The Cardinal System

There are numerous marker and buoy systems in Canada. The two main ones to be aware of as a boater are the Lateral System and the Cardinal System. Let’s take a closer look at the Cardinal System.

The Cardinal System consists of yellow and black buoys that are used to assist boaters in identifying the location of safe water. The Cardinal System marks safe water according to the Compass points of north, south, east and west. For example, a North Cardinal Buoy indicates that safe water lies to the North of the buoy. Cardinal Buoys may be equipped with a light and/or letters for identification on a marine chart.

Remember: With Cardinal Buoys, the safest water lies in the direction indicated by the buoy. Water in the opposite direction should be considered unsafe and avoided.

Cardinal markers are spar or pillar-shaped (with a flat top). The position of the yellow and black colour bands indicates the cardinal compass point of north, south, east or west and therefore the direction of the safest water. If equipped, top-marks consisting of two cones indicate the direction of safe water.

Cardinal Buoys

  • North Cardinal Buoy
    • Purpose:  A North Cardinal Buoy is positioned so that the safest water lies to the north of the buoy
    • Colour:Black on the top and yellow on the bottom
    • Light: North flashes once
  • South Cardinal Buoy 
    • Purpose:  A South Cardinal Buoy is positioned so that the safest water lies to the south of buoy
    • Colour:Yellow on the top and black on the bottom
    • Light: South flashes in a group of size times followed by one long flash
  • East Cardinal Buoy 
    • Purpose:  An East Cardinal Buoy is positioned so that the safest water lies to the east of the buoy
    • Colour:Black with a wide yellow band around the midsection
    • Light: East flashes in a group of three times
  • West Cardinal Buoy
    • Purpose:  A West Cardinal Buoy is positioned so that the safest water lies to the west of the buoy
    • Colour: Yellow with a wide black band around the midsection
    • Light: West flashes in a group of nine times

The below image outlines Cardinal buoys and their signal lights. It’s important to be able to identify and navigate your boat according to this buoy system. For more information about aids to navigation when boating read ‘What is a Marker Buoy?.’

CardinalSystemBuoys