Monday, September 12, 2022

How do boaters avoid hazards? What to know about markers, buoys and other warning signs

View of channel marker #15 in the Intracoastal, site of a deadly boat crash on Sept. 4.

From Miami Herald by Michelle Marchante

Just like traffic lights and signs help drivers on the road, boaters have buoys and signs to guide them to and from shore safely.

What you’ll see out on the water depends on where you boat. In the United States, the majority of American waterways use the U.S. Aids to Navigation System or IALA-B, although the Intracoastal Waterway has its own system.

Buoys, beacons and channel markers serve as the traffic signals of the water.

They can provide directions or alert boaters if they need to slow down, or if there are hazards in the area such as sand bars.

Some of these navigational markers may be green or have green lights, while others may be red or have red lights.

Over Labor Day weekend, the driver of a boat crashed into a channel marker off the Florida Keys killing a high school senior and throwing all 14 people aboard into the water.

Here are some of the safety markers you might see in South Florida waters:

These are some of the navigational aids boaters will see in the water. Screenshot of U.S. Coast Guard U.S. Aids to Navigation System handbook 

Red, Right, Returning

If you’re traveling by boat, you’ll see navigational aids that mark junctions, forks or splits in the channel, as well as where the boat should travel to safely pass.
The following information is commonly referred to as “Red, Right, Returning.”

“Green colors and lights should be on your right (starboard) side when traveling toward open waters (seaward)“ and will always use odd numbers, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s “U.S. Aids to Navigation System” guidebook .
The numbers should decrease as you head to the open water.

“Red colors and lights should be on your right (starboard) side when traveling from open waters (shoreward),” and will always use even numbers, the guidebook states.
The numbers should increase as you head to land.
Green navigational aids will always have odd numbers and red navigational aids will always have even numbers.
Screenshot of U.S. Coast Guard U.S. Aids to Navigation System handbook

What about on the Intracoastal Waterway?

The Intracoastal Waterway runs along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S. The navigation aid system used in this waterway is similar to “Red, Right, Returning,” except you need to use yellow symbols.

If following the waterway from New Jersey to Texas, keep the yellow triangles on the right side of the boat (starboard) and the yellow squares on your port, regardless of what color the navigational aid is, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s guidebook.


This is because some of the beacons, buoys and other navigational aids you’ll see on the water are used by Intracoastal Waterway and non-Intracoastal Waterway routes.
That means boaters might “travel next to each other in opposing directions — and share the same aids,” the guidebook states. 
“Thus, when following the ICW, navigate by yellow symbols; otherwise, navigate by the color of the Aid itself.”

If boating on the Intracoastal Waterway, rely on the yellow symbols.
Screenshot of U.S. Coast Guard U.S. Aids to Navigation System handbook

You might also see yellow horizontal reflector bands on signs while traveling along the Intracoastal Waterway.
The yellow band just marks the navigational aid as being part of the Intracoastal Waterway route.

Hazards and other signs

While traveling by boat, you may find other signs, such as:

▪ Diamond-shaped dayboards, which help boaters know where they are. The U.S. Coast Guard says these signs are the nautical equivalent of “You Are Here” markers. You’ll still need to use a nautical chart to figure out where you are.

▪ Sometimes you’ll see orange-and-white navigational aids with various symbols on them. If it has a diamond shape symbol, it means there is a hazard ahead, such as a submerged rock or that it’s a shallow area. A circle means the boat is entering a “controlled area” such as manatee protection zones, for example, which would require boaters to slow down to a certain speed to keep the sea cows safe. Or perhaps you see a sign that says “Idle Speed - No Wake,” and that means the boat operator needs to go at the minimum speed needed to steer.

If the orange-and-white navigational aid has a square, you’ll likely find helpful info, such as directions, distances and locations to the marina entrance for a state park, for example.
If you see a diamond shape with a cross, get out of there.
No boats allowed.

There are a variety of navigational aids you’ll see in the water.
Screenshot of U.S. Coast Guard U.S. Aids to Navigation System handbook

What about at night?

The U.S. Coast Guard says navigational aids can only be identified by their light characteristics at night. 
This includes:
▪ The color you see. Is it red, green, white or yellow?
▪ The sequence of flashes and/or the time it takes for the aid to go through one sequence of flashes
▪ If the aid is equipped with retroreflective material

Boaters are also required to use lights from sunset to sunrise or when it’s hard to see, such as in rain or fog, to help other boaters figure out how far away each of the vessels are from each other and where the boats are going. Make sure to turn off all other lights on your boat that may interfere, or cause confusion, with navigation lights.

Another tip:

“Whenever you see a red navigation light from another vessel, give way. It is the stand-on vessel ... it has the right of way,” according to the guidebook.

“If you see both the red and green sidelights of another boat, it is coming straight toward you. You should take action to change course in order to avoid a collision.” 

This chart shows the navigations lights boats may have at night or in certain conditions such as rainy or foggy days from various angles.
Screenshot of U.S. Coast Guard U.S. Aids to Navigation System handbook 

What other navigational aids should I know about?

There are a lot of rules boaters need to know, though the “Rules of the Road” can vary depending on whether you’re boating inland or on international waters.
The rules also include how to handle common situations such as overtaking, meeting head on and crossing the bow of another boat.

Similarly, there a lot of other navigational aids boaters might see out on the water.
To find more information about markers and the rules of the water, visit
For a summary of Florida’s boating laws, visit

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