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Where The Buoys Are

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on August 6, 2019. In

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Effective July 20, 1998, the The United States Coast Guard commences a five year phased-in merger of the Uniform State Waterway Marking System with the United States Aids to Navigation System. This merger eliminates distinctions between the two systems and creates safer, less confusing waterways.

The Uniform State Waterways Marking System (USWMS) prescribes regulatory markers and aids to navigation which mark navigable state waters. The USWMS may also mark the non-navigable internal waters of a state.

The United States Aids to Navigation System (USATONS) prescribes regulatory markers and aids to navigation that mark navigable waters of the United States. Navigable waters include territorial seas and internal waters that have been, or can be used for, interstate commerce, either by themselves or in connection with other waterways.

The major differences between the two systems are:

  • In the USMWS system port side lateral markers are black. IN the USATONS system, they are green.

  • The USMWS system has a red and white vertically-striped buoy which means obstruction. In the USATONS system a red and white vertically-striped buoy means safewater.

  • The USMWS has the additional requirement of orange bands just above the water line and near the top on regulatory buoys;

  • The USWMS allows for lights on mooring buoys whereas the USATONS is silent; and,

  • The USWMS uses the cardinal system to mark obstructions and the USATONS uses the lateral system of marking obstructions.

Here are the changes that will occur during the five year phase-in period as markers are replaced.

USATONS regulatory markers will be required to carry the same orange bands just above the water line and near the top as the USWMS system.

The USWMS black port side channel markers will be replaced with the green buoy required by the USATONS.

The meaning of a red and white vertically-striped buoy changes in the USWMS from “do not pass between the buoy and the nearest shore” to the USATONS meaning of “safewater all around.”

Obstructions currently marked with the USWMS red and white vertically-striped buoy will be replaced with either a red or green channel marker, if practicable, the USATONS black and red horizontally striped isolated danger marker, or a newly created USATONS black and white vertically-striped marker to indicate not to pass between the marker and the shore. In no case shall the new black and white vertically-striped marker be allowed in the same body of water as the phased-out red and white vertically-striped obstruction marker. (They all must be changed – cannot be mixed.)

The USWMS white black-topped markers which mean “pass to north or east of buoy” and the white red-topped markers which mean “pass to south or west of buoy”, will be replaced with USATONS red or green channel markers, the isolated danger mark, or the new black and white vertically-striped marker.

USATONS which made no mention of lights on mooring buoys may now incorporate white lights of various rhythms.

Ownership identification on private or state aids to navigation is permitted so long as it does not change or hinder an understanding of the meaning of the aid to navigation.

The five year phase-in period will end on December 31, 2003 when conversion should be complete. In the meantime, you may see a combination of both systems as older markers are replaced. We will be changing the information in the Nautical Know How Basic Boating Course in the near future to reflect these impending changes.

If you want to brush up on Aids to Navigation, check out the information in the Basic Boating Course .

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