It’s probably a surprise to most people, but there are far more private aids to navigation in U.S. waters than government aids. Today the Coast Guard maintains about 35,000 aids to navigation. They include lights, sound (fog) signals, daymarks, LORAN and OMEGA (electronic) stations and lighted and unlighted buoys. At the same time there are approximately 50,000 private aids to navigation. Private aids are established and maintained by oil companies (Gulf of Mexico drilling platforms) harbor districts, marinas, yacht clubs, other government entities (Navy, cities) and private citizens who wish to light their dock or, in some cases, who have built their own “lighthouse” and wish to show a light from the lantern room. The largest single collection of private aids to navigation are the  approximate 30,000 lights and sound markings for the oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Private aids are separated into three categories. Class I is a private aid that the Coast Guard requires to be maintained. This is often an aid to mark a recently sunken vessel or some other hazard to navigation such as a pier that extends into navigable waters. Class II aids are requested by harbors, yacht clubs, marinas, etc. that are in heavily traveled waterways. Class III are aids requested by individuals that are located off the beaten path. Obtaining permission for a private aid to navigation is not a complicated matter. The approval is granted by the Aids to Navigation (ATON) branch of the Coast Guard district in which the aid will be established. A single sheet form is used to outline the type of aid and its intended characteristic. There is no cost involved. The primary purpose is that the Coast Guard wants to ensure that the characteristic of the aid is not similar to others in the area or would otherwise confuse the mariner.

Our government didn’t have authority to regulate private aids to navigation until the passage of a Congressional Act on June 30, 1906.

During Colonial times harbormasters, shipping companies and private citizens established aids to navigation how and where they saw fit. There was no rhyme or reason about what aids were placed or where. Mariners, unfamiliar with an area, were often more confused by the seamarks they encountered than if there hadn’t been any. The Blunt brothers helped matters somewhat by annually publishing a guide to the waterways of America called The Coast Pilot. It provided, in detail, what a mariner might experience when they sailed along the coast, or into a harbor, river or estuary. The publication also made recommendations on how to safely navigate an area: bearings to take, best tide stages to traverse and area, where hazards were located, etc.

Our government didn’t codify the aids to navigation system until the mid-19th century. Even then, steamboat companies, local harbormasters and private citizens continued to place aids to navigation as they saw fit. The problem with these private aids was they were not uniform. They didn’t emulate government standards. They were not published in newspapers or maritime journals; they were not properly maintained and sometimes they conflicted with established government aids. The government aids were listed in Light Lists, which gave detailed descriptions about each aid and location, and other information was printed on nautical charts. Any change to the aid to navigation such as when established, when missing or when discontinued, was published in a federal publication called the Notice to Mariners, local newspapers and other public journals. Every attempt was made to notify the mariner of changes to the aids.

The Lighthouse Board made the following recommendation every year between 1883 and 1895 and again in 1904 and 1905.

“The Board renews its recommendation that proper steps be taken to prohibit the establishment or maintenance of private lights and buoys in the navigable waters of the United States except with the consent of the board, and it again asks that provisions be made to enable it to establish inexpensive and temporary lights in cases of exigency and pending the action of Congress. In this connection the Board begs leave to repeat the recommendation it made in its annual report for 1883:

“Some action should be taken for the establishment of lights and buoys by steamboat companies and other private parties simply for their own convenience. The Board cannot establish a light without special authority of law in each case. It never exhibits a light without previously issuing a formal notice to mariners, and it never extinguishes one without giving similar notice sufficiently in advance to inform all concerned. Private lights are established and extinguished without such notice, much to the annoyance of the mariners, who are confused and misled by irregular beacons. Besides this, the lights, which are not properly kept, go out from time to time.

