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#QuickTips - Listen to What the Buoys Tell You

By: Bill Jennings

When you boat from your home port you have few concerns with marker buoys because you already know the best way to navigate in your area. But when boaters move to an unfamiliar area, the red and green marker buoys can be a life saver... if you know how to read them. Here are some marker buoy tips that will allow you to navigate any area as if you lived there.


Every boating course teaches the phrase, “Red Right Returning” (or RRR). This is intended to tell you that when returning to a harbor, into a marina, or back to the place you keep your boat, the red markers should be on your right, or starboard side. This is simple enough, but what about the other ten million markers that are nowhere near a port or final destination? Well to start with, lets add to the “RRR” phrase with “or Travelling Upstream." The rule now becomes, "Red Right Returning or Travelling Upstream." Of course, if a buoy tells you to keep a red mark on your right, you are to assume that a green buoy should be kept on your left. Green and red markers are your essential navigation tools -- provided your lake has them. Marker buoys are normally only found on larger lakes and on salt waters close to shore. But let’s begin explaining buoy details with the assumption that they exist on the lake we look at.


Your first step in buoy navigation is to determine whether a buoy is red or green. To help differentiate there are more identifying features than just color. They can come in different shapes, with some even being signs on a shoreline. They can be a simple pilon with a cone shape on top of red markers, and a flat top on green markers. There may also be a board sign on the marker, with the sign for red markers being triangular in shape (pointing up) and the sign for the green markers being square, (having a flat top). These additional shapes allow for positive identification, even for those who may be color blind.


Did you know that when a navigation buoy has a two sign boards tacked to the top, the boards are mounted to the pylon in such a position that they point to the location of the next buoy? This can be very helpful if there is a sizable distance between markers, or if you are running at night.


All of these features on navigation buoys have one main purpose --- to be sure you correctly identify them as either red or green. Once color identified, your next step is to determine on which side of the marker to pass. This is where the slogan “Red Right Returning or Travelling Upstream” is all you need, if you apply a little logic. Let’s say you are leaving a marina. In this case you are “leaving” and not “returning," therefore if red must be on your right when returning and you are leaving -- it must logically be the green marker that you keep on your right when leaving.


What about all those red and green markers you encounter when just travelling and not “returning”? This is also very simple to understand. Look at rivers first. On a river, there is always a flow in one direction that we call “downstream." The opposite direction of course is “upstream." Applying the 'RRR or TU' rule, you will keep red markers on your right, (or starboard side) when travelling up a river and green on your right when travelling down river.


What about lakes? Almost every body of water large enough to warrant navigation markers has a river or stream running out of it somewhere. If we take an example where the stream runs out the south end of the lake, there will be some level of current running through that lake, from north to the south. Check your charts. Accordingly, as you travel north on this lake, (I like to say ‘northish’), you are technically travelling upstream and you will keep red markers to your right. If we use the same lake and if the river at the south end exited at exactly 180 degrees, the agency installing red and green markers would install them in such a manner that if your heading is between 271 degrees and 90 degrees, you must keep red on your right. Conversely, if you are travelling between 91 degrees and 270 degrees, you must keep green on your right. The calculation is applied the same way, even when there is only one marker.


You can also do this: On your chart, draw a line between the buoy and the main water exit on the lake. Draw an arrow on the line showing water flow and you now know which is downstream and which is upstream. To make any such calculations, you may want to stop the boat and give it some thought. It’s better than hitting bottom, and since it is not an airplane you can easily stop for the time it takes to accurately figure which side of the mark is the safe side. This also shows why a chart and a compass are important boating tools.


Will marker buoys always steer you around problem waters? Most of the time, but when they don’t, the problem will be addressed with other types of markers, such as “Danger," or “No Entry” signs. Before some of you experienced boaters write to tell me that I forgot about markers on the Intra Coastal Waterway, I will note that the rule is basically the same. The ICW is like a 4,800 kilometer marine expressway that runs from Norfolk, Virginia, to Brownsville, Texas. No matter where or for how far you join it, think of Brownsville as the destination point you are returning to. Using the RRR or upstream rule, you can see that when travelling towards Brownsville the ICW red markers are to be kept on your starboard side, and vice versa when heading the other way around the Gulf and Florida, and up to Norfolk. As an additional identification mark, all ICW buoys have a small gold sticker above their number. The green buoys have a square gold sticker and the red buoys have a triangular gold sticker.


Most navigation markers also have a number on them. These will correspond to the buoy numbers on your chart. Yep, you can take the number from a buoy to determine exactly where you are on a chart. Numbers on specific channels are numbered in sequence, with number “1” being the first green buoy leading into a channel.


For night operation many markers are wrapped in reflective tape, making them easy to see with a spotlight. Others have flashing lights, the sequence for which is illustrated on your nautical chart making it easy to make a positive identification.


Okay -- I’m sure you have a GPS that keeps you safe and takes you anywhere you choose to go. But I am equally sure that every time I really need my GPS, such as a dark night on a strange lake, my GPS will go black screen. It never hurts to have a back-up system that is already in place. And free. #tips #quicktips

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