How To Read Channel Markers

Most of the time, kayakers paddle along quiet, passive streams, small rivers and lakes. Occasionally, though, we paddle in areas where there is more marine traffic and there, you may see some channel markers.

Channel marker on post with bird's nest.Channel markers are a standardized system that has been installed and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers to regulate boat traffic, especially large boats. Unlike highway signs, which usually have information printed on them, channel markers are “read” by their shape and color, which are easy characteristics to distinguish in low light or foggy conditions compared to trying to make out words or symbols on signs.

Also called buoys, channel markers can be found floating, mounted on posts in the water or on land or sometimes on natural rocks or trees. There are basically two colors and two shapes. Red markers are always triangular shaped with the pointed end up, and Green markers are rectangular in shape. If the markers are numbered to correspond to navigational charts, the red markers will be even numbers and the green markers will have odd numbers on them. At night, lighted markers will display the red or green color and may also emit a sound to better locate them.

The chart below is posted on the Kingman Yacht Center web site, along with an article with several tips on understanding channel markers. Click here to read the article.

Channel Marker chart
Chart Courtesy of Kingman Yacht Center

From a larger body of water to a smaller body of water, the red markers are on the right. From a small body of water to a larger body of water, the green markers are on the right.

You may also see a combination of red and green markers. That indicates an intersection or junction with the top color indicating the preferred set of markers to have on your starboard or ‘right’ side.

You will see an occasional yellow marker which indicates a wide range of specific water uses such as dredging, fish trap areas, spoils areas or military exercises, among others. Be aware and use caution when you see a yellow channel marker.

There’s also regulatory white markers and, or, buoys with an orange border, diamond, circle, or square that are often used to provide information or regulations such as a no wake zone or a shoal area.

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