What Do Lateral Markers Indicate?

What Do Lateral Markers Indicate?

If you’re not careful, it can be easy to lose your bearings on the water – especially if there are no notable landmarks around you. That’s why we rely on lateral markers to help us find our way, keep track of the best-established routes, identify up and downstream, and more.

The next time you pilot your boat through the water, look out for these markers – they can be lifesavers. If you’re not familiar with lateral markers, we’re going to answer your burning questions, and hopefully help build your confidence on the water.

What Are Lateral Markers?

Lateral markers are usually buoys and other markers, designed to highlight the safe areas of the water. Lateral markers can help you safely navigate the water, and they’ll show you the safest edges to maneuver in and out of the area.

Essentially, lateral markers are what traffic signs are to drivers. They float on the surface of the water and often come in different colors to help with identification.

What Do Lateral Markers Indicate?

Lateral markers are used to help boaters locate where they are in relation to the waterway. If you follow the lateral markers, you’ll avoid potential accidents with other boaters and running aground.

Perhaps most importantly, though, they offer a sense of direction. When you’re sailing on vast open waters, it can be impossible to determine your exact location.

You can use lateral markers as reference points to establish where you are, where you’ve been, and where you need to go.

What Are The Different Types Of Lateral Markers?

There are several markers that every boater should know. You can use your knowledge of lateral markers to help you sail safely on the water, and find your way back to land.


Unlike other markers, beacons don’t float on the water. These structures are fixed in position, such as a lighthouse. Beacons will usually have flashing lights, and they can help you navigate the waters in the dark.


Buoys are the most common kind of lateral marker. They float on the surface of the water, and they’re usually grounded by anchors. There are two types of buoys: can and nun buoys. Can buoys are green, with a round body and a flat surface.

Essentially, they look like cans – hence the name! Can buoys usually mark the left side of a channel that leads into a harbor. These buoys are red in Britain but usually green or black in America.

Nun buoys also have a round body, but they have a distinctive cone-shaped top. These buoys are usually red, and they mark the starboard side of a channel when approached from the sea.



Daymarks (or day markers) are unlit navigational signs that can help you find your way in the daylight. Daymarks can be triangular, square or rectangular, and they come in a variety of colors, including green, black, yellow, orange, and red.

Red daymarks are always triangular, and green are always square. You’ll often find green daymarks in water channels, with an odd number written on the sign. When the number increases, you’re going upstream. When it decreases, you’re going downstream. Red daymarks usually serve the same purpose.

Although these are the most common lateral markers, there are two lesser-known navigational aids you need to know. These are:

Bifurcation Markers

Bifurcation markers, or bifurcation buoys, indicate the point where the channels split in two. The makers will highlight the preferred channel to use if you’re heading upstream.

You may also encounter port bifurcation markers: these are usually green with a red horizontal marker to show the preferred rough on the right side of the buoy.

When you see these markers, you’ll usually need to steer your boat toward the channel highlighted by the color of the top marker.

Port-Hand Markers

You may also see port-hand markers. These work in conjunction with starboard hand markers, and let boaters pass between them safely.

Red buoys will usually highlight the red side of the water channel heading inland, and green markers show the opposite. So, if you’re heading back into open water, you’ll need to stay on the right side of the waterway.

What Do Non-Lateral Markers Indicate?

When you’re out on the water, you may also encounter several non-lateral markers. A non-lateral marker will be any marker not listed above.

While lateral markers literally mean lateral or ‘to the side’, non-lateral markers will suggest the opposite. A non-lateral marker could be:

  • A swim marker showing the safest places to swim
  • Hazard markers to indicate potential dangers on the water
  • Obstruction markers
  • Informational markers to highlight certain distances and locations on the water
  • Cardinal buoys, which highlight dangers in specific locations
  • Control markers to explain the rules on the water

Do The Colors On Lateral Markers Matter?

Although colors can differ, they always serve a purpose. Just like how symbols on traffic signs help you navigate the roads, the colors on lateral markers can help you navigate the waters.

Red and green are the most common colors on lateral markers, and they’ll usually mark the different directions you can take. Red almost always highlights the port, while green highlights starboard.

These color markers are a universal way for all boaters to navigate the waters. They don’t rely on language, just a simple understanding of direction.

Although red and green are the most common colors on lateral markers, you may also see white markers with a blue horizontal band on the cap when you’re on the water.

These markers are not lateral, so don’t confuse them. These markers can be used to moor your vessel, and you’ll often see them in and around marinas.

Final Thoughts

At one point or another, you’ll need to rely on lateral markers to understand where you are, and where you need to go. Lateral markers can be found in all waters, and they’re a lifeline for boaters.

No matter where you are or where you’re going, these markers can help you navigate the waters.

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