Boat Navigation Basics for Beginners

Picture a beautiful summer day, the water glistening under the sun without a cloud in sight. Now picture yourself steering your boat effortlessly across the water. Does this seem like a perfect day to you?

Before pulling away from the dock, make sure you understand marine navigation basics. After all, it’s not like hopping in a car and driving away.

You may not find dotted lines or road signs. But navigation aids are available to help you boat safely, such as channel markers and navigational buoys.

Follow along with us to learn the basics of marine navigation.

Buoys vs. Signs

Navigation markers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from dayboards or signs to buoys. Even though signs and buoys have different physical characteristics, they all serve the same purpose on the water:

  • Marking the channel
  • Posting speed zones and other regulations
  • Identifying hazards and restricted areas

So, it’s important to follow the same boating regulations for both signs and buoys.

Physical geography determines whether you’ll see one or the other. Buoys are typically anchored in deeper water. Fixed signs or dayboards, on the other hand, are more common where it’s shallow enough to install a sign piling or a post.

Navigational Aid Colors

Marker colors are key when you’re on the water. Watch for green and red buoys or signs  to find the channel. And keep your boat between those markers to avoid running aground.

  • If you’re heading inland from a larger body or upstream on a river, keep the red markers on your starboard (right) side and the green markers on your port (left) side.
  • When you’re heading downstream or out to a larger body of water, the green markers should be on the right/starboard side of the boat and keep the red markers on your left/port.

When you see a marker that has both red and green horizontal stripes, you’re approaching a junction between two channels. The highest color on the marker designates the primary channel.

Markers with red and white vertical stripes indicate danger. Do not attempt to pass between the striped buoy and shore as there may be swimmers or a high risk of running aground.

Yellow markers are used to warn boaters about special features in the area – such as underwater cables – that require you to boat cautiously.

Shapes and Symbols Have Meanings

Pay close attention to the shapes and symbols on navigational markers – as they convey critical information, too.

  • Diamond-shaped navigation aids indicate a danger or hazard.Pay attention and avoid the area if possible.
  • A diamond with a cross inside represents an exclusion zone, meaning it’s illegal to operate a boat in that area.
  • Markers with a circle on them designate areas with restricted operations, such as speed limits or other operational information.
  • Navigational aids with squares on them are used to share important information about the area, like manatee zones.

Learn More About Marine Navigation

Ready to take your navigation expertise to the next level? Boost your knowledge and confidence with an on-the-water boater training class or check out our online boater certification offerings.

Feel free to contact us with any questions. Don’t forget to share this article on social media so your friends can learn too!

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