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

By: Joseph Simonds on January 23, 2020
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how to navigate channel markers

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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Dave Frymier
3 months 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 months 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 months 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 months ago

Very good video!

Eric Black
4 months 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 months ago
Reply to  Eric Black

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

Danny Pender
4 months 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
A. Rollins
4 months 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.

Thomas Marks
4 months ago

I am glad that you put up a video on”navigating” channels. I am a licensed Capt. and you don’t know how often I see boaters not following the rules of the “road” should do a video on those, like passing, crossing paths, etc.

Harry Nuccio
Harry Nuccio
4 months ago

2:02 – the Merchant Marine places markers? I don’t think so!

4 months ago
Reply to  Harry Nuccio


Steve Oravets
3 months ago
Reply to  Harry Nuccio

He didn’t say the Merchant Marine places Aids to Navigation. He said the Coast Guard does it.

Joe Lowdermilk
4 months ago

Another way to help with navigation besides Red on Right is using the numbers. If numbers are going up then remember Red on Right Rising. If numbers are getting smaller then Red passes on port side of boat. If I ever am not sure if i am returning I use this number sequence to confirm I am returning or not. Great video for those needing a reminder on navigation. Certainly will not hurt any of us.

4 months ago

sorry but this is a lot good but also confusing to me. he is at anchor an behind him you see red and green and boat further out heading towards him. so red green stay between is easy, stay between. so is the boat coming towards him heading in or out. the red and green behind him says that boat is heading out. red right return and stay between says he will have green on his right and red on his left when he goes between so he is heading out. BUT as camera swings to the direction he is heading you can easily see if he keeps red to his left he will eat dirt. this is a big problem all over and knowing where you are and how who ever decided the return is will keep you out of the dirt. so my rule is pay attention as you leave the dock to where red is as you head out. and if you pass a intersection where coming in you will have a choice of docks you are heading in to. heading out the st martin river is good example of this because there is intersection coming in that you can go to homosassa or st martin. that is why a good GPS and track keeps you off the rocks in new areas. it is real hard to see bottom in the wind.

Jamie Beadle
4 months ago
Reply to  ROY NOBLIN

Basically if you are headed toward the ocean (downstream on rivers, out from smaller waterways, etc) then you are outbound, coming back you are returning. Definitely can get confusing in certain settings. As you say, local knowledge is key.

4 months ago

This is great! Sad to say many need a “Courtesy on the Water” lesson.

4 months ago

Hmmm…What about putting together videos for a Captains license course?? Captain license for “Dummy’s “ or something like that you get my drift. Cool Vid Thanks!!

Jerry Mason
4 months ago

This is good basic boating education, but missing is an explanation of intercostal waterway markers where the green markers are always on the gulf/ocean side of the waterway. These too are important markers for boaters to understand. Thanks for another educational video.

Dave Frymier
3 months ago
Reply to  Joseph Simonds

Looking forward to that, Joe.

Chris Pflaum
4 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Mason

Or, remember that Texas is “home” on the ICW. If you are headed to Texas, regardless of coast, red is to right. Heading to home, you can be going in any compass direction except East.

Brian Deming
4 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Mason

Great reminder. I’ve always been taught that, In the Florida ICW, red is on your right as you travel clockwise around the state. Just another option for remembering, although I like your method above as well.

Ryan Fair
4 months ago

This was great. Couldn’t have made it simpler. More people need to pay attention to markers and water colors to prevent running aground and causing prop scarring.

Jason Stewart
4 months ago

Wow, that was fast Luke!

Thanks for all the great tips and content you guys are continually rolling out for us. Proud to be a part of this great organization