The red buoys and others that have disappeared from along the east coast served a legitimate purpose: to allow vessels running along the coast to have physical navigation markers to help fix their positions and maintain overall situational awareness, thereby reducing the risk of grounding.

Maritime safety authorities, company policies, educational curricula, industry best practices, etc., point out the obvious: that any aid to navigation (ATON) could be off-station, malfunctioning, sunk, destroyed or otherwise compromised. Therefore, ATONs should never be relied on for “safe” navigation. Likewise, you should never rely on radar, or your depth sounder, or your GPS receiver, navigation plotter, or ECDIS. In short, you should rely on nothing whatsoever because everything is prone to failure. It’s a disingenuous circular reasoning cycle that serves more as a way to assign liability than anything else. Mariners too, as amply demonstrated by history, are prone to failure. So are those who regulate and oversee us, and trainers and educators.

The fact is that to varying degrees at various times we must rely on all of these things in varying combinations as circumstances change. Ideally you want to have as many options or resources available as possible, so that you avoid getting boxed in and having to rely too much on any one of them. Or just one of them. Nevertheless, sometimes that’s exactly where you may find yourself. Single-point failure is the bane of human endeavor, but we’re still very prone to it.

Virtually every act of modern human activity, particularly commerce, has become totally dependent on a 100% reliable, fully functioning Global Positioning System — and this seems to be acceptable and accepted. But today, however, take away someone’s smartphone and they just might never make it home.

Doing away with those physical buoys removes yet another layer of protection — removes options for the navigator. While it’s likely to be inevitable that we continue to follow the technological advancement trajectory without questioning it, this change should not pass unnoticed or without comment.

Joel Milton works on towing vessels. He can be reached at [email protected].