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The following pages contain a summary of the Navigation Rules and the basic information you, as a personal watercraft operator, must know. They are not the complete rules. As a recreational boater, you should obtain a complete copy of the rules, study them, and keep them available for future reference.

Signs, Symbols and Markers

There are many signs, symbols, and markers on the waters where you will be boating. They are as important to you as a boater as highway signs are to the driver of a car. The red and green buoys provide you with information about where the "safe" water or "channel" is. By staying between the buoys, you will be assured of adequate depth to use your PWC. These buoys may also display a matching red or green flashing light at night for navigation. Although a PWC requires very little depth to operate, it is still not advisable to operate outside of marked channels due to underwater hazards, such as submerged pilings, rocks, and other unseen objects.

  1. Buoys and other markers can impart a lot of other safety information, too. Their colors and markings provide information you need. For instance: if you are on a river traveling upstream keep the red, conical buoys on your right (starboard) side. Hence the term "Red Right Returning" (from the sea).

  2. White buoys with orange markings serve as "cautions" or "alerts". They may have a message such as "No Wake", or just a symbol printed on them. They may also designate swimming areas and areas that are forbidden to boats.

  3. White buoys with blue bands are used to mark an anchorage. Proceed through these areas at a very low speed to prevent your wake from causing damage to anchored vessels or discomfort to their passengers.

If you would like to learn more about these navigational aids, contact your local Power Squadron for information about the USPS Boating Course.

Alpha Flag

Alpha Flag:
This tells you that underwater operations are being conducted - stay away.

Divers Down Flag

Divers Down Flag:
Displayed on a buoy or float towed by the diver. The flag signifies a diver is underwater.

Right Channel Marker

Channel Marker: Commonly called a "Nun Buoy"
On the right side of the channel as you "return from the sea". These buoys are solid Red in color and have even numbers that increase as you travel away from the sea. Sometimes they will have a flashing Red light on top.

Left Channel Marker

Channel Marker: Commonly called a "Can Bouy"
On the left side of the channel as you "return from the sea". These buoys are solid Green in color and have odd numbers that increase as you travel away from the sea. Sometimes they will have a flashing Green light on top.

No Wake

No wake:
This buoy advises you must maintain the slowest possible speed at which you can keep moving and steer your boat. It is a White buoy with a Orange circle and Black lettering.

Controlled Area

Controlled Area:
An orange circle with black lettering, used to control or prohibit boating activities: 5 MPH, No Fishing, No Boats, etc.


A White buoy with an Orange diamond with Black lettering. This usually tells you about specific dangers such as rocks, dams, underwater cables, etc.

Boats Keep Out

Controlled Area/Boats Keep Out:
White buoy with a Orange diamond with a cross in the middle. These markers may or may not have explanatory markings such as rapids, dams, swim areas, etc.


White buoy with an Orange square in the center, lettering in Black. These may give place names, directions, distances, etc.


Mooring Buoy:
White buoy with a Blue stripe around the center. These are buoys to which a boat may be tied and held for a period of time.

Safe Water/Center of Channel

Safe Water/Center of Channel:
White stripes are twice the width of the red stripes, and this tells you where to find the center of the channel and safe water. Sometimes they will have a flashing White light on top.


White stripes are twice the width of the black stripes, and this tells you an obstruction to navigation extends from the nearest shore to the buoy. This means "do not pass between the buoy and the shore".

Regulatory Markers

Know the following information devices:

Visual Distress Signal

Visual Distress Signal (VDS): Extend your arms straight out to both sides of your body. Then bring your hands together as high over your head as you can reach. Continue moving your hands and arms between these two positions as long as you must to attract the attention of others who can come to your rescue. The above is the only way that you should use your arms as a distress signal. Other arm motions, or waves, may be understood by other boaters as merely a greeting.

Aside from the arm signals, there are both pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic distress signals. Orange Smoke (Day Signal), Red Meteor (Day and Night Signal) and Red Flares (Day and Night Signal) are examples of pyrotechnic distress signals. An electric light (Night Signal) or orange flag (Day Signal) are two non-pyrotechnic distress signals.

If pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals are used, a minimum of three must be on the vessel, in serviceable condition and in an accessible location. The Coast Guard requires three hand held flares (Day and Night) or three orange smoke signals (Day Only) and an electrical light (Night Only). Only use Visual Distress Signals when assistance is required to prevent harm to people onboard the boat. Use of Visual Distress Signals in non-emergency situations is prohibited.

To assist rescuers in finding and aiding boaters in distress, the U.S. Coast Guard requires all boats operating in U.S. coastal waters to carry visual distress signals. Coastal waters include the Great Lakes, the oceans and any bay or sound that empties into the ocean. In addition, a river that has a mouth over two miles across is considered to be coastal waters from the mouth to a point where it narrows to two miles. Rivers, streams and inland lakes, except the Great Lakes, are not considered coastal waters. All visual distress signals carried in accordance with these regulations must be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. Signals must be in good condition (the service date must not have expired) and kept where they are readily accessible.

Some boaters do not like to carry flares aboard. Accordingly, one orange distress flag may be substituted for three daytime signals and one SOS distress light may be substituted for three nighttime signals. Any light (including a search light) or sound may be used to attract another vessel's attention or to get help so long as it is not mistaken for another type of light. Revolving lights or strobe lights, often used by marine patrols, should not be used.

There are exceptions for certain boats during the daytime. The following only need to carry night signal devices when operated at night.

  1. Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length.

  2. Manually propelled boats (rowboats, canoes, kayaks)

  3. Open sailboats under 26 feet.

  4. Boats participating in organized marine events.

When a vessel is in distress and requires assistance there are a number of signals that can be used or are exhibited;

  1. Red star shells

  2. Fog horn continuous sounding

  3. Flames on the vessel

  4. A gun fired at intervals of one minute

  5. Orange background: Black Ball and Square

  6. S.O.S

  7. "Mayday" by radio

  8. Parachute red flare

  9. >
  10. Dye marker (any color)

  11. Code flags: November Charlie

  12. Wave arms

  13. Radio telegraph alarm

  14. Radio telephone alarm

  15. Position indicating radio beacon

  16. Smoke

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