How Do You Pass A Buoy? Understanding The Buoyage System (2023)

I love water journeys. Boating is one of the most relaxing and exciting activities one can do on weekends. I am sure many of you can relate. When you go on a boating trip on your own, Google map and buoys are all you’ve got.

Buoys are so simple that an untrained eye can hardly see them apart. So, as a beginner when you see one, how do you pass a buoy? All those buoys are there to guide you along the way. Some of them instruct you to turn left, while some tell you to stick to the left bank of the river/channel.

Some mean you can safely anchor here; some others suggest you probably should avoid a specific zone. I know all those can be confusing to understand and navigate, especially for a beginner, especially if you are alone.

It is essential for a safe voyage, but honestly, it is a lot to take in. It’s like a giant puzzle. If you try to solve it all at once, you will end up messing your head up. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

That is the primary purpose of this article. I will discuss the buoys, what they mean, and how to navigate through them safely. Also, we will start with the most common ones and make our way to the advanced ones. So –

Navigational Buoys

Navigational buoys are signals that assist you on your way from point A to point B. They typically do not have any specific meaning other than providing you with a sense of direction. Two major types of navigational buoys are –

How Do You Pass A Buoy? Understanding The Buoyage System (1)

Portside Buoys

Portside buoys are buoys that are supposed to be on the port side of a returning vessel. You can identify a port side buoy from its distinct green color. They can be cone-shaped, cylindrical-shaped, flathead, or with a light on top. The shape and other extra features may or may not have an additional meaning. But a green-colored buoy is always a portside buoy.

  • Going Upstream

When you are going upstream through a channel or river, you will keep the portside buoy on the port side.

For all the newcomers, the port side is the left side of the vessel. And upstream is against the current in a channel. In other words, you are going inland from the sea.

  • Going Downstream

While going downstream, if the channel is a two-way pass, you will keep the port side buoy on your starboard (right side). But if the channel is a one-way downstream channel, the portside buoy should be on the port side.

Starboard Buoys

Starboard buoy is the other type of common buoy that is supposed to be on the starboard side or the right-hand side of your boat. You can identify a starboard side buoy from its red color. Much like the portside buoy, a starboard buoy can also be of different shapes and sizes, but a red color buoy is always a starboard buoy.

  • Going Upstream

When you are going upstream, if you come across a red buoy, be sure to cross it through its left. That is, it will be on your right/starboard side.

If you happen to find a red buoy on the port side, either you or your map have messed pretty bad. You are going the wrong way through a channel that you were not supposed to.

  • Going Downstream

You should’ve guessed it by now. When going downstream, a red buoy will be on the port side if you are using a two-way channel. And on a one-way channel, it should be on the starboard side.

Directional Buoys

Directional/cardinal buoys indicate the direction you should take from it. There are four cardinal buoys color-coded in different color combinations for each of the four directions. All of the directional buoys use black and yellow colors but in a different combination. They typically also have arrows on top of them. They are as follows:

North Buoy

In your way, if you happen to come across a buoy with the top half painted black and the bottom half painted yellow, that’s the north directional/cardinal buoy. A north buoy has two up arrows on top of it. You should go through the north of it. In other words, while passing, you should be on its north.

South Buoy

The South buoy is indicated by a yellow top and a black bottom. Or if it is something like a beacon or other posts, it should still inherit the same color code. The top half is yellow, and the bottom half is black. A south buoy has two down arrows on top of it.

When you come across one, always make sure that you are on the southern side of it. That is, the south buoy is on your north.

East Buoy

You can identify an east buoy if you see a buoy with a black top and bottom with a band of yellow in the middle. That is, the yellow will be sandwiched between two layers of black. An east buoy has a down arrow below an up arrow. As per usual, pass the buoy through its east.

West Buoy

The west buoy is the opposite of the east cardinal buoy. If a buoy has a yellow top and bottom with a band of black at the center, it is a west buoy. A west buoy has an up arrow below a down arrow. You should get the drill by now; when passing it, keep the buoy on your east.

Special Buoys

Other than the basic navigational and directional buoys, there are also some special buoys that you should know about. You might not come across them regularly, but when you do, knowing them will surely help. They are as follows:

How Do You Pass A Buoy? Understanding The Buoyage System (2)

Cautionary Buoy

Cautionary buoys mean there is something to be worried about around this region. Not necessarily it is dangerous, and you cannot pass; rather, you should be careful while passing by them. You can know a buoy being a cautionary buoy if it is completely yellow in color.

The reason could be that there is a shooting range nearby, or shallower water, or a race track nearby, and you should be attentive while passing.

Anchorage Buoys

Anchorage buoy is also colored completely in yellow, but they have a clear anchor painted on them. I’ll let you guess the purpose of an anchorage buoy.

