Red right, return home alive!

Red light, stop; green light, go; yellow light, speed up? From a young age, most people know what a red light means for a driver. In fact, it doesn’t take many drivers long to learn what most of the signs and signals mean.

The signs on America’s roadways are there to tell us something. The same applies on the water.The problem is, with all of the colors, shapes, lights and symbols that exist, safely navigating on the water can appear as complicated as making the jump to hyperspace. In truth though, it’s not.

There’s something out there

On our waterways you’re only going to see two types of markers – buoys and beacons.They can be lit or un-lit. The only real difference is that buoys float on the water, while beacons are affixed directly to shore or the seabed. Between the two, you can determine the safest route of travel. You can even tell where you are using a nautical chart of the area.

Now, before getting into how charts and real life correlate, it is important to note that buoys and beacons can come in a few different colors – primarily red and green, but they can be other colors as well. If numbered, red aids will always be even, while green aids will always be odd.

Water maps

A roadmap helps you figure out where you are and where you’re going. Nautical charts do even more by highlighting areas to avoid and hazards along the way.

Nautical charts give boaters an a top-down view of a waterway. Charts show important navigational info like aids-to-navigation, landmarks and bridges. They also show water depth, latitude and longitude, and other information like shipwrecks or other hazards.

A preferred channel buoy with corresponding chart symbol.

A preferred channel buoy with corresponding chart symbol.

Even though charts offer tons of info, you still need to have an idea of what you are looking at. Buoys, beacons, and all other aids have corresponding symbols on nautical charts. However, knowing how to find the buoy you’re next to on a chart is only part of safe navigation. There is a little bit more that needs to be discussed.


Red, Right, Returning

So now you have had some time to familiarize yourself with what you’re looking at out there. Red and green buoys are like road lane markers – they indicate safe channels. But what side of the aid you should be on? It all depends on which direction you’re going.

The ATON system used on the majority of American waterways is referred to as the U.S. aids to Navigation System or IALA-B. IALA is the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities, if you’re curious.

Many boaters use the mnemonic phrase, “red, right, returning” to help them remember what side of their boat they should keep red aids when returning to port from open water.

If you are still unclear as to what direction you are heading, don’t forget about the number on each aid. If you are heading in from open water, the numbers will increase. The opposite is true if you are heading toward open water.

But, as mentioned before, there are more than just red and green aids out there and they are just as important.

Somewhere over the rainbow

Yellow, green and red, black and red, red and white – the list goes on, and each one means something different. So let’s bring some clarity to it all.

Sometimes the waterway may split into multiple channels. If that is the case, you are likely to see aids that have horizontal bands of green and red.

An illustration of preferred channel aids and how they may appear on a waterway

An illustration of preferred channel aids and how they may appear on a waterway

These aids help boaters know which channel they should use. That’s why they’re called preferred-channel aids. Just remember “red, right, returning” and look at what color is on the top of the aid. It will help keep you in safe water.

Speaking of safe water, there is yet another multi-colored aid that is definitely worth mentioning. Black aids, usually buoys, with a single red horizontal stripe in the middle. These aids are used to mark areas of isolated danger. Extreme caution should be used when approaching these aids, especially buoys.

Yellow aids indicate special areas or features such as anchoring, traffic separation, fishnet area, cables or pipelines, military exercise areas, and jetties.

You’ll need to consult your chart for the specifics. Dragging an anchor across a submerged cable could make for a bad day. Yet another example of how being familiar with where you are boating is important.

Knowing is half the battle

In 2013, various forms of unsafe navigation accounted for three of the top five types of boating accidents. Those unsafe practices led to 1,773 accidents that resulted in 107 boater deaths and 1,143 injuries.

Safely navigating the nations waterways can seem like a daunting task. Remembering all of the rules, symbols and regulations isn’t easy, but is definitely worth taking the time to learn.

There are many sources available to educate yourself on proper and safe navigation. The Coast Guard has information on their boating safety website and the Coast Guard Auxiliary boating safety education classes on many topics, including navigation.

So there you have it folks. Now you know – and knowing is half the battle.

Lt j.g. Skip A. Stone, a hovercraft captain with G.I. Joe, a childrens toy made by Hasbro. Better known by his code name 'Cutter', he lives by the motto that knowing is half the battle.

Lt j.g. Skip A. Stone, a hovercraft captain with G.I. Joe, a childrens toy made by Hasbro. Better known by his code name ‘Cutter’, he lives by the motto that knowing is half the battle.

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