Sailing Navigation Secrets – How to Use the Power of Magic RACONs

Captain John from shares with us some not so common knowledge about RACONs for safer navigation.
Did you know that some aids to navigation, like big sea buoys or lighthouse, have special homing beacons? Or that these magic beacons paint a picture on your radar for easier navigation in any sailing weather. Use these simple sailing tips to boost your navigation safety sky high!

Big navigation buoys–called “sea buoys” mark the entrance to major harbors, as do larger light structures. For example, on the US east coast, the Miami sea buoy offers mariners the first indication that they have arrived at the mouth of the harbor entrance. Off of Chesapeake Bay, the huge light tower with the words “CHESAPEAKE” adorning her sides welcomes mariners to the world’s largest estuary.

But powerful lights are not all these aids to navigation offer. Install radar aboard your boat and you can take advantage of one of the niftiest nautical electronic devices around–the RACON–short for Radio-Transponder-Beacon.

Aids to navigation equipped with these beacons will always show the abbreviation RACON in all capital letters at the end of the description. Look for a Morse code symbol (a series of dashes or dashes and dots) next to the letters.

The illustration shows the Miami sea buoy “M”. Note the large magenta colored circle drawn around the buoy body. This means that this aid to navigation comes equipped with some type of electronic device. The last part of her description shows the type–in this case a RACON. Next to the RACON abbreviation, you will see the Morse code symbol “–”. This describes the image that will “paint” onto your radar.

If you turn on your radar near Miami harbor, you would see a huge cluster of dots. Each buoy, beacon, light structure, boat, or ship would appear as a dot. You can see how this could lead to confusion. But a RACON equipped buoy, light structure, or lighthouse solves this problem fast and easy! Here’s an example:

Imagine that you and your sailing partner are headed toward Miami from the Bahamas. Once you get within range (more on this below), keep a close eye on your radar. Pulses from your radar will trigger the RACON on the Miami sea buoy. You will soon see distinct long dashes appear on your radar screen. Now, you will be able to pick out the Miami sea buoy even in a cluster of dozens of buoys, beacons, boats, and ships.

RACON signals are staggered to conserve energy and enable you to pick out targets for navigation and collision avoidance (buoys, boats, ships). Most US RACONs have an intentional off-time period of about 20 seconds (on for 20 seconds; off for 20 seconds). Other countries may use longer intervals of off-time compared to on-time (i.e. on for 20 seconds; off for 40 seconds).

The distance of sighting a RACON signal will be limited to the height of your radar antenna and power of your radar unit. Sailing heeled over will limit signal reception. RACON signals are powerful enough to be picked up at distances of up to about 17 nautical miles off the coast.

Use these sailing navigation tips to keep safe on the waters of the world. Gain the confidence and peace of mind you need to make safer landfalls in clear or foggy weather–wherever in the world you choose to cruise!

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