Talking Buoys, Better Boating

By John Page Williams

Want real-time information straight from the buoy's mouth? All you have to do is ask.

Smart buoy on the Chesapeake BaySmart buoys such as this one on the Chesapeake Bay provide boaters with real-time observations on wind direction, speed, wave heights and currents, as well as water temperature, quality, and salinity. (Photo: NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office)

If digital technology can bring us "virtual" aids to navigation, it's no surprise that those ones and zeros can also give us real buoys that send us all sorts of useful information about the waters in which they float; they can even talk to us. Data buoys have been with us for decades, but the explosion in electronic sensors and digital communications of the past 30 years has accelerated their development — and their usefulness to many people, including recreational boaters.

The idea of using buoys instead of moored ships to gather weather observations is nearly a century old. Both Germany and the United States built buoys during World War II that could transmit measurements of air temperature, water temperature, wind speed, and sea state to shore stations. Countries continued to operate weather ships offshore until the early 1970s, by which time advances in sensors, batteries, buoy material and design, solar power, and communications made buoys the systems of choice not only for navies and air forces but also for commercial shipping and scientific research. Meanwhile, booming computer technology has allowed ingenious engineers to create so many uses for these valuable automated servants that the term for them has become "smart buoys."

By the middle of the past decade, the number of smart buoys around our coasts had grown to a point that required coordination of the data they were sending in. Yes, the U.S. Coast Guard was regulating their locations to avoid conflicts with navigation channels. But scientists and government agencies were learning much less than they could if they were able to set standards for data quality and reliability, then work out effective ways to share those data. Thus was born the National Data Buoy Center (NDBC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Visit and you'll find a world map with several hundred links.

Yes, our oceans are full of these valuable devices, and their value for weather and science are obvious. But do they do any good for us recreational boaters?

For the answer, zoom in and pick a buoy link close to home. Depending on what government agency or research lab placed it, the link will show who owns it and a combination of weather and water-quality data, all either live or in near-real time. In most cases, a buoy's sensors are at the surface or just beneath it. Some buoys are special-purpose, standalone units, but most belong to larger systems, grouped around an estuary, a river mouth, or even all of the Great Lakes.

Peake Performance

For me, living in Annapolis, Maryland, the choice is NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System, installed beginning in 2007. Currently the system includes 10 buoys anchored at sites along the bay's main stem, from the mouth of the Susquehanna River, in Maryland, to the bay's opening to the Atlantic, between the Virginia capes, as well as one just outside Annapolis Harbor, two in the James River, and one off the mouth of the York River.

The site's landing page always includes a Featured User, who may be a scientist from the University of Maryland, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, or Old Dominion University. More often, though, the user is a racing sailor, a charter captain, a bay pilot, or a towboat captain. Consider what the buoys can tell each of them.

Observations for the racing sailor include wind direction, speed (including gusts), and wave-height numbers that are no more than 10 minutes old. Sometimes even more valuable are the measurements of current (direction and speed). If the race is a long one and the course runs down the bay, the boat's tactician may look at observations over time at other buoys in the system, calling them up either by telephone (1-877-BUOYBAY) or on NOAA's free Smart Buoys smartphone app. The app even includes a graphing capability that shows trends in conditions. Cruising boaters, while probably not in as much of a hurry as the racer, derive obvious benefits from the same data.

Fishermen, both recreational and commercial, have learned to check the closest buoys for weather information and currents, which play major roles in the behavior of the Chesapeake's fish. The water-quality data can also be useful, especially water clarity, water temperature, and salinity — which varies from near zero (fresh) at the Susquehanna buoy to seawater levels at First Landing (the bay's mouth).

One buoy, at Gooses Reef, in the Chesapeake's main stem off the mouth of Maryland's Choptank River, has an array of sensors at the bottom (about 38 feet down) that send signals from a modem to the surface. This information can be especially valuable if the Chesapeake is stratified, with fresh river water flowing seaward over denser, saltier water. In summer, that deeper layer is often low in dissolved oxygen, a clear signal for anglers to look for fish in shallower water.

Bay pilots and their launch captains don't worry much about water clarity, but they care a lot about water temperature, wind direction and speed, wave heights, and currents at the First Landing buoy, especially when meeting a ship in that open water at oh-dark-thirty on an early morning in February. The Virginia and Maryland pilots associations are actually the heaviest users of the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System, though TowBoatUS captains keep it busy, too. Other Chesapeake Bay smart buoys are owned and operated by the two states' research labs and natural resource agencies, coordinated under the Chesapeake Bay Observing System.

Great Benefits

On the Great Lakes, boaters benefit from the Great Lakes Observing System, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Coordinated by LimnoTech, Inc. and Michigan Tech University, the system brings together buoys and shore stations owned by several dozen partners, including federal agencies, local municipalities, power companies, university laboratories, and private research firms. They include the same mix of meteorological and scientific observations, and it's worth noting that the municipalities' primary interest in them lies in monitoring conditions around their drinking-water intakes.

The system extends from Lake Erie's Western Basin to Lake Superior's Keweenaw Peninsula. Other NDBC smart buoys cover the Great Lakes from Duluth, Minnesota, at the western end of Lake Superior, to Ogdensburg, New York, on the St. Lawrence River. These buoys belong to NOAA, the U.S. National Park Service, other agencies, research labs, and Environment Canada. In addition, Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) serves up real-time data on winds, waves, and currents that's used extensively by recreational boaters in the summer season.

On the Columbia River, the Oregon Health and Science University in Beaverton hosts the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP) in partnership with Oregon State University and the University of Washington. CMOP sets its innovative monitoring gear on multiple fixed sites like bridges and jetties as well as buoys. Because the lower Columbia River is such a dynamic ecosystem, CMOP employs state-of-the-art sensors at multiple depths to record observations of dissolved oxygen, salinity, water temperature, and algae concentrations as well as weather.

On the Gulf of Mexico, the Dauphin Island (Alabama) Sea Lab and the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program jointly host My Mobile Bay, a system of buoys and shore-based monitors that covers the whole of the Mobile Bay estuary from the freshwater river mouths that feed it to open, salty Gulf waters. My Mobile Bay offers not only ecological data for scientists but also near-real-time wind, water-temperature, and wave-condition observations for small-boat sailors, recreational anglers, commercial oystermen, and crabbers, Mobile Bay Pilots, and even Great Loop cruisers exiting the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway into Mobile Bay on their way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Buoying Better Decisions

Smart buoys can help us make good decisions before we ­venture out, not only for safety but also sometimes for fishing success or even for winning a sailboat race. They allow us to better understand our home waters, helping predict the timing or severity of harmful algal blooms, for example, in the Great Lakes, or providing a sea nettle (stinging jellyfish) forecast on Chesapeake Bay. It's all there on your smartphone. All you have to do is ask. 

John Page Williams is the author of several books on the Chesapeake Bay and is a senior naturalist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

— Published: October/November 2016

Community Service, The TowBoat Way

Many of the buoys in the GLOS system rely on grants and donations for maintenance, including from our own Holland, Michigan, TowBoatUS owner Richard Lendarson, whose familiar red towboats install and remove the buoys each spring and fall at no charge. For example, Lendarson's captains installed the Port Sheldon buoy in late May, getting it on the water in time for the Memorial Day surge in boat traffic. The buoy is one of the most popular with boaters in the entire system, recording nearly 1 million clicks per year.

— Michael Vatalaro


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!