Beginners Guide

Basic Navigation Signals Every Boat Captain Should Know About

When you take to the seas unprepared, there is a good chance that you would end up in trouble. To avoid this, one of the most important things you should do as a boat captain is to learn navigation markers and signs.

Every place has a system of poles, lights, and buoys, but they are generally following the same principle. Read on to learn about the basic markers and their meanings before navigating the waters.

Lateral Marks

Lateral marks tell boaters the edge of safe water areas. It often comes in a combination of numbers and colors placed in a permanent marker or buoy.

Red-colored markers, lights, and numbers mean that the right side of the channel heads upstream. Green markers, lights, and numbers indicate that the channel’s left side is headed upstream.

Take note that heading upstream means that you’re navigating away from the sea and downstream if you’re headed towards it.

A combination of the two colors is an indication of the primary or preferred channel: red on top means left and green means right.

There are two types of lateral marks that use these colors: the port hand marker and the starboard marker.

Port hand markers are red in color and have a can-shaped top mark or buoy. Make sure to keep this marker on your left when venturing upstream and on the right when going downstream.

Starboard markers have a cone-shaped top mark or buoy. This marker should always be on your right when you’re hailing from the sea and on your left when going back downstream.

Cardinal Marks

Cardinal marks indicate the direction of deeper water and signals whether you are headed away from dangerous territory like shallow areas and reefs. These markers appear in a combination of yellow and black and are categorized according to its direction.

These navigation signals can also be distinguished based on the number of light times it is lit: 3 quick ones for East, 6 short flashes and one long flash for South, 9 quick flashes for West, and continuous flashes for North. To help you remember, keep in mind that the cardinal marks are akin to the face of a clock.

Leads and Sector Lights

Leads provide guidance to vessels on their way to sections of waterways of a port. In major ports, leads come in the form of blue triangular well-lit signs mounted on red or bright orange triangle boards. To use them, simply move your vessel in a position where both leads are lined up.

Sector lights, on the other hand, serve as markers for the entrance of the ports. They vary depending on the kinds of sectors: red for turning to starboard, green for turning to port, and white for the safe sector. Some places use the white sector as the shipping channel, so make sure to avoid blocking their passage.

Speed Signs

Like in the road, navigating the waters may also require following certain speeds. This is where speed signs come in. In New South Wales, for example, have five common speed restrictions: four, six, eight, 10, or 15 knots. Boaters who violate speed restrictions are penalized.


Another sign that often appears in NSW are “No Wash” or “Reduce Wash.” This is used to prevent vessels from creating too much “wash,” or the so-called “wake,” that may cause damage or inconvenience to other people or their boats.

Other Buoys and Signs

A good boat captain should also other buoys and signs such as the isolated danger marker (used in specific dangers, like ship wrecks), safe water marks (indicates divisions of large shipping channels), and channel closed or blocked signals as well as submarine cables, overhead power lines, and bridge markers.

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