March 10, 2009

A yachty aide-mémoire

IF YOU CAN remember what the word mnemonics means, you probably don’t need mnemonics. It’s my personal misfortune, however, that I can’t hardly remember anything, so I’m one of those sailors who definitely does need mnemonics.

I even had to invent a mnemonic to help me remember the colors, shapes, and numbers of navigation buoys. I mean, it’s all very well to remember “Red, Right, Returning,” but what if you’re entering a strange port at dusk, and you can’t see whether the buoy’s red or not? There are many times when you can’t see anything but the black silhouette of a buoy, or maybe just its number. Which side do you leave it on then?

Well, to help me sort it out, I imagine a Russian nun carrying a green milk can from the nunnery cow barn. I recite to myself: “Even Red Nuns Carry Odd Green Cans.”

Those of you who know how to navigate by the Mark 1 Eyeball method will recognize the shorthand code in my mnemonic. It tells you that red buoys are nun buoys — the ones with the conical, pointy tops. It also tells you that nun buoys always carry even numbers. Conversely, can buoys — the ones with the flat tops, like cans of soup — are always colored green, and they carry odd numbers.

Thus, if I stumble upon a buoy while returning to port at dusk, I know I should leave it to starboard, if it (a) has a conical top; OR (b) it’s colored red; OR (c) it carries an even number. OR all three, of course. But any one will do the trick.

However — and there’s always a however — it’s an unfortunate fact that buoys with lights on them do not necessarily conform to the nun or can shapes. From a distance, in broad daylight, most lighted buoys look like can buoys with their middle section missing. In daylight, such a buoy will not tell you which side of the channel it guards. If you’re nervous, you have to hang around until dark, and only when it starts flashing either red or green will you know which side to leave it on.

Meanwhile, it’s sad that there can be no mnemonic for lighted buoys. It’s a flaw that was apparently overlooked by the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities when they bequeathed System B to us. You’d think a high-powered bunch of maritime brains like that would have seen the problem coming, and invented distinctive shapes for red light buoys and green light buoys. But no. No such luck, dude. What do they care about Eyeball Mark 1 navigators in pesky little sailboats, I ask you? Nothing, that’s what. If they ever choke on their caviar, some of us won’t be too concerned.

Today’s Thought
They make glorious shipwreck who are lost in seeking worlds.

A hard man is good to find.
—Mae West

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