It is a maxim that many of us learned before we knew how to tack, jibe, or even raise our sails. It is a mnemonic that, once known, is impossible to forget. It is the simple expression of an important navigational concept: Red, right, returning.
And it is likely the exception, and not the rule.
Entering the Hatea River to get to the cruisers’ hub of Whangarei, New Zealand, I noticed that the buoys were, well . . . wrong. Just wrong. They were on what I understood to be the ‘opposite’ side of the bay. At first, this raised a larger existential question: Is everything in New Zealand the same, but slightly different? Does the Coriolis effect make all things go backward?
Not really. It’s the US that tends to be the outlier, a fact that’s easy to forget when you’ve grown up on inches, gallons and Big Gulps. “Green right returning is in most of the world except North America,” wrote Tim Dick on our Instagram page. “It’s like that pretty much everywhere except for the US,” chimed in Latitude freelancer Ronnie Simpson.
The question, now, is why? Is this another weird American idiosyncrasy?
“During the American Revolution, Americans decided to reverse all the navigational buoys to confuse the British warships,” Tim Dick continued. “It worked — many British warships went aground.” Many online forums mention this story, but from our limited research, we can’t find any official historic accounts, only similar anecdotal references.
How many navigational buoys were there in American ports in the 1700s? In his book Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution, Jack Coggins wrote, “There was some slight knowledge of currents and tides, and the more traveled parts of the known world’s coasts were fairly accurately charted. Lighthouses and buoys existed, but were few in number, especially in the New World.” Coggins made no mention — as far as we can tell — about the British Navy’s being tricked into running aground.
Here’s another sliver of RRR history:
“‘Red, right, return’ was drilled into my head early on, and for all the years I sailed in North America, it proved true,” wrote Michael Robertson in a 2017 Cruising World article. “Then I went cruising across the Pacific. One of the first things I learned is that the rest of the world doesn’t echo the same navigational mnemonic.” Robertson traced the origins of this discrepancy to the 1970s, after a series of terrible accidents in the English Channel, where several ships ran aground.
“. . . At the time of these tragedies, there were 30 different buoyage systems in use throughout the world,” Robertson continued. “The disparity was cited as a contributing factor to the disasters and prompted the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) to implement a standard: the Maritime Buoyage System. This system, ratified in 1982, consolidated the 30 systems into two. These two systems are what we have today.
“With regard to buoyage used to mark harbor entrances, the systems are pretty similar. In all cases, markers to port (when entering a harbor from sea) shall be square or have a flat top. Markers to starboard shall be conical or have a triangular shape or pointed top. In all cases, markers shall be green or red.”
“But whether they are green to port and red to starboard or the opposite depends entirely upon what region of the world you are navigating. The IALA established two regions: Region A and Region B.”
We’re wondering what experiences you’ve had with red . . . some direction . . . returning. Did it cause you any degree of confusion? Are there any historians out there who can clarify the Revolutionary War anecdote?
Please comment below, or email us here.