How to Use Smith Mountain Lake Channel Markers

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Navigating Smith Mountain Lake requires understanding its comprehensive channel marker system, designed to help boaters traverse its two main river channels (Roanoke and Blackwater) and its major creeks (Craddock, Witcher, Walton, Gills, Bull Run, Little Bull Run, and Beaverdam).

The numbered and lighted channel markers are strategically mounted on pilings along these waterways. 

When traveling upriver (away from the dam), keep the triangular, even-numbered RED markers to your vessel’s RIGHT (starboard). An easy mnemonic is “Red on Right Returning,” where “returning” means traveling toward the river’s source and NOT back toward the dock, ramp or marina where you started. These markers flash red lights at night. 

Red triangle channel marker B10A with Smith Mountain in the background
Photo by Jerry Hale

In contrast, square, odd-numbered GREEN or BLACK ON GREEN markers should be kept to your LEFT (port) side when heading upriver. These markers have flashing green lights after sunset or in low visibility.

At the mouth of each channel, you’ll typically find a GREEN “1” on a GREEN or WHITE square to denote a channel junction. Marker #1 for each channel is closest to the dam, with numbers increasing sequentially as you move upstream. Notably, on the Blackwater River, B25, B23 and B21A are placed above B26, B24 and B22 respectively. Additionally, some locations may skip numbers: for instance, there’s no R10 between R12 and R8.

Over the last couple of years, the lights on #1 markers have been changed  from WHITE to GREEN to comply with USCG standards. Marker G1 is the exception; it still flashes WHITE and likely will until sometime in 2025.

Markers are placed for optimal visibility rather than indicating distances. For example, B2, B4 and B6 encircle a point at the first bend of the Blackwater River and are only about 50 yards apart. It’s essential to give all markers a wide berth as lights can sometimes fail, and buoys may be displaced by wind or collisions. Always use a chart in conjunction with what you observe on the water.

What Do the SML Channel Marker Letters Mean?

Markers also include letters before or after their numbers to denote the river or channel they mark:

R – Roanoke River

B – Blackwater River

W – Witcher Creek

WC – Walton Creek

C – Craddock Creek

H – Hatcher Creek

BU – Bull Run

BR – Little Bull Run

BE – Beaverdam Creek

G – Gills Creek

Channel marker B11 in green with Smith Mountain in the backgrounds
Photo by Jerry Hale

Seasoned SML boaters may recall the difficulties of navigating the lake back when markers were sparse. Over the years since, more than 200 authorized navigational aids have been added. Appalachian Power Company maintains these markers on main channels and creeks, while the Tri-County Lake Administrative Commission (TLAC) oversees shoal and obstruction buoys elsewhere. Report any missing markers, light outages or other issues to TLAC at 540-721-4400.

Despite the robust marking system, boaters must remain vigilant to avoid disorientation. Meandering shorelines and obstructed lines of sight can be confusing. Everything looks different at night!  An onboard GPS app system is invaluable, particularly for newcomers. While smartphones typically don’t show markers or hazards, several apps are available that offer a compass, GPS coordinates, weather conditions and other features.

Remember, navigational markers have red or green flashing lights at night, corresponding to their colors, and white flashing lights mark some shoals. Additionally, white cylindrical buoys designate swimming areas, shoals and no-wake areas. It’s crucial to stay away from shoal markers and avoid cutting between a marker and the shore.

SML Map with Channel Markers

For a successful boating experience, purchase and study a waterproof map of Smith Mountain Lake, available through the Smith Mountain Lake Association. Proceeds directly support the organization’s programs that help keep SML safe and clean.

SML Insider Jerry Hale, Freelance Writer

Jerry Hale

freelance writer

When he’s not writing about the Smith Mountain Lake, you might just find Jerry out wake surfing or just idling through its coves, practicing guitar or banjo on his deck at the Cottages of Contentment Island, playing steel drums or volunteering with LCM, Trinity Ecumenical Parish, Neighbors Helping Neighbors or the SML Charity Home Tour. 

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