“One of the best examples of these private lights is that exhibited on Blackwells Island, by the municipality of New York City. It has gone out a number of times recently, and so much to the inconvenience, if not danger, of mariners that complaint has been made, and the Board has been subjected to unmerited criticism for failing to do what was alleged to be its duty. When in fact it has not the slightest control over that light. Under these circumstances the Board suggests that the exhibiting of lights or placing of buoys by corporations or private parties be prohibited by law. Lest any interest should suffer thereby it is further suggested that the Board, on being satisfied that it is immediately necessary to do so, be authorized to establish inexpensive temporary lights, if necessary on leased land, or to pay for their erection and maintenance, together with the cost to employ laborers to act as keepers, as is now done on the western rivers, from the general appropriations for the support of the Light-House Establishment, provided that funds can be spared from them for that purpose, and further provided that the Board shall make report of its action in each case, with the reason therefore, so that the congress may decide as to the continuance of each light.”

Private Aids Today

Approval for Private Aids to Navigation (PATON) is regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard under Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 66 (33CFR66).

What is a Private Aid to Navigation?

A Private Aid to Navigation is a buoy, light or daybeacon owned and maintained by any individual or organization other than the United States Coast Guard. These interests include private citizens, marina and yacht clubs, municipal and state governments, construction and dredging companies, research and non-profit organizations, beachfront associations, and large industrial companies. Private aids to navigation are designed to allow individuals or organizations to mark privately owned marine obstructions or other similar hazards to navigation, or to assist their own navigation operations. Private aids to navigation are required to be maintained by the owner as stated on the U.S. Coast Guard permit

The term Private Aids to Navigation can be confusing in some instances. The confusion exists because much of what we permit is not really an aid to navigation, such as a mooring buoy or a string of swim area buoys: they do not aid navigation in any way, although they warn the mariner to keep away from them. The PATON permit process is still the method we use to evaluate the navigational safety of the object placed in the water, and determine if it should be lighted and/or placed on the chart.

Management of PATON

The Coast Guard generally leaves management of mooring buoys to state and local authorities. The local and not-so-local authorities can include the Army Corps of Engineers, the State Lands Commission, the local Coastal Commission, various conservation districts and the local Harbormaster. The Coast Guard gets involved when there is not a designated mooring area and a buoy may need to be placed on the chart, but only after local authorities have approved the placement. The Coast Guard is also involved in large commercial mooring buoys that need to be lighted and charted.

Types of Private Aids

Temporary: Those aids that will be on station 6 months or less. An application is not required for a temporary aid, however, plans for any temporary aid should be submitted for review before it is established. The Coast Guard will publish the location of these temporary aids in the Local Notice to Mariners.

Permanent: Those aids that will be on station longer than 6 months and that require a completed and approved application.

Permitting and Applications

Private Aids on navigable waters regulated by the federal government require a Coast Guard permit. The application for a permit, form CG-2554, can be obtained by contacting the PATON Program Manager.

The PATON Program Manager provides applicants with assistance in processing their paperwork. Copies of federal regulations (33CFR66) governing aids to navigation and copies of previously issued permits are available. You may also obtain illustrations of standard markings used on navigable waters under the U.S. Aids to Navigation System. There is no longer a uniform state waterway marking system. Buoys and markers used inland and within state waters should be the same as the U.S. Aids to Navigation System. Contact or email the Program Manager to obtain an application or to submit any Temporary Private Aids to Navigation Plans for review prior to establishment of any temporary aid.

Download a Private Aids to Navigation Application (Form CG-2554 and Application Instructions. (Click items on downloads listing below)

Owners are reminded of their responsibility for the proper operation and maintenance of their private aids to navigation. When owners receive discrepancy reports from the Coast Guard, they are obligated to take immediate action to correct the discrepancy.

Mariners are reminded that they have a responsibility to report discrepant private aids to the nearest Coast Guard unit. All aids to navigation in all Coast Guard Districts, both private and federally maintained, are user monitored. The failure of a mariner to report a discrepant aid to navigation may result in casualties to others. The Coast Guard issues broadcast Notices to Mariners for reported discrepancies, which remain in effect until the discrepancy is corrected or is published in the Local Notices to Mariners.


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