Why ‘Red, Right, Returning’ is wRong!

Really, you say?  “That’s not what the book says…  in fact, that’s not what ANY book says.”

True.  Except, of course, for ours.  Yes, we have our own.  Our Director & Dockmaster,’ Captain Stephen Glenn Card, authored a coastal navigation textbook for the Sailing Center a long time ago.  More on that later.

‘Red, Right, Returning’ is a memorization aid for dealing with buoys and beacons in US Coastal Waters.  Basically, it’s a reference to something called the Lateral System, and the idea is that when returning from seaward and entering bays, harbors, etc, we should leave red buoys/beacons on the right side of our vessel (meaning we pass to the left of them).

It’s taught in sailing and boating courses nationwide, and was handed down to us by none other than the United States Coast Guard.  Below, I’ll even provide a link to their PDF about it.  So why I am I challenging it in any way?

Simple.  It’s an unnecessary, misleading oversimplification that often results in boaters running aground, and if you follow it, you’ll eventually run aground too. Here’s why…

  • Well-defined channels with rows of green and red markers are uncommon;
  • It’s often unclear when you’re ‘returning’ versus ‘leaving.’  Large bodies of water like Long Island Sound are often treated like ‘R,R,R’ channels, and back bay passages – especially with islands – are worse.
  • It doesn’t help you when there’s no buoy or beacon for an underwater hazard (common enough in our waters, and routine in much of the world).
  • Even when it’s set up as intended, it doesn’t show the safe approach to get to the first buoy or beacon marking your return.  Sometimes those navaids come AFTER the hazard they mark – and only a chart would reveal that!
  • The world is broken down into two regions, A and B, and it only works in one (which sets you up to fail in the other).

It’s actually easier to just look at the chart.  (To their credit, the USCG does say you should do that.)  The chart has it all, and if you use it, you should never run aground.  Here’s why…

  • Charts show the actual hazards and their risk to you;
  • Charts show what, IF ANYTHING, marks those hazards;
  • Charts show you ways to get around unmarked hazards;
  • When a navaid is missing (it happens), you’ll know it, whereas without the chart, you never would.

So, in conclusion, Everyone advocates having proper charts.  R, R, R offers us nothing that charts don’t.  Charts supply everything.  Def need charts; def don’t need RRR.  It’s worse than useless.  Delete it from your memory and have a safe time boating with a proper chart.

Here’s the link to the USCG pamphlet in PDF on the lateral system of buoyage…


Now, about that book…

Navigation for Numbskulls, or “How to get from A to B without hitting C,” is our Coastal Navigation text book complete with practice problems and answers.  Captain Card begun this endeavor with nothing more in mind that writing a few supplements to the then current ASA text book on the subject.  Eventually, he toyed around with writing his own and began by writing a chapter here and there during Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in Vermont, when he had the down time.  One thing led to another, and he got to the point where it was developing critical mass and a decision had to be made about whether to proceed to full fruition.  Yada, yada, yada… a book was born.  It’s available in print and as a PDF from us. Contact us to see an sample excerpt or to purchase.

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