Water Buoy Markers: What Do They Mean?

Water buoy markers are present to guide you, give you information, warn you of hazards, and indicate controlled or closed areas. Basically, water buoy markers act like the best moms, keeping everyone safe and happy. When you can interpret them with ease, your confidence will increase and so will your pleasure on the water.

Lateral Buoys

The most common kind of water buoy markers are lateral or channel buoys. Lateral buoys are channel markers indicating 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.


Lateral buoys come in two colors: red and green. 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 water marker buoys 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.

Whole Interpretation

These three factors – color, shape, and number – will tell you everything you need to know about navigating 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.


The exception to some of the above comes with the Wester Rivers System. This system of markers is used on the Mississippi River and its tributaries above Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and on some other rivers that flow toward the Gulf of Mexico. Navigation markers here are not numbered. Any numbers displayed indicate distance from the river’s mouth (except the Ohio River, indicating distance to the headwaters).

Informational Water Buoy Markers

These give information other than the edges of safe water areas. They are found on lakes and rivers and give directions and information, mark controlled or closed areas, and warn of hazards and obstructions.

Safe Water Markers

These are white with red vertical stripes and indicate unobstructed water on all sides. They mark mid-channels may be passed on either side.

Inland Waters Obstruction Markers

These are white with black vertical stripes and indicate an obstruction to navigation. You should not pass between these buoys and the nearest shore.

Mooring Buoys

These are white with a blue horizontal band, usually placed in marinas and other areas where vessels are allowed to anchor. You may tie up to these buoys; they are the only ones where you can do that.

Water buoy markers give you a clear and accurate picture of the waters you’re traveling. Knowing how to read them correctly will ensure the safety of your passengers, yourself, and all the other boats on the water. Water buoy markers are the mariner’s best friend.