Navigation markers and buoys

Find out about navigation aids including the types of marks, Cardinal marks, leads, lights and the Coming in, Going out rule. You can also read about upgrades to the Swan Rivers navigational aids.


Western Australia uses an internationally recognised uniform coding system of navigation marks known as the IALA buoyage system A.

Navigation marks are the equivalent of road signs on highways. It is important to be aware of what is meant by the various marks.

Take time to study a chart as well as the buoyage (the system of buoys) to familiarise yourself with their meaning.

  Coming in, going out rule

Upstream-downstream principle
Upstream-downstream principle

When entering harbours or travelling upstream in a river, leave port hand marks on your port side and starboard hand marks on your starboard side.

When leaving harbours or travelling downstream, leave port hand marks on your starboard side and starboard hand marks on your port side.

Tip: One way to remember this is the saying there's some red, port, left in the bottle when travelling upstream.

Lateral marks are not always placed in pairs where you simply have to pass between them. When you see just one, you will need to bear in mind the upstream-downstream principle.

  International system of buoys

Marks are used to show well established channels indicating the port (left) and starboard (right) hand side of channels.

We advise you download this table below, print it out, laminate it and display it on your vessel for a quick and easy reference.

Cardinal marks

These are used where lateral marks would be inappropriate or confusing. They indicate the compass direction of the safest water, so having a compass on board is very useful. They indicate the safe side to pass a danger or a feature, such as a bend in channel or end of a shoal.

What side to pass?

You should pass to the east of an East Cardinal mark, to the south of a South Cardinal, to the west of a West Cardinal and to the north of a North Cardinal.

Cardinal rose
Cardinal rose

Colours and top marks

The lights, topmarks and colour schemes have a logic to help you memorise them. The cones on top point in the direction of the black segment of the pillar:

  • North: Both cones top point up, black at the top of the pillar.
  • East: The cones point up and down, black at top and bottom.
  • South: Both cones point down, black at the bottom.
  • West: The cones point inwards, black in the middle.

Lights (white)

The lights patterns almost follow the clock face:

  • 3 o'clock = East Cardinal = 3 flashes.
  • 6 o'clock = South Cardinal = 6 flashes + 1 long.
  • 9 o'clock = West Cardinal = 9 flashes.
  • 12 o'clock = North Cardinal = continuous flashing.

The long extra flash for south, and the continuous flash for north are to avoid confusion if you lose track with your counting.

Types of cardinal marks

We advise you download this table below, print it out, laminate it and display it on your vessel for a quick and easy reference.



Leads are:

  • A pair of navigation marks, used to indicate a safe passage for vessels entering a shallow or dangerous channel.
  • Separated in distance and elevation, so that when they are lined up vertically, with one behind the other, they provide a bearing.
  • Usually used to enter a harbour, anchorage or navigate a channel.
  • Often used for the approaches to anchorages (there are many at Rottnest) instead of lateral marks.

You steer to keep the rear lead directly above the front lead.

  Lights and sectored lights

Chart excerpt
Chart excerpt

If lit, they may use any colour. The chart will have the details.  

Sectored lights

Sectored lights are navigation aids that indicate a safe channel through shallow or dangerous waters. See the Woodman Point example below.

Generally there are 3 lights of different colours, each identifying a sector of an arc:

  • White sector: Generally be the safe water.
  • Red or green sectors: Areas to avoid.

It is particularly important to check the chart for the light's meaning, purpose and to determine the extent of the safe passage.

Example: Woodman Point

Woodman Point sectored lights
Woodman Point sectored lights

To use the lights in this chart, the vessel is on the recommended course as long as it keeps within the white sector of the light. If the light colour shifts to red or green an adjustment of course is required to bring it back into the white and back on track.


Markers Buoys Beacons
Markers Buoys Beacons

A sticker is available providing information about markers, buoys and beacons.

For a copy of the markers, buoys and beacons quick reference sticker email us or call 13 11 56.

  Reporting navigation hazards and faulty aids

If you see a navigational hazard such as floating debris, an obstructed channel, a partially submerged object or anything that could affect the safety of other vessels you should report it by contacting:

Navigational Safety: Monday to Friday am to pm 13 11 56

Water Police Co-ordination Centre: (08) 9442 8600 (after hours)

When reporting a hazard please include the position, location and type of hazard.

Navigation aid fault reporting

Navigational aid faults include damaged, missing or malfunctioning lights.

If you see a navigational hazard you can report it to either the Navigational Safety or the Water Police Co-ordination Centre.

When you are reporting a fault you should include:

  • The position/location of the navigational aid.
  • Type of fault occurring (for example: topmark missing, light not working, buoy out of position).
  • Navigation aid identification number.

Navigation markers on Swan River

Page last updated: Fri Dec 6 2019 1:41:01 PM