Control Buoy

A control buoy is like a “no trespassing” sign. It is usually placed around restricted or private areas. And they strictly mean “you should not be here.” A control buoy is colored white, with two white-faced orange circles on either side at the center of the buoy. There are two orange bands, one on top of the circles, and the other below it.


That is about it in terms of often-faced buoys. I am pretty sure I did not mention everything. Honestly, the whole list is huge. And as I mentioned at the beginning, trying to learn about everything at once will most definitely get you screwed up.

I only mentioned the common ones. It is a good point to start at. And with time, you will get to know about the other ones as well. As long as you remember to keep the green buoys at your left and the red ones at your right, as well as be attentive near the yellow ones, you should be good to go.

There is one last type of buoy I did not mention. The moving buoys with an engine that other people ride on, always avoid them. You should never run into them. That’s bad. Gosh! I am talking about other boats!! Avoid running into them. With that covered, That is pretty much it; I hope you have an incredible journey.



How Do You Pass A Buoy? Understanding The Buoyage System? ›

Their markings and shape indicate which side of a buoy a vessel should pass and are placed either to the north, south, east or west of a hazard. Therefore a vessel should pass to the west of a west cardinal mark, or to the east of a east cardinal mark and so on.

What side do you pass a red buoy? ›

Federal Lateral System

The expression “red right returning” has long been used by seafarers as a reminder that the red buoys are kept to the starboard (right) side when proceeding from the open sea into port (upstream). Likewise, green buoys are kept to the port (left) side (see chart below).

What is the direction of navigational buoys? ›

When travelling downstream or towards the sea:
  • keep port (red) marks on your starboard-hand side (right)
  • keep starboard (green) marks on your port-hand side (left).
Jan 23, 2023

What do the different buoys mean? ›

Lateral markers indicate the sides of channels. Safe passage can be found between pairs of green and red buoys. Green colors and lights should be on your right (starboard)side when traveling toward open waters. Red colors and lights should be on your right (starboard) side when traveling toward the channel.

What do you do if you see a green buoy? ›

If green is on top, keep the buoy on your left to continue along the preferred channel. If red is on top, keep the buoy on your right. These markers are sometimes called “junction buoys.”

What are the top marks for buoys? ›

surmounted by a distinctive “topmark.” There are four possible topmarks, corresponding to the four cardinal points of the compass—i.e., north, south, east, and west. The safest navigable water lies to the side of the buoy indicated by its topmark.

Can you pass a red or green buoy on either side? ›

Red & Green Lateral Marker

You may pass this marker on either side when proceeding in the upstream direction, but the main or preferred channel is indicated by the color of the topmost band.

How do you read red and green buoys? ›

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.

What is the area between a red and green buoy mean? ›

Channel Markers

All-green (also known as Cans) and all-red (also known as Nuns) companion buoys indicate the boating channel is between them. The red buoy is on the right side of the channel when facing upstream.

Which buoy indicates the northerly direction? ›

A north cardinal buoy is located so that the safest water exists to the north of it. if it carries a topmark, the topmark is two black cones, one above the other, pointing upward.

What to do when you see a buoy with red and white vertical stripes? ›

A buoy with red and white vertical stripes marks danger. It means you should not pass between the shore and that buoy. This is important to protect those swimming near shore and prevent you from running aground in shallow waters.

Why does a buoy move up and down? ›

Orbital Motion of Waves

By watching a buoy anchored in a wave zone one can see how water moves in a series of waves. The passing swells do not move the buoy toward shore; instead, the waves move the buoy in a circular fashion, first up and forward, then down, and finally back to a place near the original position.

What buoy colors mean? ›

Buoys are generally painted green, red, or a combination of the two. Yellow, blue, white, and black may also be used on buoys. A green buoy tells boaters to pass to the right, and a red buoy advises boaters to pass to the left. Red buoys are always evenly numbered, while green buoys boast odd numbers.

What is the difference between buoy A and B? ›

Lateral marks – direction of buoyage

In Region A , red buoys mark the port side of the channel when returning from sea; “With aching heart (left side) we leave the open waters”. In Region B , green buoys mark the port side of the channel when returning from sea; “Red Right Returning”.

What do red buoys in the water mean while you're on a boat? ›

Channel Markers

All-green (also known as Cans) and all-red (also known as Nuns) companion buoys indicate the boating channel is between them. The red buoy is on the right side of the channel when facing upstream.

What do red and black buoys mean? ›

Danger Marks – Look out for red and black horizontal bands, which indicate an isolated danger that can be passed on either side.

What are the light signals of buoys? ›

Lateral buoys are used to mark channels. In region A a can-profile (i.e., cylindrical) red buoy with a red light indicates the port (left) side of the channel when proceeding in the direction of buoyage, while a conical green buoy indicates the starboard (right) side.


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