I live near the ocean (South Shore MA) and am new to kayaking. So far, I've paddled in streams and rivers that connect to that ocean. My last kayaking adventure involved me being oblivious to boaters behind me. I was probably at fault for being where I wasn't supposed to be.

So, in an attempt to better myself I'd like to understand buoys and whatever other markers I should be attentive to.

"Sea Marks" seem like a place to start, will fresh water have its own set of markers?

  • 6
    You may wish to provide location information. Many places use the International Rules, but others make some adjustments for inland waters (e.g. the Inland Navigation Rules in the US).
    – requiem
    Jul 8, 2014 at 0:24
  • I see. Well, I'll typically migrate to Hanover, Boston or Scituate MA for kayaking. I'll probably never leave the US for kayaking anytime soon.
    – VitaminYes
    Jul 8, 2014 at 16:41

3 Answers 3


For the US, an excellent starting point would be the Coast Guard's Aids to Navigation brochure; it explains all of the markers you are likely to encounter and provides a brief overview of the "rules of the road". The Coast Guard's Navigation Rules Online is an unofficial merger of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) and the Inland Navigation Rules. (The occasional differences are listed side-by-side when they appear.)

In questions of right-of-way, you will either be the "stand on" (obligated to continue your current course and speed) or the "give way" (obligated to yield) vessel. However, you shouldn't think this confers a "right": both parties have an obligation to avoid collisions. This means that should a collision happen, you can usually assume both parties will be considered at fault (though to a varying extent). Which vessel is which depends on many things: is it under power, under sail, constrained in a narrow channel, etc. In general the vessel with the least maneuverability is the "stand on" vessel. Kayaks are not really called out in the Navigation Rules, but a Coast Guard FAQ supposedly (the direct link is broken) said the following:

Where do Kayaks and Canoes fit into the Navigation Rules? Neither the International nor Inland Navigation Rules address "kayaks" or "canoes," per se, except in regard to "vessels under oars" in Rule 25 regarding lights. One could infer that a "vessel under oars" should be treated as a "sailing vessel" since it is permitted to display the same lights as one, but, ultimately the issue of whom "gives way" would fall to what would be "required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case" (Rule 2).”

Per Rule 18 (establishing the "pecking order") a power boat should probably keep out of your way, but per Rules 9 and 10 you must not impede traffic in designated traffic lanes and channels. Also, be aware that large vessels (like container ships) move deceptively fast; you want to stay well clear of them!

I suggest obtaining charts for your area in case there are any special exclusion zones. They will also show the COLREGS Demarcation Lines, indicating where the Inland Rules take over. Between the charts and the brochure linked above you should be able to identify traffic lanes and channels in your area.

  • seconded. never go in a 'large navigable waterway without a map or doing research. get a copy of seaclear II.exe and the noah maps.
    – SkipBerne
    Jul 16, 2015 at 13:03

In general most buoys and navigational marks are informational. (There are some that could mark prohibited or restricted areas, but those are rare) Mostly they are of the “you are here” or “shallow water past this point” variety.
The “you are here” type can be helpful if fog, rain etc. reduce visibility before you get back to shore.
The “shallow water past this point” type are useful for you because if you are in 2 feet of water, there is no chance of being run over by a large ship that needs 23 feet of water to float. ;) What any particular buoy or marker means depends on its location and is best used in conjunction with a chart of the area.
You can look at the navigation charts for your area online at http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/mcd/OnLineViewer.html But you’ll need a little instruction on how to interpret the symbols. (See below) It’s really a visual thing so it would be nearly impossible to teach it in this kind of forum. Also there are a lot of “rules of the road” that determine who has the right of way and who must “get out of the way” but generally as a paddle powered craft you have the right of way in almost all situations. This of course is of little comfort if you get run over by a large ship or inconsiderate (drunk) power boater.
The United States Power Squadron (a private club, not government agency) conducts public boating safety classes that will cover what you’re looking for. It will also cover a lot of other things you should know to be safe on the water, as well as a few things that are irrelevant to your situation. Don’t let the name fool you, the class offered to the public is a general boating safety class not just for power boaters. I would strongly recommend that you find one in your area and sign up. Also I believe that the US Coast Guard Auxiliary conducts boating safety classes, although I am not personally familiar with them.

  • The link seems to be dead. Aug 6, 2019 at 7:50

Powered boats are typically expected to yield to non-powered boats such as your kayak, but that's not to say you shouldn't be aware of your surroundings, if not for your own safety then at least to be courteous. When I'm in a kayak I tend to stay near the shore unless it's early morning or late evening when few other people are around; it's just easier for everyone involved.

Inland buoys are typically used to indicate distance, direction, and of course hazards. A popular phrase used is 'red right return.' This means that the red buoys will be on your right if your direction is returning you to land, or upstream (away from the ocean, this applies to both sea and inland) and the green buoys will be on your left. This also means you should keep the red hazard buoys to your right in order to avoid the hazard when traveling upstream, and to your left when heading downstream, etc.

The state of Massachusetts has a handy guide you should take a look at that summarizes all of this, the coast guard has a lot of helpful online material as well.

http://www.boatma.com/safetytips.html <- read this one first


  • Note that while the port and starboard colours in this answer are correct for the question (which is framed for IALA Region B), the colours (but not the shapes) of lateral buoyage are the reverse in IALA Region A. Here, we remember that "port is red and always passed to the left", just like at the dining table. Feb 9, 2017 at 17:00

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