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Your Ultimate Guide to Navigating the Lake: Wake Zones, Signs, and General Rules

If you’ve recently bought a boat or are considering it, rest assured that anyone new to the waters has lots of questions about what to expect. Boating is an entirely different world than a leisurely road trip out of town. Whether you're on a powerboat, sailboat, or pontoon, boating safety comes down to knowing the rules of the water. 

Your Ultimate Guide to Navigating the Lake: Wake Zones, Signs, and General Rules

General Lake Rules

Though you can take entire courses on lake rules for boating and on-water navigation, we’ve compiled a few of the basics to get you started:

  • Speed. All vessels must proceed at safe, controlled speeds at all times. Pay attention to any mandated speed requirements. When in doubt, reduce speed.

  • Crossing. When two vessels will be crossing paths, the boat on the starboard (right) side has the right of way.

  • Meeting head-on. When two vessels meet head-on, both must alter course starboard. Give as wide a berth as possible.

  • Overtaking. When one vessel will be overtaking (passing) another from behind, either starboard or port as a course. Again, give as wide a berth as possible.

  • Approaching sailboats. When approaching a vessel “under sail,” a powerboat should give the right of way to the boat without auxiliary power engaged.

  • Navigating channels. Within channels, vessels should always keep to the starboard side unless otherwise marked.

  • Boating after dark. When boating after dark, it’s important to make sure all lights are in working condition — particularly the green light on the starboard side and the red light on the port side. Without these, other vessels will never know whether the boat is moving toward or away from them.

Channel Markers

Most of the channel markers (i.e., signs) on the water will either be green or red, much like the starboard and portlights on your boat. The colors will help indicate the side of the boat to keep a given marker or buoy on as you pass.

Green markers and buoys will always be located on the left side of channels and waterways as you navigate upstream, with odd numbers increasing consecutively as you move in this direction. Markers will be square in shape, while buoys will be cylindrical.

Red markers and buoys can be found on the right side of channels and waterways as you navigate upstream. These “aids of navigation” come with even numbers that also increase consecutively as you move in that direction. Markers will be triangular, whereas buoys will be cylindrical — but with a cone or rounded top.

Other markers can also be found on the waters and will come in different shapes and colors. Each has its own meaning. Pay attention to:

  • Diamonds. Diamond-shaped markers alert you to potential hazards.

  • Diamonds with a cross. Diamond-shaped markers containing a cross indicate prohibited areas, such as a swim area.

  • Circles. Circular markers alert you to areas with regulated operations, such as speed limits or no-wake zones.

  • Squares. Square markers, other than the green markers mentioned above, contain helpful information. They may tell you directions, locations, and distances. If, for example, you’re looking for the boat ramp, you’ll find that information on a square marker.

  • White with red vertical stripes. These markers indicate unobstructed or “safe” waters.

  • White with black vertical stripes. These markers or buoys alert you of obstructions that extend from the nearest shore to that buoy. Pass on the opposite side of the buoy, furthest from the shore.

  • Red with black horizontal stripes. These markers also alert you of isolated dangers that can be passed on either side.

  • Red and green horizontal bands. These markers indicate junction points, informing you of the option to take a right or left channel or waterway.

  • Yellow. Yellow markers are special aids, informing you of “need-to-know” areas, such as traffic separation, anchoring, cables or pipelines, and jetties.

Minimum Wake Zones/No-Wake Zones

Waves can sometimes create problems on the lake, so it’s important to abide by these lake rules at all times. You’ll often run across two “types” of wake zones.

  • Minimum wake zones. Minimum wake zones will generally range from 25 MPH to 35 MPH. All vessels should keep below the posted speed to keep wakes at a minimum.

  • No-wake zonesNo-wake zones require you to reduce the speed to the slowest possible MPH that still allows you to make forward progress and maintain steering. Narrow channels, confined harbors, and crowded areas will often have signs alerting boaters to no wakes.

Knowing how to navigate and what to look for can make boating much more enjoyable. All that’s left is to keep your boat on course. Now that you’re confident in the rules of the water, consider buying a boat from Ed Watkins Marine today!