Most of us growing up on boats were taught, Red-Right-Return, meaning (by International Standards) you should keep the red buoys (or day markers) on the right when coming back IN to any port.

It is easy to remember! BUT, like the infamous “i before e” rule in English grammar, there are exceptions!

Many people doing the “Great Loop” start in Florida and begin by going counter-clockwise, navigating up the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), the “inside” route up the east coast.

But ahh, on the ICW, the Red-Right-Return rule doesn’t work. Most of this North-South route is not “in” or “out” of a harbor! To solve this the USA established a domestic standard for the ICW that green aids to navigation (AToN) would be on the ocean-side of the channel. And red AToN would be on the mainland side.

It is easy to remember that most red-blooded mammals are on the mainland “inside” side, and conversely, the fish and deep green ocean is on the “outside.”

Instead of Red-Right-Return, most counter-clockwise Great Loopers will follow the ICW with red on the mainland side, and green on the ocean side, (including the Gulf of Mexico). Even on the west coast of Florida, the mainland gets RED markers; the Gulf of Mexico gets green (north/south does not matter.)

So, there are TWO standards: an International Standard, and an American ICW Standard.

You can always tell which standard a buoy or day marker is using by looking for the yellow sticker. Yellow stickers mean you are in the ICW.

No sticker? That means the more international standard of Red-Right-Return applies to the waterway you are following.



Occasionally they put the opposite stickers on the AToN, as shown below.


Last Saturday, when we followed the ICW into Port Royal Sound and then the Beaufort River, Shelly remarked, “The buoys switched sides on us!” She was correct! Because Port Royal is a major international shipping port, the AToNs are set up for ships in the conventional Red-Right-Return configuration.

But because we were ALSO on the ICW, the buoys had their yellow stickers. However, for quite some distance the ICW yellow stickers were opposite from normal. The pointed red nun buoys got a square. The flat topped green can got a triangle yellow sticker. There are only a handful of places where you will see this on the ICW. This indicates you are still on the ICW, but the AToNs colors are are switched to the international system for this [short] section of the ICW.

What about the Inland Rivers?

Months ago, when going down the Mississippi River we kept green on our right and red on our left. Why? Because we were heading DOWN river. it was great because the current was with us, saving time and fuel. So, green was on the right going WITH the current.

So therefore, the “rule” on the western rivers is Red-Right-Against the current. This is easy to remember cuz most rivers eventually flow into oceans. So “returning” = going upstream, against the current!

Even on the rivers there were places where the buoys switched on us! But there was a good reason for it…

When we took the big left onto the Ohio River, the buoys switched on us because we were now bucking the current. We were heading UP river! So the red AToNs marked the right side of the channel, and the green marked the left.

There were no yellow stickers on the inland rivers. You’ll only see those on the ICW.

What about side trips off the ICW?

Whenever you leave the ICW, to go into a side river or anchorage that has navigation buoys or day beacons, you won’t see ANY yellow stickers there either. Yellow stickers are only on the ICW. No stickers mean: Red-Right-Return, just like we all learned as kids!


Addendum – Side Trips off the ICW

Below… Here is a graphic example of a “side trip” on the ICW. R4, G3, and G5 will NOT have yellow stickers. Normal Red-Right-Return standards will apply in that waterway.

However G233 and R232, which are aids to navigation (AToNs) on the actual mainline ICW, WILL have yellow stickers!

There are no yellow stickers on AToNs R2 and G1 shown here, as they are not on the ICW.

2 thoughts on ““Red-Right-Return”

  1. I learned something new today. Thanks!
    I knew the yellow stickers indicated ICW, but I didn’t realize that the ATON system was different on the ICW. I didn’t realize red (triangle) always means mainland on the ICW. Very good to know. I shared it with my husband. He already knew it and was surprised I didn’t. – We’re up in the Puget Sound currently, so not much applicable yet, but it will be very important in a couple years. ~Brenda


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