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Boating Basics

U.S. Aids to Navigation System (ATON)


Buoys and markers are the “traffic signals” that guide vessel operators safely along some waterways. They also identify dangerous or controlled areas and give directions and information. As a recreational boat or PWC operator, you will need to know the lateral navigation markers and non-lateral markers of the U.S. Aids to Navigation System.

Lateral Markers

These navigation aids mark the edges of safe water areas; for example, directing travel within a channel. The markers use a combination of colors and numbers, which may appear on either buoys or permanently placed markers.

Red lateral marker

Red colors, red lights, and even numbers indicate the right side of the channel as a boater enters from the open sea or heads upstream.

Green lateral marker buoy with green light and odd number

Green colors, green lights, and odd numbers indicate the left side of the channel as a boater enters from the open sea or heads upstream.

Red and green lateral marker

Red and green colors and/or lights indicate the preferred (primary) channel. If green is on top, the preferred channel is to the right as a boater enters from the open sea or heads upstream; if red is on top, the preferred channel is to the left.

Nuns are red cone-shaped buoys marked with even numbers.

Cans are green cylindrical-shaped buoys marked with odd numbers.

Lighted Buoys use the lateral marker colors and numbers discussed above; in addition, they have a matching colored light.

Nun, can, and a buoy
A nun, a can, and a lighted buoy

Daymarks are permanently placed signs attached to structures, such as posts, in the water. Common daymarks are red triangles (equivalent to nuns) and green squares (equivalent to cans). They may be lighted also.

Green square and Red triangle daymarks
Green and red daymark

Red Right Returning is a reminder of the correct course when returning from open waters or heading upstream.

Red Right Returning boat enters a channel
Entering channel: red buoy on starboard, green on port

Intracoastal Waterway (ICW)

The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is a chain of local channels linked together to provide an inland passage along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. Channels of the ICW are identified by yellow symbols on channel buoys and markers.

They are aids for both the U.S. Aids to Navigation System and the Intracoastal Waterway. If following the ICW from New Jersey to Brownsville, Texas in a clockwise direction:

  • Any marker displaying a yellow triangle should be passed by keeping it on the right side of the vessel.
  • Any marker displaying a yellow square should be passed by keeping it on the left side of the vessel.

This is true regardless of the shape or color of the channel marker or buoy on which the ICW symbols are displayed. That is, when you are following the Intracoastal Waterway, the yellow triangles and squares supersede the colors and shapes of the lateral markers on which they appear.

Intracoastal Waterway Markers
Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) Markers

Non-Lateral Markers

Non-lateral markers are navigational aids that give information other than the edges of safe water areas. The most common are the regulatory markers shown below, which are white and use orange markings and black lettering. These markers are found on lakes and rivers.

Information

Squares indicate where to find food, supplies, repairs, etc. and give directions and other information.

Controlled

Circles indicate a controlled area such as speed limit, no fishing or anchoring, ski only or no skiing, or “slow, no wake.”

Exclusion

Crossed diamonds indicate areas off-limits to all vessels such as swimming areas, dams, and spillways.

Danger

Diamonds warn of dangers such as rocks, shoals, construction, dams, or stumps. Always proceed with caution

Information, controlled, exclusion, and danger non-lateral markers
Information, controlled, exclusion, and danger non-lateral markers

Other Non-Lateral Markers

Safe Water Markers are white with red vertical stripes and mark mid-channels or fairways. They may be passed on either side.

Inland Waters Obstruction Markers 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 are white with a blue horizontal band and are found in marinas and other areas where vessels are allowed to anchor.

Non-lateral marker of the U.S. Aids to Navigation System (ATON): Safe Water Markers are white with red vertical stripes and mark mid-channels or fairways. They may be passed on either side.
Safe water marker, inland waters obstruction, and a mooring buoy