Monday, January 24, 2011

Red Right Return... Right?

An answer to that age-old question, "What Side of the Buoy Do I Go On???" 

Guest blog by Vincent Pica
Chief of Staff, First District, Southern Region (D1SR)
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Red, Right, What? © Rushton
Two of the “great mysteries” of boating are:

[1] how do I dock this thing in front of all these people and not look like a land-lubber, and

[2] Good Lord, what side of this buoy do I go on?

We will address #1 in a later column. We will address #2 right now and forever!

Here we go...

Imagine this. You are on one of those reality TV shows and you have won! In addition to the big job and the big bucks, the host throws in a beautiful penthouse apartment in a brand new 50-story condo overlooking the marina and harbor. You get so excited that you faint straight away. You wake up in the elevator and you see the elevator numbers flashing by…

If the numbers were going up, would you be leaving the building or returning to our new home in the penthouse? If the numbers were going down, would you be returning to your new home in the penthouse or leaving to go to work..? Clearly, if the numbers are going up, you are returning home. If the numbers are going down, you are leaving.

And the same is true of the buoyage system in the entire United States… While certain pearls of wisdom work in local waters (“keep the reds and the ocean on the same side of your boat”), they don’t work everywhere and they also fail to educate you as a mariner as to “how the system works” and why…

Of course, many of us have heard and used the old saw of “red, right, return” – meaning when returning from sea/to your harbor/home, keep the red buoys on your right. But often harbors line cheek-to-jowl along a shore. Are you leaving one or returning to the other? So, let’s extend the old saw and get it right forever more…

Red - Right, Return; Left, Leaving.” Keep the red buoys on your right when returning and on your left when leaving. And, if the numbers are going up, you are returning (to your penthouse in the sky!) If the numbers are going down, you are leaving (to that great job you just won!)

Be wary of one thing – “discontinuous numbers”, meaning big jumps between buoy numbers or the numbers starting to go the opposite way. This means you have entered a new seaway or road and you need to recalibrate the direction of the numbers. For example, if returning from sea via an inlet, you will certainly see the buoy numbers go up in step. But what if, for examples, pass Nun#4 and see ahead Can#15? That’s a big jump and undoubtedly means you are entering a new seaway. Now, what side? Quickly check your chart. If the next buoy after this hypothetical Can#15 is Nun#16, you are still “returning from sea.” If, however, it is Nun#14, you are “leaving harbor” as far as the buoyage system is concerned! Remember: Red-Right-Return; Left-Leaving. In this case (leaving), you would now take Can#15 to starboard so that you can subsequently take Nun#14 to port (left leaving!). Never fails (in North America).

Want to know why our reds are on our right when returning from sea and not the other way around as in Europe? Well, when we were at war with the mightiest navy in the world over 230 years, the revolutionaries turned all the buoys around so that the English men-of-war would run aground… and we just kept them that way ever since…!

“Red - Right, Return; Left, Leaving.” If the numbers are going up, you are returning as far as the rules of the road are concerned… Always…

BTW, if you are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at or go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, at DSO-HR and we will help you "get in this thing…"



  1. marinermark@cs.com02 February, 2011

    I moved from Miami, FL to Fort Myers, FL. After boating for 40 years in the Miami area I had the ATONs figured out. Now I'm starting over. ATONs aren't nearly as plentiful here, and sometimes don't follow the rules I thought I knew. Lesson: always have local charts aboard.

    1. red:
      right, return
      left, leaving

      if the #s are going up, you are returning!

    2. Red:
      right, returning
      left, leaving

      if the buoy #s are going up, you are returning!

  2. this is really interesting, I just couldn't figure out why the lighthouses near the grounded Italian cruise ship were "backwards".

  3. Was in Tahiti - the colors were reversed! Only in the Americas is it Red, Right, Return. Something to do with confusing the Brits during the Revolutionary War.

    Can anyone help me with this? Is it true?


    1. The international buoyage system is divided into 2 regions. The Americas are Region-B and the rest of the world is Region-A, except for Japan and the Philippines, who use the American system. So, yes, Tahiti should be "backwards!"

      right, returning
      left, leaving
      if the #s are going up, you are leaving!

  4. Anonymous14 May, 2012

    It's red right returning to the head of navigation, which is usually upstream. On the upper Niagara River, the head of navigation is DOWNstream, so red is on the right when headed down river.

  5. And what about markers that are both red and green? A post about this would be nice.

    Sure, they indicate intersecting channels, but what is the difference between a triangular RG and a square RG daymark?

    A recent trip down the S. Edisto river caused concern when I encountered a triangular Red/Green. I'm currently going South on the ICW so I have Red to Starboard on the ICW. The triangular R/G is not an ICW marker and lies dead center of the river. Which side to I go?

    It would pass on my Port side if I stay on the ICW so I know the ICW side must be green. That makes the Edisto River side Red. Going down stream in the Edisto river Red is Left Leaving so I left it to Port. It is triangular since it is an Edisto River mark and not an ICW mark. Had it been a shared mark it would have been a Red/Green square if placed just slightly farther upstream.

    1. well, the good thing about a junction buoy (which a buoy that is both red and green) is that you can pass on either side WITH RESPECT TO GOOD WATER. The top color is the preferred channel but there are channels on both sides.

      what you need to figure out is what you do next and whether you are returning or leaving...