Up till approximately 128 years ago there was no uniform system of buoyage among maritime nations. This was an unacceptable situation and in 1889 a number of countries got together and decided to do something about it. They agreed to mark the port side of channels with black can buoys and the starboard side with red conical buoys. Unfortunately there was a difference of opinion between the European nations and the Americans. The former decided to light the black port hand buoys with a red light and the latter decided to light the red starboard hand buoys with a red light. This situation continued despite a number of conferences to find a common buoyage system.
In 1936, shortly before the second world war, the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations) drew up a system comprising a cardinal and a lateral sub-system. In the lateral sub-system red buoys were to be used to mark the port hand sides of channels and black buoys the starboard hand side. Unfortunately, not all maritime nations were signatories to the convention and they continued to develop their own systems.
During the war (1939 – 1945) the countries of Europe removed their buoys to prevent the enemy from using them to raid or invade them. After the war a system of buoyage based on the 1936 system was introduced in north-west Europe. Again the wide interpretation of the rules resulted in nine different systems.
This state of affairs lasted until 1971 when a series of maritime disasters occurred in the Dover Straits between Great Britain and France and resulted in the birth of the IALA maritime buoyage system. What occurred was the following:
- An American 20 000 dwt tanker (TEXACO CARIBBEAN) collided with a Peruvian cargo ship of 9 000 dwt (PARACAS). The tanker blew up split in two and sank. The after part was located and marked. The forward part could not be found.
- The following day a German cargo ship of 2 500 dwt (BRANDENBURG) hit the unmarked, submerged forward section of the tanker and sliced her bottom open for over half her length. The vessel sank immediately. The three wrecks were marked with buoys.
- Approximately one and a half months later a Greek cargo ship (NIKKI) ignored the warning buoys and entered the area of the wrecks. She hit one of the wrecks and ripped her bottom open and sank immediately with total loss of life. Since the initial collision between the American tanker and the Peruvian cargo ship, a total of fifty one lives were lost.
At last the international community were shaken into action and in 1973 a further attempt was made to institute a common system. The technical committee of the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities finally proposed a solution which comprised two systems, one operating in the areas around America and the regions influenced by the Americans and one operating in the rest of the world. The regions were called REGION A and REGION B. The main difference between the two systems is the colour of the lateral buoys. In Region A the colour red of the lateral system is used to mark the port side of channels and the colour green the starboard side. In Region B the colours are reversed.
The IALA system was formally adopted in 1980 and has since been implemented throughout the world. In certain areas such as North America and the inland waterways of Western Europe, the system is used with modifications which are described in Admiralty Sailing Directions.