Light Buoys
Here is the buoy... wait is this the right buoy?
Published: 6/7/2017
I was lost and didn't even know it. The light I was concentrating on was our turning point. Flashing just like the chart indicated. Same color. Same flashing characteristic. And, just off the starboard bow like it should be. There was just one problem--it was the wrong light and we didn't even realize it!

We were southbound one black night in the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), that narrow "ditch" dredged just inside the coastline of the US east and gulf coasts. The ICW  starts in New Jersey, wanders down the east coast, then wraps around the Florida Keys, then along the Gulf coast and ends in Texas. But on this pitch black starless night, we were in Florida. 
And, that light just to starboard just happened to have the same exact characteristic as the correct light--which we had not even seen yet. At the moment, it was hidden like a chameleon, lost in the background clutter of city lights dead ahead. 
All of a sudden, our spotlight picked up the reflective tape of the correct light just a few yards ahead--to port!  To port? We were about to take the light down the wrong side!   At the last moment we made a hard port turn to take the light down our starboard side with just yards to spare.  I'll bet we missed that mud flat by ten feet or less!  

When I was asked to head up the seamanship and navigation department, I created a simple technique that helped avoid mistakes like this. We used it in our night navigation practical courses. It's called "S.T.O.P."  and works like a charm. Use this technique any time that you need to get oriented inside a channel or waterway. Follow the four steps below. 

Stands for stop the boat or slow down next to a known mark. For example, let's say you pass near a buoy and have not yet picked up the next aid to navigation. Stop the boat next to this buoy. You know where you are right now, so stop and hold your position into the wind or current. Go to the next step.

Stands for take a bearing. You know where you are right now. Find the marker you are stopped next to on your chart. Draw a line from that marker to the light or buoy you are trying to locate. Determine the magnetic bearing to the next marker. 
Use a hand bearing compass or turn the boat and point the bow in that direction. Scan ahead with a binocular or sweep ahead with your spotlight at nighttime. You should see the next marker ahead close to your bearing. Go to the next step.

Stands for get oriented before you move on. So, right now you have the next marker in sight. Turn off the spotlight. Hold your position for a few seconds or however long it takes. Get oriented with the big picture before you move on. If you need to confirm things, repeat the first two steps. 

Stands for proceed when you are ready and have full orientation. Night navigation, fog navigation, squall navigation, and barren coast navigation all require staying ahead of the boat. That sums up most any type of navigation, but it's vital in inland or coastal waters. 
Always be looking ahead for emergency "pull off the road" places to anchor. If off the coast and are in doubt of your position, it's often best to wait until daybreak before you attempt to pull in to a new harbor or anchorage. Head back out to sea or heave-to.