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Lateral marks | Channels and rivers | Leads | Cardinal marks | Speed signs | Wash | Other buoys and signs


Navigation marks and signs

A system of buoys, poles and lights is used to assist safe navigation. Each type of mark has a unique combination of colour, shape, topmark and light. You must be able to identify these marks and pass them safely on the correct side.

Check out the Vessel Navigation Interactive Guide here.

Lateral marks

Port and starboard marks are referred to as lateral marks.

Port hand markers

Port markers are red and have a can shaped topmark or buoy.

If lit, a port hand mark shows a flashing red light.

Port markers may be any of the shapes shown below.

Port hand markers

Starboard hand markers

Starboard markers are green and have a cone shaped buoy or topmark.

If lit, a starboard hand mark shows a flashing green light.

Starboard markers may be any of the shapes shown below.

Starboard markers

When both port and starboard marks are placed near each other, you travel between the two.

Single lateral marks

Often lateral marks are not placed in pairs, so you will need to decide on the safe side to pass.

The safe side to pass a lateral navigation marker is determined by your direction of travel to or from the sea.

NOTE: Heading upstream means in a direction away from the sea. Heading downstream means in a direction towards the sea.

Lateral marks instructions diagram

Lateral markers

Keep red (port hand marks) on your left hand side (to port) when going upstream.

Lateral markers

Keep green (starboard hand marks) on your right hand side (to starboard) when going upstream.

Lateral markers

Keep red (port hand marks) on your right hand side (to starboard) when going downstream.

Lateral markers

Keep green (starboard hand marks) on your left hand side (to port) when going downstream.

Channels and rivers

Extreme caution should be exercised when driving a boat because not all shallow areas and navigation hazards may be marked. This is important on rivers and estuaries where shallow areas may shift.

Be careful at bends. Keep a good lookout for boats coming the opposite way. Do not cut corners.

In channels or narrow stretches of water the following rules apply:

  • Keep to the starboard side (right-hand side) of the channel.
  • Do not get in the way of larger vessels operating in the channel and watch for unexpected alterations of course as they
    try to follow the deepest water route.
  • Do not anchor or fish in channels where
    you may obstruct other vessels.
NOTE : All regulations for avoiding collision still apply in channels.


Leads - diagramLeads are often used to guide vessels into a port or through sections of a waterway. By moving your vessel to a position so that both leads are lined up, the course should
be a safe one.

At night, major leads are lit. Move your vessel to ensure that the lights are vertically above each other. All leads are shown on maps and charts, so it is essential to consult your chart for relevant leads and other navigation aids before entering unfamiliar waters.

The leads at major ports are usually highly visible blue triangular or vertical lights mounted on bright orange or red triangular boards.

Cardinal marks

Cardinal marks are used to indicate that deeper water lies in a compass direction away from a danger such as a reef, shallow areas, etc.

They are painted in combinations of yellow and black as shown.

Cardinal markers


Think of a clock face when remembering the lights on cardinal marks.
    three flashes = east,
    six flashes = south,
    nine flashes = west,
    Continuous flashes = north.

Speed signs

In some areas, speed restriction signs are used for safety reasons in NSW. These usually show 4 or 8 knots.


Speed sign 1
Speed sign 2
Speed sign 3

A)            4 knots

(about 7 km/hr or a fast walking speed)

B)           8 knots

(about 15 km/hr or a fast jog)

C)           8 knots

(example of older sign being replaced)


The operator of a vessel must not cause wash that damages or impacts unreasonably on:

  • Any dredge or floating plant.
  • Any construction or other works in progress.
  • Any bank, shore or waterside structure.
  • Any other vessel, including a vessel that is moored.
NOTE : Penalties apply

No Wash signs

No wash sign“Wash” is the wave effect created by a vessel moving through the water. No Wash signs are placed in some areas where the wash from a vessel is likely to cause damage to the foreshore or vessels, or injury or annoyance to people.

Restrictions for boating traffic passing under the Spit Bridge on Sydney Harbour

Travel at a speed which creates minimal wash when you see this sign and when near moored or anchored vessels. Look behind occasionally to see if your boat is creating wash that affects other boats or the shore. Adjust your speed if necessary.

Regardless of signs, you should not navigate your vessel in such a way as to produce excessive wash that endangers other vessels or impacts unreasonably, as this is an offence.


NOTE: Travelling at the speed shown on a speed restriction sign does not guarantee you are not creating wash.

Other buoys and signs

Isolated danger

Isolated danger sign

Indicates specific dangers with generally safe waters all around (eg a wreck).You can pass them on any side but do not pass too close. If lit, it shows a white light flashing in groups of two.

Special marks

Special markers

Indicates special features or areas such as:

  • tide poles
  • spoil grounds or
  • underwater pipes.

They can be utilised as lateral marks by using can or conical shaped buoys. If so they must be passed as lateral marks: can (eg port hand going upstream) conical (starboard hand).

These marks, if lit, show a yellow light at night which may flash in any rhythm.

Safe water marks

Safe water markers

These are not common in NSW. However, they may be used to mark the division of large shipping channels. They may show a white flashing light at night. Where the mark is used to identify a turning point or centre line it should be passed to port.

Aquamark minibuoys

Aqua mark minibuoys

Used in some areas as alternatives to conventional buoyage. They often have advisory messages on them and penalties may apply for breaching the requirement displayed.

Submarine cables

Anchoring is prohibited within 200 metres of submarine cables. If an anchor becomes snagged near one of these signs, it should not be retrieved – cut the anchor line.

Overhead power lines

As clearance height can vary according to water levels, it is most important that masters know the heights of their masts and understand the height level given on any sign.

Most of the existing signs on the water give the clearance of the power lines as the clearance above Mean High Water Springs or the average of very high tides. It is important to know that this clearance height may be reduced during king tides or floods.

However a new crossings signage system is progressively being introduced on NSW waterways. The new signage advises the maximum vessel height which can be navigated under an overhead crossing. It is important to note that clearances may be reduced during floods.

To assist boaters Roads and Maritime Services has developed a sticker which you can use to help you remember the height of your vessel above the water line. You are encouraged to place the sticker close to the steering position of your vessel.

Extra caution is required during the changeover period from the old to the new system and when launching/retrieving vessels with a mast on shore. Always keep a lookout for overhead power lines.


Bridge heights on maps are measured at the Mean High Water mark, so you should allow for higher than average tides at certain times of the year. Also consider your vessel may require more room when unloaded.