Know your buoys and beacons

Lookout! Issue 25, June 2012

Buoys and beacons are the signposts of the sea. To navigate safely, you need to be able to recognise, understand and follow these marks.
Yellow buoy floating
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Buoys and beacons come in a variety of shapes and colours.

The system uses marks that have a variety of colours, shapes and light characteristics arranged in simple ways to show the side to pass a buoy or beacon on, when heading in a given direction. Buoys and beacons are shown on charts.

A buoy is a floating mark that is secured to the seabed by mooring chains and a beacon is a mark that is permanently fixed to the seabed. Many unlit buoys and beacons have reflective strips to make them more visible at night.

Within the maritime buoyage system there are six types of mark:

  1. Lateral marks
  2. Cardinal marks
  3. Isolated danger marks
  4. Safe water marks
  5. Special marks
  6. Other marks (includes sector lights, leading lines etc).

Buoyage direction

New Zealand Buoyage
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The conventional buoyage direction in New Zealand.

When travelling with the buoyage direction, the markers are passed on their correct sides. When travelling in the opposite direction, against the direction of buoyage, the side to pass is reversed.

The conventional buoyage direction in New Zealand is either:

  • that direction approaching a harbour, estuary or waterway from seaward, or
  • when travelling clockwise around the North Island or clockwise around the South Island.

Lateral marks

In New Zealand, lateral marks use red and green colours during the day and at night to define port and starboard sides of the channels, respectively. Secondary channel marks are sometimes used to show where a channel divides, and to indicate the preferred channel or primary route.

Port hand marks

Port hand marks
  • Colour: red
  • Shape: cylindrical (can), pillar or spar
  • Top mark (if any): single red cylinder (can)

Starboard hand marks

Starboard hand marks
  • Colour: green
  • Shape: conical, pillar or spar
  • Top mark (if any): single green cone, point upward

Preferred channel to starboard marks

Channel to starboard marks
  • Colour: red with one broad green horizontal band
  • Shape: cylindrical (can), pillar or spar
  • Top mark (if any): single red can

Preferred channel to port marks

Channel to port marks
  • Colour: green with one broad red horizontal band
  • Shape: conical, pillar or spar
  • Top mark (if any): single green cone, point upward

General rules for lateral marks


If marks at the sides of a channel are numbered, the numbering follows the “conventional direction of buoyage”. The convention is port = even (2, 4, 6 etc), starboard = odd (1, 3, 5 etc) numbered from seaward.


If a lateral mark is lit by a light, then a red light is used on port and preferred channel to starboard marks, and a green light is used on starboard and preferred channel to port marks. Preferred channel marks have a distinctive light pattern, for example FI (2 + 1).

Cardinal marks

A cardinal mark shows that the deepest water in the area lies to the named side of the mark, or shows the safe side on which to pass a danger, or draws attention to a feature in a channel (such as a bend, a junction, where a channel divides, or the end of a shoal).

Cardinal marks are normally pillar or spar shape. They are always painted in yellow and black horizontal bands and their distinctive double cone top marks are always black. The direction of the top mark cones, the position of the yellow and black bands, and the light (when fitted) character or rhythm identify the type of cardinal mark.

Cardinal marks take their name from the cardinal points of the compass and should be passed on the named side of the mark.

North cardinal mark

North cardinal mark
  • Colour: black above yellow
  • Shape: pillar or spar
  • Top mark (if any): two black cones, one above the other, points upward

South cardinal mark

South cardinal mark
  • Colour: yellow above black
  • Shape: pillar or spar
  • Top mark (if any): two black cones, one above the other, points downward

East cardinal mark

East cardinal mark
  • Colour: black with a single broad horizontal yellow band
  • Shape: pillar or spar
  • Top mark (if any): two black cones, one above the other, base to base

West cardinal mark

West cardinal mark
  • Colour: yellow with a single broad black horizontal band
  • Shape: pillar or spar
  • Top mark (if any): two black cones, one above the other, point to point


If the cardinal mark is lit by a light, then a white light is used with a specific character or rhythm for each type of cardinal mark.

  • North continuous ‘very quick’ or ‘quick’ flashing
  • East three ‘very quick’ or ‘quick’ flashes, followed by darkness
  • South six ‘very quick’ or ‘quick’ flashes, followed immediately by a long flash, then darkness
  • West nine ‘very quick’ or ‘quick’ flashes, followed by darkness.

Very quick (VQ) flashing is when a light flashes at a rate of 120 or 100 flashes per minute, quick (Q) flashing is when a light flashes at either 60 or 50 flashes per minute.

The long flash (L.Fl) is a light appearance of not less than two seconds and ensures that three or nine very quick or quick flashes cannot be mistaken for six.

To help remember the character of the flash used on a cardinal mark, think of a clock face and the position of three (east), six (south) and nine (west).

Two other marks also use white lights: the isolated danger mark and the safe water mark. Each has a distinctive light rhythm that can't be confused with the very quick or quick flashing light of the cardinal marks.

Isolated danger marks

Isolated danger marks

These marks are placed on, or near to a small area of danger that has navigable water all around it. They have distinctive double black spherical top marks, a black base with red band, and when fitted, a white light.

Safe water marks

Safe water marks

These marks identify an area that has navigable water all around it but do not mark a danger. These marks can be used as midchannel or landfall marks. They can be pillar or spar with a single red spherical top mark and vertical stripes (red and white). If they have a light, it will be white.

Special marks

Special marks

These marks indicate a special area or feature, which can be identified on a chart or another nautical document. They are yellow and may carry a yellow ‘X’ top mark, and if they have a light, it will be yellow.

Special marks indicate:

  • Ocean Data Acquisition System (ODAS) marks
  • traffic separation marks (where use of conventional marking may cause confusion)
  • spoil ground
  • military exercise zones
  • cables or pipelines
  • recreation zones
  • marine farms.

Other marks

Other marks include leading lines, sector lights, lighthouses, beacons, major floating aids and auxiliary marks.

New dangers

New dangers are newly discovered hazards that are not yet indicated in nautical documents. These include naturally occurring obstructions such as sandbanks or rocks, or introduced dangers such as wrecks. New dangers are marked with the appropriate lateral, cardinal, isolated danger mark or an emergency wreck marking buoy (blue and yellow vertical stripes).

Waterski access lanes

A Waterski access lanes is a lane where skiers and similar water users may exceed the 5 knot speed limit while within 200 metres of shore. Each sign of the lane is marked on the shore, with transit posts of orange and black horizontal bands, along with noticeboards to warn bathers. Orange and black buoys may be placed in the water.

Surfing lanes

Each side of a surfing lane is marked with transit posts of bright orange (or yellow) and royal blue, along with noticeboards to warn bathers.

Reserved areas

This is an area reserved by a regional council for the exclusive use of specified vessels. Special events may take place in these areas and special rules may apply. Areas may be marked with floating (black buoys with white bands) or fixed markers on shore (black posts with white horizontal bands). Noticeboards may be used to warn bathers or other water users of any special rules that apply.

Sources: New Zealand’s System of Buoys and Beacons, Maritime New Zealand, Safety in Small Craft, Mike Scanlan.

Buoys & beacons

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