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Cardinal marks are rare enough down here that many of our new sailing friends are unlikely to have come across one yet. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a few spots where they are in use. There are a couple around Beef Island in the BVI, and 1 or 2 in Martinique. I’m sure there are a few others, but you get my point, they’re not all that common in the Eastern Caribbean.

When we took our initial sailing classes, cardinal marks were part of the curriculum. We learned about their purpose, and memorized the shapes and colors, acquiring the ability to determine where the safe water would lie.

A cardinal mark indicates where the safe water is located. For example, you should stay to the north of a north cardinal mark.

The part that took me a long time to grasp was the light signals that corresponded to each of the 4 cardinal marks. Not realizing that they correlated to the numbers on a clock (3, 6, 9, 12), I thought the flashes random, and thus had a hard time committing them to memory.


I came across this graphic the other day, and I think it spells it all out pretty clearly. Hopefully sharing it will help some of the budding sailors out there more easily assimilate this bit of info. As rare as cardinal marks are down here in the Caribbean, being familiar with them is still important.

Can you name the specific location of a cardinal mark in the Caribbean?


  1. Hi Mark,
    I don’t recall ever seeing a cardinal mark anywhere nor ever learning about them in any ASA class (although its been a while). Now, thanks to you and a google search, I know what they are and what they mean. I like your memory aid for east and west (egg and wine). I’m still scratching my head over what I found on wiki for this:

    “The topmark configurations for north and south are self-explanatory (both cones pointing up, or both pointing down). Those for east and west “follow the Sun”—the top cone points in the direction in which the rising (for an east mark) or setting (for a west mark) Sun appears to move with respect to the horizon, while the bottom cone points in the direction in which its reflection on the ocean surface appears to move.”

  2. Cardinal marks are quite common here in Australia. An easy way to remember the marks (not lights) is that the N mark points up, S down, E has two triangles that sort of look like an E and W is the other one. At night, 3 flashes E, 6 S, 9 W and 12 N. Easy.

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