Just as highway signs are vital to safe driving, so channel markers exist to help boats travel the waterways safely. In this post, we will explore exactly what the channel markers look like and when to use them. Once you know how to interpret marker buoys, you can be certain that you’re doing things right to ensure the safety of your passengers, and other boats you encounter.
Why They’re There
Channel markers indicate the sides of a navigable channel; you can avoid sand bars and other hazards by keeping within the markers. They also show where junctions with other channels occur, as well as forks or splits in a channel. Channel markers can show the safe side to pass a hazard. And on wide bodies of water, they mark the safe centerline.
Generally, marker buoys come in two colors: red and green. These colors are tremendously important. The memory aid of “red, right, returning” will help you interpret the channel marker correctly. Basically, red marker buoys should be on your right (starboard) as you return from open water. Conversely, green channel markers should be on your starboard side as you head out into open water.
The red marker buoys also have a triangular shape. With daybeacons or boards, the sign itself is a triangle. With channel buoys, the body of the buoy is cylindrical and the top is cone shaped; these marker buoys are called nuns. The green daybeacons or boards will be square, and the marker buoys will be cylindrical with flat tops.
Channel markers also have numbers that indicate how close you are to open water. The lower the number, the nearer the open water is. So, for instance, if the first marker buoy that you encounter has a 44 on it, you should see numbers decreasing until you enter open water. The green marker buoys should always have odd numbers on them and the red ones should have even numbers on them.
These three factors – color, shape, and number – will tell you everything you need to know about navigating through a channel out to open sea and back again. As you depart, the green markers (square boards or cylindrical buoys with flat tops) with odd numbers on them should be to your right (starboard). Returning home, the red markers (triangles or cylindrical buoys with conical tops) with even numbers should be starboard.
Sometimes marker buoys can have horizontal bands of both red and green. The upper color indicates the direction of the preferred, or primary, channel. When returning (entering a channel from the open sea or proceeding upstream), if you keep the channel buoys with red as the top-most color on the starboard side of the boat, you’ll be in the preferred channel, while keeping them on the port side will mean you’re in the secondary channel. When going toward open water, if you keep the channel buoys with green as the upper color on the starboard side, you’ll be in the preferred channel, while keeping them on the port side will mean you’re in the secondary channel.
Understanding channel markers makes you a safe, responsible boater. But just like you need to be prepared for a driver coming down the wrong side of the road, you should always be ready for boaters misreading marker buoys.