How to Read Channel Markers & Buoys

Boat fishing offers access to fishing areas you just can’t get to from shore or the pier. There comes a time when some anglers tire of chartering trips and relying on their buddies with boats. So, they eventually get the itch to invest in their own. Whether that new boat is a kayak or a Chris-Craft, a skiff or a Sea Fox, if you want to put it on the water, you have to learn the rules.

Just like cars on the road, boats on the water need to be told where to go to avoid collisions with other boats, rocks, and sandbars. And, just like there are road signs to direct cars, there are markers and buoys that serve this purpose in the water. It pays to be familiar with them before you end up shipwrecked.

Finding Channel Markers & Buoys

In any large body of water, especially in popular recreation areas, you’ll find several types of signs on the water. If it’s landlocked or an inland river, those markers will be different depending on who’s responsible for that area. In the oceans around the United States, the Coast Guard is responsible for these signs. This article will cover the Coast Guard signs only. Remember that, if you’ve traveled to another country’s water, you’ll need to be familiar with their specific regulations. 

Channel markers and buoys do what they sound like they do – mark a safe channel for boats to travel. Markers are near the coast where underwater obstacles are likely to be. They’re found held several feet above the water nailed to long poles or pylons that keep them stationary. Buoys float on top of the water and either hold the same signs or have corresponding colors. A buoy can also be equipped with lights to make it more visible. They’re anchored in place so they don’t float away. Less often, you can find them implanted in rocks or islands near the water.

Markers and buoys most often come in pairs – a red one and a green one. The area between the two indicates where to aim your boat. Sometimes, a marker’s partner might have been destroyed or is behind something so that only one of them is visible. In this case, the colors tell you where to go. If you have a good pair of polarized sunglasses (a fishing necessity), the color of the water is also a good indicator. 

Blue water is usually deep enough for you to pilot through without any problems. Green water is shallower, but still likely to be safe. Brown water is where you don’t want to go because it means there are sand, mud, or oyster beds just under the surface. Your boat might get hung up on the obstruction and you’ll have to call for help. There’s also the risk of damage to your vessel that could cause it to sink or need costly repairs.

What the Colors, Shapes, and Numbers Mean

The two most important markers that keep you in the safe channel are in pairs of red and green. In the case that you see a buoy with both colors, the color on top is the one to pay attention to. Always steer between the pairs of markers. If you’re heading back upstream, away from the ocean, the red marker should always be to your right. When you’re going upstream, the green is to your right. 

If you’re in a low-light situation or have color blindness, the shape of these signs is another helpful identifier. The green signs are always square and the red signs are always triangular. Going out to sea, the triangle will be on your left. Coming home, the triangle is on your right. The shapes are just another way of telling which marker is which.

Each marker will have a number in the center. These are harder to see from a distance than the shape and color are. They indicate whether you are heading upstream or down. The green, square markers always show odd numbers. If the numbers are going up as you pass, it means you’re heading upstream and the green signs should be to your left. The red, triangular markers always have even numbers. Just like with the green ones, increasing numbers means you’re heading away from the ocean. In this case, the red signs should be on your right. 

How to Remember Them

Learning a few mnemonic devices will help you remember how to read the signs. They’re catchy phrases that are sometimes easier to recall than just the simple facts can be. 

The most well-known is: Red Right Return

That means, if you’re returning to shore, the red marker should be on your right. Red – for the color of the marker, Right – which side the marker should be on, and Return – the direction you’re going, returning to shore.

Another good one to keep in mind is: Red and Green, stay safe between

It’s an easy way to remember to keep between the red and green markers to avoid running aground. 

A few good rhymes exist to help you remember the water color tips too.

Blue, blue, run on through

This helps you keep in mind that the blue water is deeper and safe to navigate through.

Green, green, nice and clean

This one reminds you that you can move cleanly through the green water.

Brown, brown, run aground

If you see brown water, stay away from it, or you’ll wind up running aground.

This simple guide covers the red and green channel guides you’re likely to find offshore. Learning to recognize them will help you navigate channels safely. There are many other kinds of nautical markers and flags out there. If you want more information that goes beyond the red and green channel markers, the U.S. Coast Guard has a guide that covers boating right of way, diamond signs, striped signs, and more. Check it out for more details.

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