Boating Life

How To: Read Channel Markers

April 25, 2019
Ingman Marine
Helpful Tips
April 25, 2019
Ingman Marine
Helpful Tips

New to boating or a veteran; there is always something to learn when it comes to pesky channel markers. We will cover all shapes, sizes, colors and locations of buoys & markers.

Lateral Markers

Lateral markers are the buoys or post-like markers that represent the safe travel space in channels and rivers. Using red & green colors and odd or even numbers, these noticeable markers let you know which way you are traveling and where the deepest/safest path.

In straight channels, you will easily see the path between the red and green channel marker. When traveling up a serpentine channel or river, the markers will be off set and may not be as noticeable. This is where the colors and numbers come into play.

Colors and Numbers

Let’s ease into the details by starting with what the colors and numbers on the markers and buoys stand for:

Green Lights – Green Paint Jobs – Marked with Odd Numbers

Green markers note the shallow or private portions of the channel to your port side (left side of the boat) as you are traveling upstream or entering the channel from open water. As you are heading upstream or away form open water, the numbers will consecutively increase (+). Keep in mind, green buoys will only be labeled with odd numbers.

Red Lights – Red Paint – Marked with Even Numbers

As you enter the channel from open sea, you will see these markers on the starboard site (right side of the boat), opposite the green markers. The idea is to run between the channel markers to avoid running aground or interfering with recreational activity along the edge of the channels. As you move upstream, just like the green buoys, the even numbers will begin increasing in order (+).

Red & Green Lights and/or Red & Green Colors

The dual colored buoys are placed at the split off, or ‘junction’ of two channel pathways. Their placement gives them the nickname ‘junction buoys’. The split design signifies which of the paths is the optimum channel to take.

If green is the top color, the preferred pathway is to the right and if red is the top color, the easiest channel is to the left.

Shapes & Variations of Channel Markers & Buoys

To make things universal, most state-funded markers are similar but come in various shapes:

Lateral Markers

Lateral Markers are floating buoys with raised, can-shaped barrels. These barrels sit atop a short scaffolding erected from the buoyed base. These buoys follow the above color, light and number guidelines.

Lighted Buoys

These lighted buoys are essentially lateral buoys, but with an attached light. The light will match the color of the buoy, or the top color if it is a junction marker.


Daymarks are the squares and triangle signs attached to a post or structure of some sort. You will mainly see these on the smaller channels, rivers or intercoastal waterways. The red triangles with even numbers are the equivalent of the red nun buoys (see below for description of nun buoys). The green squares with odd numbers are equal to the can buoys. These daymarks may also be fitted with lights to assist night boaters.

Can Buoys

These buoys look like floating ‘toxic waste barrels’ (you know the shape) except these ones are always painted green and host odd numbers. Since these are green, as mentioned above, these should remain on your left side as you are returning from open water or traveling upstream.

Nun Buoys

Nun Buoys start out can-shaped and then taper up into a flat-tipped cone. These cone-shaped buoys are always red and marked with even numbers. Since these buoys are red, they should remain on your right side as you travel upstream, returning from the open body of water.

How To Remember This Information

The boating community has an easy saying to help you remember the basics of what you just read; ‘Red, Right, Returning’, which simply means keep the red channel markers on the right (starboard) side when returning from open water. You can also remember, if you are returning from the open water, the numbers (both odd and even) should be increasing on your way to the boat ramp or dock.

Exceptions to the Rules

Intercoastal Waterways

The intercoastal Waterway (ICW) is a collection of channels linked together to provide an inland (intercoastal) passage up and down the coasts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Any inland waterway that is part of the ICW can be identified by additional yellow Squares and Triangles located above the number on buoys and channel markers.

These yellow shapes added to the markers should be followed when on the ICW, instead of the colors and shapes of the markers. Markers marked with a yellow triangle should be kept on the right (starboard) side of the vessel when passing. The marker with the yellow square should be kept on the left (port) side when passing.

Western River System

The Mississippi river, the tributaries that branch off and a few other rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, have slightly different markers. They still use the standard red and green daymarker colors; however, they do not use the even and odd numbering system. You may see numbers below the marker; these relate to the distance you are from the river’s mouth.

Non-Lateral Markers

Non-lateral markers are additional water markers that tell boaters other important information that is not where the edges of deep/safe water are located. These markers are used to give direction or information, warn of hazards and obstructions, mark protected or controlled areas and mark closed areas.

Directional and Informational Markers

These buoys will be white with orange horizontal stripes at the top and bottom with an orange square as the focal point. The directions or other Information points will be located within the orange square. These markers can also be displayed by way of signs. The sign will be white and orange and dawn the same warning as well.

Controlled Area Markers

Orange circles are the universal shape for controlled area markers. Various warnings can be displayed within or above/below the circle. The circle will be placed in-between 2 horizontal orange stripes. The warnings on these control buoys will mainly pertain to your speed, motor usage and wake notifications.

Hazardous & Obstructed Waterway Warnings

An orange diamond will dawn these white buoys with the same orange horizontal stripes above and below the shape. Within the shape will be the obstruction or hazardous item.

Forbidden Area Markers

This white buoy will be marked with an orange crossed diamond between 2 orange horizontal lines. These markers will indicate an off limits (closed) area. The warning will be written above or below the crossed diamond and they can warn either boaters or humans not to enter, whether it is a swim area or a boater’s only area.

Obstruction Markers – Inland Waters

These buoys will be marked with black and white vertical stripes. These buoys will be positioned off the shore to mark an obstructed path. Boaters should not travel between the buoy and the nearest portion of land.

Safe Water Markers

Safe water markers can have the same design as a lateral marker or can be a tall straight buoy. Despite the style, they will always be painted with vertical red and white stripes. Safe water markers notate unobstructed water on all sides, meaning they can be passed on either and all sides. They will be positioned in channels and fairways.

Mooring Buoys

Mooring buoys are not necessarily waterway markers, but they are worth the mention for those who don’t know what they are. These white buoys with a single blue horizontal strip signify areas where boaters can drop their anchors. They are generally located in marinas and are, legally, the only buoys you can anchor to.

No items found.


When it comes to lateral channel markers if the markers are spaces so you can see the channel they create, stay in between the 2 signs, regardless of whether you are coming or going. If the channel isn’t as clearly marked always remember ‘red, right, returning’. Keep the red signs on your right as you are returning to the channel from open water.

on-lateral markers are prominent signs to warn you of protected spaces, danger areas, forbidden areas, safe areas and where a vessel can anchor. Simply remember the important signs & colors and keep your eyes out for any channel markers and you and your boat will make it home safely.

Safe Boating!

Follow Us
No items found.
No items found.