Private Buoy Rules
All aboard or abandon ship?
Private buoy rules are very restrictive in Canada, and a well-meaning cottager who places a marker to warn boaters about a rock or reef could be fined or even sued.
Private buoys for dangerous water
Every year, collisions with unmarked rocks and shallow reefs ruin the holidays for scores of fishermen and cottage renters who visit the Kenora region.
On the Winnipeg River, the risks are specifically high. A stretch of water that is safely navigable one week can be a death trap the next. Rising water levels often conceal previously exposed rocks, and a water-level drop brings dangerous reefs closer to the surface.
Now you see it
One such hazard is a tiny island located smack in the middle of the channel leading to my cabin. At lower water levels the island is clearly visible and easily avoided.
Now you don’t
But as flow rates coming into the Winnipeg River from Lake of the Woods reach 1000 cubic metres per second, this ominous landmark vanishes from sight, sometimes overnight, and perilously lurks inches below the surface, awaiting its next victim.
When this happens, it’s not long before the bellowing thud of an abraded bottom or busted skeg echoes down the waterway. One by one the local cottagers appear on their docks, with coffee in hand, to assess the situation and offer help or simply watch the show.
Once in a while the damage is significant, and chatter starts anew about whether a proper buoy should be placed on the reef.
More than a dozen similar threats can be found in the immediate area. All sit at various depths and regularly claim props and bottom ends at different times of the season as water levels fluctuate.
Despite the plethora of boating perils, there are very few buoys.
In fact, only five government-installed buoys exist along this section of the river. The most treacherous point – a part of the waterway that passes over a stretch of rapids – is actually marked by a private buoy.
The abundance of unmarked hazards is certainly not unique to this area. Bottom-end “graveyards” are scattered up and down the river and throughout Lake of the Woods.
Who, if anyone, is responsible for warning wayward boaters about the risks?
Budget restrictions make it nearly impossible for a municipality to fund a large-scale buoy program and most cottagers are unable or unwilling to accept the costs, responsibilities or risks.
Transport Canada says the use of private buoys should be kept to a minimum and only used in high-traffic areas because too many buoys can be confusing for boaters who are less familiar with the buoyage system.
And the point could be made that visitors on the waterway are responsible for their own safety and should be using the latest maps when navigating Lake of the Woods and the Winnipeg River.
This is especially true when they are exploring areas beyond the main channels.
And, truth be told, most cottagers have little sympathy for visiting boaters who rip around the lake and later find themselves stranded because they clipped a rock or shallow reef.
Nonetheless, some cabin owners give in to their conscience and place homemade (unknowingly illegal) markers at dangerous spots. But this act of kindness is risky and could actually come back to haunt the cottager in the form of a fine or lawsuit.
Responsibilities of Private Buoy Owners
For those who are considering installing private buoys to help people avoid the shallow rocks and reefs, the decision can’t be taken lightly.
The buoy must be installed and maintained in a way that conforms to Transport Canada’s private-buoy regulations, and owners of private buoys assume full responsibility and liability for their markers.
A private buoy must be installed in accordance with all legal requirements and guidelines, including those outlined by the Private Buoy Rules, the Canadian Coast Guard’s Canadian Aids to Navigation System (TP 968) and the Navigable Waters Protection Program.
It has to be built, maintained and anchored so that it holds its position.
The buoy should be checked and repaired on a regular schedule to ensure the buoy continues to meet legal requirements.
If necessary, the buoy will be fitted with recommended retroreflective material or lights that comply with the Canadian Aids to Navigation System requirements.
According to Transport Canada, the use of standard red or green buoys is adequate in most situations. In areas where the water is uncharted or it is difficult to determine which direction the water flows, cardinal buoys may be advisable.
Liability for private buoys
Owners of private buoys can be held responsible for damages resulting from accidents involving the private buoy. Transport Canada recommends that private buoy owners get liability insurance coverage.
Private buoy owners can also be fined for placing a buoy that does not meet legal guidelines or standards.
Private buoys that are designed to restrict navigation must be approved by Transport Canada. This would include private buoys that display speed limits or keep-out markings.
Requests for navigation restrictions are handled under the Vessel Operation Restriction Regulations (VORR) and must be originated by local authorities. Quebec, Ontario and Alberta have provincial authorities that review the applications before passing them on the Transport Canada.
Choosing the right private buoy
There are several buoy classifications. The type of buoy you decide to install depends on the function it is designed to serve.
Lateral buoys are used to inform boaters which side is the safest route to take. Port-hand and starboard-hand buoys are the most common.
Cardinal buoys make reference to the cardinal points of the compass to tell boaters where the safest water lies. The four types of cardinal buoys are: North, East, South and West.
Special buoys can be used to give boaters specific information that generally isn’t designed to aid with navigation. These include swimming buoys, mooring buoys and buoys designed to restrict navigation such as speed-limit and keep-out buoys.
Diagrams courtesy of Transport Canada
Buoy size requirements
All private buoys must have above-water width and height dimensions of at least six inches (15.25cm) wide by 12 inches (30.5 cm) high.
The minimum size would only be appropriate for areas that are sheltered and see low traffic. Larger buoys would be required in areas with higher boat traffic and where bad weather would restrict a boater’s ability to interpret the buoy’s signal in a timely manner.
Transport Canada has the power to demand changes to private buoys. Modifications might include increasing the size, adding retroreflective materials or adding lights and sound devices.
Private buoys must display the capital letters “PRIV” on opposite sides and in a colour that sharply contrasts the main colour of the buoy. White letters are generally placed on red, green or black buoys and black letters are used for yellow or white buoys.
The owner’s name, address and phone number must also be permanently labeled and located in a place that is easy to read.
Buoy construction material
It is best to use a store-bought buoy that meets the standards outlined in the Private Buoy Rules. The buoy must be tough enough to survive all weather and water conditions and be able to withstand impacts with boats and debris. The buoy must also be easily visible from a distance.
Homemade buoys can be used as long as they meet the Transport Canada requirements.
Steel drums, barrels, propane tanks, bleach bottles, milk, pop or juice jugs do not meet the standards.
Retroreflective material and lights
The retroreflective material placed on a buoy to make it more visible must be the same colour as an approved light would be for the specific buoy.
The material should be at least four inches wide (10 cm) when placed around the circumference of the buoy.
The colour codes for lights and retroreflective material are as follows:
Red – starboard
Yellow – special buoys (hazard, swimming, mooring, speed control, keep-out or information)
Bird droppings, sun exposure and damage from collisions can reduce the effectiveness of the retroreflective material. Owners should conduct periodic testing at night to ensure the material is still reflecting properly and replace the material as needed.
Worth the trouble?
Private buoys definitely help boaters avoid the hidden dangers found in the lakes and rivers of the Kenora region, and installing a proper one is certainly a noble endeavor.
Given the costs and responsibilities, it may be more reasonable for cottage communities, rather than individuals, to undertake the task of marking dangerous parts of the lake or river. But this still requires getting approvals, buying buoys and acquiring the proper liability insurance.
Whether or not cottagers and their associations should be forced to bear the burden of responsibility for helping make the water a safer place for visitors is certainly up for debate.
Written and photographed by: Andrew Walker