what color are safe water markers

What Color Are Safe Water Markers? All You Need To Know

For safe water navigation, being familiar with the appearance and purpose of water markers is extremely important. And one of the most crucial water markers to know about are safe water markers.

The most distinguishing feature of safe water markers is their color, although they have some other characteristics that make them stand out as well.

What color are safe water markers?

Safe Water Markers have vertical white and red stripes, and they also sometimes have red spheres at the very top.

This is enough to identify safe water markers while on the water. With that said, safe water markers may be difficult to distinguish in low-light conditions or in fog.

Fortunately, there are features other than coloring that will help you identify safe water buoys.

Read on to find out more about safe water markers, their purpose, and how to identify them.

buoy with red and white vertical stripes
Red buoy, @JJFarquitectos via Twenty20

What Are Safe Water Markers?

Safe water markers – also known as the Safe Water Marks or Fairway Buoys – are just one among many other marine navigational aids. 

Aids to Navigation (ATONs) can be of three types – buoys, beacons, and dayboards.

  • Buoys are moored to the bottom of the water body and are intended to float on the surface. 
  • In contrast, beacons are permanently fixed, commonly to the bottom of a water body. Beacons typically have lights on them, though they’re also are beacons without lights (called day beacons).
  • Dayboards, which are essentially informational signboards.

Safe water markers are buoys – that is, they are floating at the surface of the water. They are also a type of non-lateral navigation aid. If you didn’t know, the purpose of non-lateral ATONs is to help you determine location.

Aids to Navigation (ATONs) examples
Examples of Aids to Navigation (ATONs). (www.cal-sailing.org)

What Do Safe Water Markers Indicate?

If you see a buoy with red and white vertical stripes, then there is safe water in all directions around it. In addition, safe water buoys may also indicate:

  • The best waters along channels.
  • The beginning of a channel from seaward.
  • Mid-channels.
  • Approach points.

Typically, the most seaward water markers are used to indicate the point of departure or point of arrival for offshore passages.

Safe water markers may be passed on either side. However, by convention, you should pass them on the port side.

To determine the position and purpose of a safe water marker, you should consult a nautical chart. Nautical charts are insanely useful for planning journeys, so be sure to use them during your next trip.

visual buoyage guide
Visual buoyage guide. (www.cal-sailing.org)

What Do Safe Water Markers Look Like?

Safe water buoys all share one feature – they have white and red vertical stripes. However, when it comes to their shape, size, and lights, they can differ quite a bit.

To help you navigate and correctly identify safe water marks, here are some of their common characteristics.


buoy with light

Safe water markers come in a variety of shapes, but they are most commonly:

  • Spherical
  • Pillar
  • Spar
  • Combination buoys with lights

Although visually distinct, all these designs share the red and white vertical striping, indicating safe waters.


Safe water markers are never numbered. They are generally not lettered as well, but in the Americas, they tend to be marked with letters indicating water passages associated with them.


Except for the spherical ATON, all safe water buoys have spherical topmarks. The ball topmarks are always red in safe water markers.


Some safe water markers have lights as well. The lights in safe water marks always have white color, while their phase may be:

  • Morse code “A” (one short and one long flash)
  • Occulting
  • Isophase
  • Long flash once every 10 seconds

Important Things To Know With Navigational Aids

Safe water buoys are just one among many other types of marine navigational aids. Not only that, but nautical navigation isn’t just about visually identifying ATONs – it also involves planning your route with nautical charts.

Reading nautical charts

Nautical charts provide you with the location of all buoys in an area. To efficiently and safely plan your journey, you should consult proper nautical charts for the area you are in.

You may have a look at a comprehensive list of markers along with their nautical chart descriptions in USGC’s manual titled “U.S. Aids to Navigation System”. Aside from the description of nautical markers, this manual also gives tips on how to interact with other vessels on the water.

Each navigational aid – including safe water marks – has an associated nautical symbol. To facilitate identification and navigation, nautical symbols provide information like:

  • The color of the aid.
  • Lettering.
  • Flash period, light characteristic, and light color (only on lighted aids).

You don’t have to memorize the nautical symbols of all aids for a safe journey. Just keep the USGC handbook nearby and consult it when necessary to read a nautical chart.

Safe Water Marker
Safe Water Marker (U.S. Aids to Navigation System)

Knowing other navigational aids

Safe water markers aren’t the only navigational aids used in nautical travel. There are many other important markers too that you must know about to travel safely. You may find a full list of ATONs in the USGC handbook referenced earlier.

Among the most important navigational aids to know about are:

  • Lateral markers such as red markers or green markers. Red lateral markers mark the starboard (right) side of the channel, while green markers indicate the port (left) side of the channel. Red markers have even numbers, while green markers have odd numbers.
  • Inland water obstruction markers. Featuring black and white vertical stripes, these aids indicate obstructions to navigation.
  • Information markers. These aids are colored orange and white and indicate danger or restricted areas. They also provide information such as direction or distances.
  • Mooring buoys. Colored white with a blue horizontal band, these buoys indicate areas where boats are allowed to anchor. Fun fact – these are also the only buoys to which you may moor, although you might need to obtain permission for that from the owner.
water marker buoy spherical

What Color are Safe Water Markers – The Conclusion

With that, the answer to the question “what color are safe water markers” is red and white vertical stripes. But also don’t forget that safe water marker may:

  • Be pillar, spar, or spherical.
  • Be lettered (but never numbered).
  • Have spherical top marks colored red.
  • Have lights displaying Morse code “A”, isophase, occulting, or long flashes every 10 seconds.

Stay safe and keep reading our blog to find out more useful information and tips.



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