Reconsidering Red, Right, Returning

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.

New Zealand, land of spectacularity and slight, nearly imperceptible variations to the “norm.”
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

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.

Entering the Hatea River in Whangarei.
© 2020 Elana Connor

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.

Green, right, returning just doesn’t have any kind of ring to it.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

“. . . 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.”

The spectacular, volcanic landscape of Whangarei almost distracted from the odd buoy situation.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

“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.

16 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Gerry Gilbert 2 months ago

    While sailing throughout French Polynesia we used “Red Right Retreat” (to sea) as our motto. The Polynesians seemed to like it.

  2. Avatar
    Brian Richards 2 months ago

    Discovered the green right concept on our burst Charter in the Adriatic. Fortunately I had read it in a cruising guide before we arrived. My problem on the Dalmatian Coast was I never knew if my parallel to the Coast course was returning or outgoing.
    Fortunately the water is deep with few hazards and little tide so we figured it out with no drama.

  3. Avatar
    Paolo Sheaffer 2 months ago

    I was familiar with the fact that US differed from Europe & Australia/NZ. I did not know that the BVIs use the US system. This nearly caused us to come to grief off Virgin Gorda as we set up to pass a lone green marker to Starboard. Thankfully, a timely set wave feathered on the reef in front of us, and our charter cat had fixed props which responded quickly in full reverse. Once we regrouped leaving the green to our left, we anchored, settled in and thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at CocoMaya. I can adapt to either system, but need to remember which system is in use!

  4. Avatar
    David Day 2 months ago

    Good article. I noticed this difference when I was living in Jeddah Saudi Arabia. I was there for four years and just could not figure it out. This sheds a lot of light on the topic and seems very logical, since Saudi Arabia uses mostly European standards for building and electrical codes.

  5. Avatar
    Steve Rienhart 2 months ago

    Another thought on the subject: we mark our channels as we exit the harbor, rather than when returning.

  6. Avatar
    David Cohan 2 months ago

    When we cruised around the Pacific circa 1987-1989 we found information on which buoyage system (IALA Region A or B) was used where was readily available in cruising guides and sailing directions. Since I tended to read these obsessively, we were rarely surprised. One interesting exception was American Samoa, which had switched from B to A within the year, hence not yet reflected in printed guides. In daylight, with good charts and radar to measure distances, we did not have a problem. We were able to alert other cruisers making a night approach to Pago Pago via VHF, which I’m pretty sure they found helpful.

    It’s not just the US that’s different — all of North and South America uses IALA 2. Interestingly, so does Japan, which we sailed to and in during our Pacific voyage. It’s also worth noting that many Pacific islands use a third system (“Cardinal “) to mark safe routes around the island, with one color/shape of marks on the “land” side of a channel, and another on the “reef” side. One did have to pay attention to which was in place where — the safe channel into a lagoon would be IALA A, but once we’ll inside the lagoon it would shift to Cardinal.

  7. Avatar
    Mark Howe 2 months ago

    I considered it to be a New World rule, since I know it holds in the Caribbean and pretty sure it holds in Canada. Not sure why I think it is also true in So. America. Is it?? And is it true that the lateral bouyage system using N, S, E & W was done away with in the ’70s and exists no more?

  8. Avatar
    John Humphrey 2 months ago

    I thought if you drove on the right “red right return worked and if you drove on the left the opposite was true with regard to the buoys. Yea, no?

    • Avatar
      Mark Howe 2 months ago

      Not in the BVI- they drive on the left but RRR.

  9. Avatar
    Howard 2 months ago

    I moved to Israel a number of years ago and had to learn the new buoyage system. I teach sailing and always tell but not teach the anecdote of red right return to students as it is still dear to my heart. Somehow green right return still doesn’t flow off the tongue.

  10. Avatar
    Larry Smith 2 months ago

    RRR was going to be wrong when we moved aboard in the Mediterranean. It’s GRR here, which hardly matters because we navigate with a chartplotter to harbor entrances. The steep topography along most coastlines means that there aren’t many approach channels marked with buoys anyway.

  11. Avatar
    Sheila 2 months ago

    So it would make more sense to learn the shape rather than the colour.

  12. Avatar
    Bob Hinden 2 months ago

    For another variation. I did some sailing in the Swedish archipelago a while back. There, in a maze of islands, it not clear in a channel between two islands, which way is returning. So they mark it on the charts.

  13. Avatar
    Lewis & Alyssa 2 months ago

    Port wine red….port side red. Cheers, Lewis & Alyssa sv Levana IP420

    • Avatar
      Tom P 2 months ago

      Port, to port, to port.

  14. Avatar
    howaussie 2 months ago

    I was told, as an Australian, “There’s a little red port left in the bottle,” which you should enjoy coming into port.

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