How To Read Channel Markers & Buoys (Boating Navigation Tip)


You’ve probably noticed the different color channel markers out on the water…

But do you know what they all mean?

In this video, we’ve got Capt. Mark “Hollywood” Johnson from to help educate us on what all of these markers mean.

He’ll share:

  • Some fun phrases to help you remember what each marker means
  • Why the markers have different colors, shapes, and numbers
  • How a good pair of polarized sunglasses can help you safely navigate through shallow water

Let’s dive in!

Understanding Channel Markers [VIDEO]

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Everybody knows that markers are either red or green, but there are also two other identifying factors of these markers:

  • Red markers are always even-numbered and triangles
  • Green markers are always odd-numbered and squares

Here are some fun phrases to help you remember what each marker means:

“Red Right Return”

This is the most important phrase and it means that whenever you’re heading from sea to your home port, the red marker will be on your right side.

This is true if there’s a red and a green marker, or if there’s only a red marker.

“Red & green, stay in between”

If you see red and green markers, they mark the channel, so stay in between them.

One thing to note here is that local and private channels don’t always follow these same rules, but if you’re in waters controlled by the United States Coast Guard, this is how they set things up.

Tips For Navigating Clear, Shallow Water

navigating shallow water

If you’re in clear, shallow water, a good pair of polarized sunglasses will go a long way towards helping you navigate safely.

They’ll help you see depth and bottom structure, which, in addition to the channel markers, can help you navigate.

Here are some phrases to help you:

“Blue, blue, run on through”

If you’re in shallow water and you see blue, that means it’s deeper water and you’re usually good to go.

“Green, green, nice and clean”

If you’re in shallow water and you see green, that also means it’s likely deeper water and you’re usually good to go.

“Brown, brown, run aground”

If you see brown, that means it’s likely muddy bottom or there’s grass or oyster bars, so the water will be shallow and you may run aground.


items every boater needs for fishing

Next time you’re out on the water, remembering these tips will help you navigate safely.

If you’re in the Keys and you want to book a trip with Capt. Johnson’s fleet, you can do so at

Have any questions about boat navigation?

Let us know in the comments below!

And if you know someone who needs to memorize these phrases, please TAG or SHARE this with them!

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John Haines
2 years ago

Does noone use a compass, anymore?

John Haines
2 years ago

Red right returning, and clockwise around the US

3 years ago

I was running in toward Vaca pass from coffin patch (marathon) in a fast big storm. I saw red channel markers thru the heavy rain and seas ( to the left of what I now know to be the red/green channel markers fir said pass).

The water depth on both sides if these 3 red markers (#4-6 & 8) was 3’ or less… no channel … dies anyone know thus area and why these 3 red markers are there?

Last edited 3 years ago by Noack
Dave Frymier
3 years ago

To hear someone describe the confusion related to “where the he!! is the home port?” is gratifying. In St Augustine, the home port is tucked into the original harbor – which is a good ways away from the St Augustine inlet, and makes the colors of the markers seem pretty weird. There’s nothing better than local knowledge – as I was learning these waters, always on weekends – which aren’t as blue and brown as Islamorada – I would often just wait for someone else to come by and follow them.

Veda Wray
3 years ago

If you don’t know which direction you are going returning leaving upstream downstream am I correct in my thinking that if the numbers are going up keep the red to your right? Red right return/rising or increasing numbers???

Steve Oravets
3 years ago

Don’t forget Junction Buoys, they mark where two channels meet. The color on the top of the buoy or Fixed Aid denotes the preferred side to pass it on.

Dannie Hill
3 years ago

Very good video!

Eric Black
3 years ago

Good video. I am a new ocean boater and recently joined Freedom Boat Club (near Punta Gorda). Learning the markers is definitely important, and can get confusing. I learned Red Right Return early on, and learned to read local charts and markers very quickly. Some of the other sayings in this video are very helpful, too.

In addition to the fishing videos, I love a lot of the “boating tips” that Salt Strong has done. Please keep those coming.

3 years ago
Reply to  Eric Black

Take a course from the Coast Guard Auxiliary in your area.

Danny Pender
3 years ago

I would like to add that the ICW markers will always have a small reflective yellow square or triangle at the base of the daymark sign that is the same shape as the daymark. This helps to easily identify the markers at night from markers that are going to side channels. In the daytime, you can use a set of binoculars to identify which marker is the ICW marker if there are confusing markers ahead. The local guides are also a wealth of knowledge for the remote areas. I gladly pay a guide to fish on my boat every 1-2 years and run the routes that are tricky and routes that are unmarked to get to better fishing areas. That way when I finish fishing, I know I can get to a route and safely get up on plane and get out. But the best tip is to always have your net handy so when if you run aground. Grab it and jump up on the front of the boat and act like you are looking for bait while you are assessing the situation.

A. Rollins
3 years ago

Red right return isn’t helpful to a lost boater. I helped two boaters get unstuck after they both ran aground within minutes of each other, in the same place. Both thought they were heading back to the launch after somehow getting turned around.


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