(This article originally appeared in 2002, however, some areas of the country may not yet be in compliance. For those of you in such areas, we are leaving this article up.)

A phase-in period of the Uniform State Waterway Marking System (USWMS) (found on most lakes and rivers) with the United States Aids to Navigation System (USATONS) is underway. This merger eliminates distinctions between these two systems and creates safer, less confusing waterways.

The two major changes are:

  • The meaning of the red and white striped buoy will change from the USWMS “do not pass between the buoy and the nearest shore” to the USATONS “safewater all around.”
  • The black versus green buoy always meant the same: “marks the left side of the channel when returning from a large body of water or when heading upstream” but with the merger, the USWMS black buoy would be replaced, with the green buoy required by the USATONS.

Uniform State Waterway Marking System (Old System)
being phased into the US Aids to Navigation System (below)

May Show White Reflector or Light

stripebo.gif (858 bytes)
White Buoy

7bouy.gif (800 bytes)
White Buoy

rtbouy.gif (775 bytes)
White Buoy

May Be Lettered

May Be Numbered

Do not pass between
buoy and nearest shore

WILL MEAN: Safe Water (see below)

Pass to north
or east of buoy


Pass to south
or west of buoy


May show green
reflector or light

3bouy.gif (1112 bytes)
Buoy may be green

(see below)

Solid Red and Solid Black Buoys

Usually found in pairs.
Pass between these buoys




Lateral System

May show red
reflector or light

4bouy.gif (823 bytes)

United States Aids to Navigation System

atons1.gif (9303 bytes)
atons2.gif (6280 bytes)
atons3.gif (8483 bytes)

The phase-in period is linked to the buoy’s lifecycle to avoid unnecessary replacement cost to the agencies responsible and should be complete by the year 2003. Are you in compliance?

Red, Right, Returning

A buoy’s shape and color allows boaters to follow a safe course on the water. Many boaters are familiar with the saying, Red, Right, Returning, meaning the position of the red buoy should be on the right side of the boat (starboard) when returning from sea, or heading upstream or toward the origin or headwaters of a water body. By memorizing these simple words, boaters can navigate more safely and stay in the channel.

If the red buoys are on the right/starboard side of the boat, then the green buoys should be on the left/port side of the boat when heading upstream. The opposite is true when traveling downstream. Of course, this is fine if the boater can see the buoy color. However, if the color is not recognizable because of the position of the sun, lack of good light, color blindness or some other reason, boaters must rely on the shape of the buoy to determine safe navigation.

Thus, if we insert another word in the phrase, as in Red, Religious, Right, Returning, the word “religious” explains the shape of the buoy. Religious can be used to remember a “nun buoy” which is cone shaped on top, red in color, and marks the channel on the right when proceeding inland from sea. “Can buoys,” named because of their cylinder-like shape (green in color), mark the left side of the channel. It doesn’t matter what system you use to remember the meaning of buoys as long as it allows you to navigate safely!