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Boating - Marine Navigational Aids
boating safety
<--Boating Home >You are Here-> Uniform State Waterway Marking System

Marine Navigation Aids

The waters of the United States and its territories are marked to assist navigation by the U.S. Aids to Navigation System. This system employs a simple arrangement of colors, shapes, numbers and light characteristics to mark navigable channels, waterways and obstructions adjacent to these.

Aids to Navigation can provide a boater with the same type of information drivers get from street signs, stop signals, road barriers, detours and traffic lights. These aids may be anything from lighted structures, beacons, day markers, range lights, fog signals and landmarks to floating buoys. Each has a purpose and helps in determining location, getting from one place to another or staying out of danger. The goal of the U.S. Aids to Navigation System is to promote safe navigation on the waterway.

The U.S. Aids to Navigation System is intended for use with Nautical Charts. Charts are one of the most important tools used by boaters for planning trips and safely navigating waterways. Charts show the nature and shape of the coast, buoys and beacons, depths of water, land features, directional information, marine hazards and other pertinent information. This valuable information cannot be obtained from other sources, such as a road map or atlas.

The primary components of the U.S. Aids to Navigation System are beacons and buoys.

Beacons are aids to navigation structures that are permanently fixed to the earth's surface. They range from lighthouses to small, single-pile structures and may be located on land or in the water. Lighted beacons are called lights; unlighted beacons are called daybeacons. Beacons exhibit a daymark to make them readily visible and easily identifiable against background conditions. Generally, the daymark conveys to the boater, during daylight hours, the same significance as does the aid's light or reflector at night.

Buoys are floating aids that come in many shapes and sizes. They are moored to the seabed by concrete sinkers with chain or synthetic rope moorings of various lengths connected to the buoy body. They are intended to convey information to the boater by their shape or color, by the characteristics of a visible or audible signal, or a combination of two or more such features.

Source - US Coast Guard


Aids to Navigation - Road Signs of the Waterway

Uniform State Waterway Marking System (USWMS)

Note: The USWMS is presently merging with the U.S. Aids to Navigation System and will be discontinued on December 31, 2003. Vessel operators may encounter both types of systems during this transitional period.

Lateral System
May show green
reflector or light

Usually found in pairs
pass between these buoys

_Looking upstream_

May show red
reflector or light
Illustration of solid black buoy, which appears as a black cylinder with a white numeral 3 in the middle.Port Side Starboard Side
Illustration of a solid red buoy, which appears as a red cylinder with a numeral 4 in the center.
Solid Black Buoy
(Being replaced by Green Can Buoy)
  Solid Red Buoy
(Being replaced by Red Nun Buoy)


Cardinal System

May show white reflector or light
Illustration of a red-striped white buoy, which appears as a cylinder with a white top and red and white vertical stripes on the side. Illustration of a black-topped white buoy, which appears as a white cylinder with a black top and a horizontal black band around the top of its sides, and a black numeral 7 in the center. Illustration of a red-topped white buoy, which appears as a white cylinder with a red top and a horizontal red band around the top of its sides.
Red striped
white buoy
Black topped
white buoy
Red topped
white buoy
Do not pass between buoy and nearest shore
Pass to north or east of buoy Pass to south or west of buoy


Source - US Coast Guard
Aids to Navigation - Road Signs of the Waterway
Visual Buoyage Guide
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