Aids to Navigation Systems
Depending on where you are boating, you may see several differences in how navigational marks are colored, numbered, or lighted. Regardless of the location, buoys and beacons are placed in very specific locations, to mark either a particular side of a waterway, or some other navigational feature. The primary system in use is referred to the "U.S. Aids to Navigation System". The U. S. Coast Guard maintains this system in conformance to the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities (IALA), which is an international committee which seeks to ensure safe navigation, primarily through the use of common navigation aids and signals.
The "LATERAL" system is the familiar RED RIGHT RETURNING system, meaning that on all navigable waters returning from sea, the red even-numbered marks are on the starboard (right) side of the channel and the green odd-numbered marks are on the port (left) side of the channel. Numbers on the marks ascend when traveling from sea to harbor--if you don't have a compass and become disoriented on the water, you will always know you are heading upstream if the buoy numbers get larger as you travel.
Port Side Odd Numbered Aids
Are numbered with odd numbers, are green in color, and may be lighted (Will have a green light).
Port side marks are located on the left side of the waterway as you travel upstream, and the buoy numbers will increase as you head upstream. Port-Side Buoys have a cylindrical above-water appearance, like a can or drum floating on its axis. Commonly referred to as "CAN" buoys. Beacons - Port side beacons have square marks attached to them, with two shades of color and a reflective border.
Starboard Side Even Numbered Aids
Starboard aids are red in color, evenly numbered, and will be on your right side as you travel upstream. Buoy numbers increase as you head upstream, and may have a red light.
Starboard-side Buoys have an above-water appearance like that of a cylinder topped with a cone, pointed end up. The cone may come to a point or be slightly rounded. Commonly referred to as "NUN" buoys.
Starboard-side Beacons have triangular marks attached to them, with two shades of color and a reflective border.
For the sea buoys that delineate channels off the coast of the United States, and for the Intre-coastal Waterway (ICW), red is on the right (shore side) when proceeding clockwise around the U. S. from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, or proceeding north along the West Coast.
ICW marks are further identified by a small yellow reflector at the bottom of the mark. The same port and starboard marks shown above will look like the following:
MOORING BUOYS - Mooring buoys come in two different shapes; spherical and cylindrical. Both have white bodies with a solid blue horizontal band on the center of the buoy. Mooring buoys may have a white reflector, or a white light attached to them. Mooring buoys are the ONLY buoys to which you may legally tie your boat. Buoys are generally placed in marked anchorage areas, and you must take caution if you are traveling near buoy areas. Check your state boating guide for particular operating restrictions in anchorage areas.
SPECIAL MARKS - Special marks have no lateral significance (meaning they don't tell you which side of the channel or river you may be on). These marks are used to mark a special feature or area. These include area limits for anchorages, fishing grounds, or dredging/spoil areas. These buoys may be lighted, and if they are it will be a fixed or flashing yellow light. Shape is optional, but usually follows the shape of the navigation buoys that it is positioned near.
REGULATORY MARKS - Are designed to assist boaters by informing them of special restrictions or dangers that they are approaching. Regulatory marks are white "can" buoys that have an orange shape on them. The mark will give either a warning or instructions on how to proceed. The shape determines what type of mark it is.
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