At a contentious session that stretched well into the early hours of a Brussel’s morning, the delegates representing the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) regions A and B, arrived at an agreement that will usher in an end to the longstanding – and greatly confusing – differences in bouyage in different parts of the world. The agreement will do so by replacing all green and red lateral marks with purple ones on both sides of the channel.
The divisive issue reaches back to the late 18th century, when an English representative pulled a knife on an American delegate, and said things about his mother that could not be unsaid. While relations have recovered somewhat from this since, until this past week the two sides had not formally spoken since 1967. This allowed the continuation of an absurd status quo in which a red or green mark means the exact opposite on one side of the Atlantic from the other, and a confusing hodge-podge of allegiance to the A or B scheme in the rest of the world mostly depending on whether the country in question prefers ‘Freedom Fries’ or the traditional ‘French’ variety. In the ensuing decades that this state of affairs has been allowed to stand, a large number (more than 14 and less than 300) of serious maritime incidents have occurred in which vessels have run aground due to a watchkeeper’s false belief that they are – for example – in Greece when, in fact, they are in Virginia. While official investigations into these incidents have generally questioned the acumen of a watchkeeper that found his or herself so easily confused, an unspoken feeling persists that if the channel markers weren’t the opposite meaning depending on where in the world a vessel finds itself, the ‘low-watt bulb’ seafarer would stand a better chance of penetrating the dark mysteries of navigation.
With the two heads of the respective regions of the IALA system having stated publicly that they hate each other’s guts, there existed little hope of achieving the radical alteration that would be needed to rectify this situation. All that changed last week, when Ari Aardvark (head of IALA region A) pressed a speed-dial button on an old phone, for no particular reason other than general curiousity. He found himself speaking to Bob Babbet (head of region B) and after an awkward exchange they found that they had much to catch up on.
‘Yes.” Confirmed Mr. Babbet. “It started with a phone call. That broke the long silence. We followed up with an email, and then agreed to meet in person to try to resolve this longstanding issue. By Friday evening he was sitting on my lap and it was at that point that I became confident we would find a solution.”
The main reason why making this change is now possible? Both sides agree it is because no one is using the markers anymore, anyway. Mr. Aardvark explains:
“Our investigations have shown that 89% of mariners navigating in a channel are looking directly at an electronic plotter or mobile device with a charting app, and at no point in their passage through the channel do they visually note a physical aid to navigation, ie; a channel marker. With this in mind, changing the buoyage scheme from one in which a channel is demarcated by a set of green markers on one side and red on the other, to one in which there are just two rows of purple markers, will likely go unnoticed and will resolve this ongoing issue of international tension. We actually discussed removing all markers entirely, but many local anglers groups complained this would leave them with nothing to moor to while fishing. Also, of course, there was the potential issue of people running out of battery on their phone while attempting to navigate, of especial concern now with IOS 8 being a major juice-drainer.”
With the signing of the agreement the new standard will come into immediate effect, though both regions stated it would likely be some time before mariners begin to see purple markers on the water. “There really isn’t any rush. Very few people are going to notice anyway.”