintaining your course so long as your bow appears to be pointed on the correct bearing while you are actually slipping sideways out of the safety of the channel. (Checking your stern alignment helps.)

But if ever you think that the channel passes between two markers of the same color, stop the boat, check the chart and think about it twice, thrice or more before you proceed. The keel you save will be your own. [Locally, most of the bottom is sand or sticky mud, not the hull-opening, boat-sinking rocks of the northeast. We can usually get unstuck before real bad things happen.]

Watching this happen with some regularity near our slip makes me want to put this rule to music in a rousing Heave Ho kind of sea chantey.

Some are so convinced that the channel lies between the greens that upon grounding, they back off, slip a bit to one side (the true center of the channel?) and proceed again, splitting the greens with commitment if not fervor.

One boat took the green can to its right, grounded, then launched its dinghy to kedge it away from the green can and farther onto the shoal, believing that the two green markers on pilings indicated the goal line for the day. I could not let them energetically winch themselves into shallower water even when the perplexed captain seemed to question my directive that he needed to be on my side of the can if he wanted a channel sufficient to float his boat. He acquiesced and winched himself free. [As a side note, local crabbers often string their traps along the edge of the channel. The trap floats can be a useful, if unofficial, guide to staying in the channel. Besides, you do not want to foul your propeller because you failed to notice you were cutting across the trap line. But people do.]

There are plenty of opportunities for mariners to run aground. Consciously splitting the greens should not be one of them. Then again, this is free entertainment for us.

Bill on S/V Hale Kai became the first of our friends to head south when he departed yesterday. He is solo and headed for the Keys before crossing to the Bahamas. He wants to take his time and avoid the crush of boats that inevitably stack up, circling in winds and currents, while waiting for a drawbridge to open. We wish him fair winds, calm seas and attentive captains.


  1. I just stay in the middle and try to follow someone with more draft than we have! Much easier than reading those pesky channel markers.

  2. Unfortunately, most of the Caribbean islands (except the French islands) lack any kind of channel markers, which is usually okay when the water is clear, but when it's not...

    1. No markers provides a simpler solution; no worries about someone not reading them correctly.


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