Navigation Lights

3.2 Lateral & Cardinal Buoys

Aids to navigation, outside the pleasure craft, assist operators in determining position, display preferred routes and warn of dangers and obstructions. Charts and other nautical publications tell you where these aids are located.

All aids have identifying marks such as colours, lights and numbers and if you are close by an aid and have a current chart you can determine your position. From there, you can plot your course on the chart using your compass for assistance.

There are two main systems of aids used in Canada, the Lateral System and the Cardinal System, and a number of other important aids.

The Lateral System is the most common with its red and green buoys.

The Cardinal System is used to mark safe water near a danger and features yellow and black buoys.

Other aids are used to guide pleasure craft operators and special purpose buoys offer specific information.

It is illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada to interfere with a marine signal. Operators can not tie up to a buoy and no person can wilfully alter, remove or conceal a signal, buoy or other marker used for navigation.

Lateral System

Red and green in colour; channel and bifurcation buoys are all part of the Lateral System. It is an international system.

The most popular memory aid for this system is "Red Right Returning." This is the rule of the lateral system.

It means that when you are "returning to" the headwaters of any waterway, (heading upstream) the red buoys will always be on your right, or starboard side.

Red Right Returning also applies to secondary channels that may be "returning to" another feature, like a harbour.

It is important to remember your direction and whether you are "returning to" or "leaving from."

Green buoys, are kept on your left, or port hand side, if you are "returning."

Heading downstream, the buoys are reversed, green is on your starboard and red is on your port.

If the buoys in lateral system are equipped with lights, they are of the same colour as the buoys they are on and are either flashing, (Fl) four seconds, or quick flashing (QFl) one second.

Top marks on red buoys are single red cones pointing up. Top marks on green buoys are single green cylinders. This is useful for lighting situations where colour is difficult to determine.

Red buoys display identification letters and even numbers, green buoys display identification letters and odd numbers.

The buoys in this system can be pillar, can and conical or spar-shaped.

Cardinal System

The Cardinal System is used to indicate safe water by the cardinal compass points, NESW.

Safe water lies in the direction indicated by the buoy.

It is essential that these be used with a chart to check your direction and the direction of the danger.

For example, there is no sense knowing that safe water is to the north if you do not know where north lies.

For example, there is no sense knowing that safe water is to the north if you do not know where north lies.

These markers are spar or pillar shaped (flat topped) and coloured yellow and black. The position of the colour bands indicates the direction of safest and deepest water.

The North Cardinal Buoy has two bands of equal size with the black stripe located on top and the yellow stripe located on the bottom.

The East Cardinal Buoy has three equalsized bands, two black separated by one yellow.

The South Cardinal Buoy has two equal bands with the black band placed on the bottom.

The West Cardinal Buoy has three equalsized bands, two yellow separated by one black.

If these buoys are lighted, the light is white and Quick Flashing (Q) one second, or Very Quick Flashing (VQ) one-half second, and the sequences are all different, based roughly on clock positions.

North flashes once; East flashes in a group, three times; South flashes in a group, six times followed by one long flash; and West flashes in a group, nine times.

Topmarks on these buoys are two cones that point in the direction of the black band(s) for each of the four.

There are a number of memory aids available for these buoys, including remembering the top marks and the light sequences.

As well, some boaters make Cardinal Compass Points out of the directions of the colours.

Some use the following aid that helps indicate the location of the black stripe.

Note the location of the black stripes as you move through NESW.

On the North Cardinal Buoy, the black stripe is at the top.

On the East Cardinal Buoy, the black stripe is at the top and the bottom: in other words it carries a Double black stripe.

The South Cardinal Buoy carries one black stripe on the Bottom.

The West Cardinal Buoy has one black stripe in the Middle.

If you remember, Black Don't Bother Memorizing Black as you move NESW you can relate the first letters to the location of the black stripes.

  • Black - on top for the North Cardinal Buoy
  • Don't - for Double on the East Cardinal Buoy
  • Bother - for Bottom on the South Cardinal Buoy
  • Memorizing - for Middle on the West Cardinal Buoy
  • Black - returning to the North Cardinal Buoy.
Next Page: 3.3 Navigation Buoys