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.

Lateral marks

Port and starboard marks are referred to as lateral marks.

Diagram showing the different possible shapes for port hand markers, including a can-shaped buoy, can-shaped topmarks on top of buoys and poles, and a red flashing light.

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 in the diagram.

Diagram showing the different possible shapes for starboard hand markers, including a cone-shaped buoy, cone-shaped topmarks on top of buoys and poles, and a green flashing light.

Starboard hand markers

Starboard markers are green and have a cone-shaped topmark or buoy. If lit, a starboard hand mark shows a flashing green light. Starboard markers may be any of the shapes shown in the diagram.

Green to green when going upstream. Green to red when seas are ahead.

Single lateral marks

Often, lateral marks are not placed in pairs, so you’ll need to decide which side is the safest side to pass. The safe side of a lateral navigation marker is determined by your direction of travel to, or from, the sea:

  • Green to green when going upstream
  • Green to red when seas are ahead.
Boat travelling away from the sea passes to the right of a red marker (red marker stays left of boat).

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

Boat travelling away from the sea passes to the left of a green marker (marker on right of boat).

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

Boat travelling towards the sea passes to the left of the red marker (marker on right of boat)

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

Boat travelling towards the sea passes to the right of a green marker. Marker stays on left of boat.

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

Two boats keeping to starboard travelling in a channel with a bend.

Channels and rivers

In NSW, the term 'channel' means an area of navigable waters that, whether or not indicated by navigation marks, provides a passage for vessels. This means that the term channel extends to bays and sounds as well as the more traditional marked channels, fairways, passages and rivers. Generally speaking, best practice is to keep to starboard in all waterways. However, in narrow channels a vessel must keep to starboard.

When driving a boat on rivers and estuaries, extreme caution should be exercised because not all shallow areas and navigation hazards may be marked and 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 all regulations for avoiding collision apply. Remember:

  • 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.
Diagram showing navigation path by positioning the vessel so that both leads are lined up.

Leads and sector lights

Leads 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.

Diagram showing red, green, white sector lights. Red sector - turn to starboard. White (safe) sector. Green sector - turn to port.

Sector lights vary from port to port and a chart should be referred to before using them.

  • Red sector - turn to starboard
  • Green sector - turn to port
  • White sector - safe sector.

Where sector lights mark the entrance to a port, be aware that the white sector is the shipping channel. Do not impede the passage of seagoing ships. See Big ships small boats for more information.

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 in the diagram.

  • North cardinal mark - A north cardinal mark has two cones pointing up. It has yellow on the bottom and black at the top. Pass on the northern side of this mark. When lit, a north marker exhibits a continuous (very) quick flashing white light.
  • East cardinal mark - An east cardinal mark has two cones pointing away from each other. It is black and the top and bottom and yellow in the middle. Pass on the eastern side of this mark. When lit an east mark exhibits a white light flashing in groups of three (3) quick or very quick flashes.
  • South cardinal mark - A south cardinal mark has two cones both pointing down. It is black at the base and yellow at the top. Pass on the southern side of this mark. When lit a south mark exhibits a white light flashing in groups of six (6) quick or very quick flashes followed by a long flash.
  • West cardinal mark - A west cardinal mark has two cones point to point. It is yellow at the top and bottom and black in the middle. Pass on the western side of this mark. When lit, a west mark exhibits a white light flashing in groups of nine (9) quick or very quick flashes.
Cardinal marks diagram - described in the text.

Speed signs

In some areas, speed restriction signs are used for safety reasons in NSW. These usually show four or eight knots, but can also show six, 10 and 15 knots. Penalties apply for travelling in excess of the speed restriction.

White sign with black number 4 inside red circle and text 'speed limit in knots beyond this point'

4 knots - about 7km/h or a fast walking speed.

White sign with black number 8 inside red circle and text 'speed limit in knots beyond this point'

8 knots - about 15km/hr or a fast jog.

Yellow sign with black number 15 inside red circle and text 'speed limit in knots beyond this point'

15 knots - about 28 km/h and is used as the Sydney Harbour Transit Zone. See Special areas - Sydney Harbour for more information.

Wash

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.
Reduce Wash sign - blue representation of boat and wash on a white background.

'Wash' is the wave effect created by a vessel moving through the water. 'No Wash' and 'Reduce 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.

Be aware that vessel wash can travel for hundreds of metres, and you can be held legally responsible for damage caused by wash from your vessel.

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. This is an offence.

Isolated danger mark - black at top and bottom red in the middle. Two circles on top. Pairs of white flashing lights

Other buoys and signs

Isolated danger

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 - yellow in many shapes, with an x shape on top.

Special marks

Indicates special features or areas such as:

  • Tide poles
  • Spoil grounds
  • 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 (port hand) or conical (starboard hand). See the Lateral marks section for more information.

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

Safe water marks - red and white vertical stripes. Some with a red circle on top.

Safe water marks

These are not common in NSW. 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 kept on your left hand (port) side.

Three aquamark minibuoys, red with 'no swimming', yellow with '4 knots' and green with 'shallow waters' in text

Aquamark 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.

Channel blocked/closed

These signals mean vessels should not navigate in that part of the channel.

  • Bridge span blocked
  • Channel is blocked
  • Port closed.
Diagram of a bridge with hanging circle/triangle/circle and nighttime image of hanging red/green/red lights, both indicating channel blocked/closed.

Submarine cables

Submarine cables carry electrical power or telecommunication signals under the water. Anchoring is prohibited within 200 metres of a submarine cable. If your anchor becomes snagged in this area, it should not be retrieved. Cut the anchor line as close as you can to the anchor.

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.

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 offers a free sticker which you can use to help 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.

Bridges

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.


 
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