Skip to content
Boating Updated:

What Color are Safe Water Markers?

Safe Water Mark

Whether you are a professional mariner or are enjoy boating as a leisure activity, increasing your knowledge of navigational aids is vital for proper boating safety.

Among the most commonly asked and challenging buoy to recognize is the marker that indicates safe water on all sides. This article will teach you everything that you need to know about safe water marks. Firstly, let us make it clear what a safety water marker looks like.

Safe Water Markers are colored with a pattern of red and white vertical stripes. Their purpose is to indicate the presence of unobstructed safe water. The red and white markers show that the water there is passable on all sides.

The safe water marks are usually used in mid-channels as an informational notice of safe waters ahead. Safe water markers can also be used in open water where there are usually shoals to guide boaters to safe water.

Occasionally these buoys are called fairway buoys or clear water buoys. Even though safe water markers may be passed on either side, boaters usually follow best practices by passing on the port side (the right side of the buoy).

Similar Buoys to Watch For

  • Make sure to spot clear vertical white lines (not lateral) to confirm it is not a red buoy (channel marker) or a mooring buoy.
  • Do not confuse this red and white flag with the red flag with the white diagonal stripe that indicates a dive party.
  • A starboard hand day beacon has the same red and white stripes but is triangular in shape and usually has a reflective border or background.

Safe Water Marker Characteristics

The safe water marker can be in various shapes; can-shaped, spherical, and MR. In some cases, the shapes are lettered and lighted with or without sound or unlighted with or without sound. The ones with a white light usually flash various Morse codes and light up in a rhythm like occulting, isophase, or a long flash. The rhythms play a crucial role in denoting the best entry point during the night or under a bridge.

A lighted buoy has batteries or a gas tank and a framework to support the light. The light can also be fitted on a red or green channel buoy. The lights flash at not more than 30 flashes every minute.

A sound buoy has a flat top with a framework to support a bell. The older bell buoys rely on the motion of the see to make a sound. The new ones are sounded automatically by electricity or compressed gas.

Why the Red Stripes on a White Background?

The International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA), formerly known as the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities, decided the color of this safe water marker. This is an intergovernmental authority that launched in 1957 to offer and collect nautical expertise and advice. As their name suggests, they are the ones responsible for creating and coordinating marine aids to navigation globally.

Just like airplanes, boats are a global affair. Thus, it was paramount to have one body that would standardize navigational aids to avoid confusion and maritime accidents. Before establishing this organization, sailors from one part of the world were having challenges deciphering navigation signs in unfamiliar waters. After World War II, globalization started to pick up the pace, and the confusion hindered global trade.

IALA chose the red stripes and white background because the markers can be easily seen even during low light. There are very few natural things in the world with red lines on a white background. This means that the universal safe water maker could not be easily confused for something else. The bright red and white color also reflects light to make the safe water marker more visible.

Learning the Buoyage System

This is just one marker in the ever-expansive buoyage system. Knowing you can pass a buoy port side or starboard side will give you confidence in your boating on the water. While this marker is not nearly as common as a channel marker, you will see them on certain water bodies more than others.

Spending some time every month reviewing the buoyage system so you're always aware of the right course to take on the water. Keep the waterways safe and always remember, “Red, Right, Returning”.

Chris Blackwell Boating
About Chris Blackwell

Chris is an avid angler and boating enthusiast. Raised on a small lake he spent most of his youth fishing in Jon Boats and water skiing behind Fiberglass boats. Chris enjoys taking his family out on the water so they can relive the fun he has always had.

This article may contain affiliate links which I earn a commision through when you purchase. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Please read why I do this and my commitment to accurate and compelling content.