How Do I Follow a Channel Buoy?

Channel buoys function much like lanes on a highway; obviously there are no yellow or white lines, but the buoys provide similar information, including in what direction you should be traveling, and how close you are to your destination. When you’re on the water and responsible for the safety of your passengers, it’s essential that you understand the markers. Once you know how to interpret marker buoys, you can be certain that you’re doing things right.


Channel markers show you the sides of a navigable channel; you can avoid sand bars and other hazards in the water by keeping within the buoys. When a channel splits, or there’s an intersection with another channel, buoys indicate that too. Channel markers can show the safe side to pass a hazard. And on wide bodies of water, they mark the safe centerline. There are three elements you need to know in order to interpret channel marker buoys properly: color, shape, and number.

Red, Right, Return

The memory aid “Red, Right, Return” is a great help in interpreting channel marker buoys. Keep that phrase in mind when learning about the different meanings of color, shape, and number.


Channel marker buoys usually come in one of two colors: red or green. These colors are tremendously important. Red marker buoys should be on your right (starboard) as you return from open water (thus the mnemonic phrase). Obviously, green channel marker buoys should be on your starboard side as you head out into open water.


Red channel marker buoys have a triangular shape. With daybeacons or boards, the sign itself is a triangle. With channel marker buoys, the body of the buoy is cylindrical and the top is cone shaped; these marker buoys are called nuns. Green daybeacons or boards will be square, and the marker buoys will be cylindrical with flat tops.


Channel marker buoys also have numbers that indicate how near to open water you are. The lower the number, the closer you are. So, for instance, if the first channel marker buoy that you encounter has a 44 on it, you should see numbers decreasing until you enter open water. The green channel marker buoys should always have odd numbers on them and the red ones should have even numbers on them.


These three elements – color, shape, and number – will tell you everything you need to know about navigating through a channel out to open water 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.

Preferred-Channel Markers

Sometimes channel 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 marker buoys and always following them properly helps make 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 or ignoring marker buoys.