Checkmate in the Kelp Beds

Dick Rose examines a rules conundrum that occurs when one boat begins backing down during the pre-start. "Rules" from our September 2007 issue


Elizabeth Wishe

This month I tackle a rules puzzle I'll bet you've never encountered. I know that I'd never heard of an incident like it. It's a challenging test of your rules knowledge that gives several rules a good workout.

Here's what happened. Prior to a major distance race for PHRF classes, between the warning and the preparatory signals for her class, the crew of Kelpie, an S2 9.1, believed there were weeds on her keel. To clear them off, her helmsman planned to back the mainsail and sail backwards for a couple of lengths. He knew that while he was backing down Rule 20.3 would apply and he would be required to keep clear of all the other boats that were reaching back and forth below the starting line. He sailed away from the line along one of its extensions, luffed up to head to wind and coasted to a stop. He checked for other boats in the vicinity that he would be required to keep clear after he began to back down, and the only boat nearby was Interloper, who was beam reaching on port tack well to leeward. Kelpie's crew pushed her boom all the way out and held it there until Kelpie began to move backwards. As Kelpie was backing down, Interloper tacked onto starboard tack and assumed a collision course with Kelpie.

It's not easy to stop a boat going backwards as Kelpie was and it's tricky to steer as well. It is fairly easy to keep going in reverse in a straight line directly downwind, but it you try to make a large change of course, the forces on the rudder will slam the tiller to one side. "I repeatedly hailed Interloper asking them to avoid us," said Kelpie's helmsman. "But she kept coming at us, and at the last minute, I put my tiller hard to port in an effort to avoid contact. I was unsuccessful. We hit Interloper topsides." There was minor gel coat damage to the boats, but Kelpie's helmsman was crushed between the tiller and his stern rail, and as a result broke two of his ribs.

Neither boat protested. However, Kelpie's crew acknowledged that they knew Rule 20.3 required them to keep clear, but they felt like they'd been caught in a Catch 22. They had started backing down well clear of all other boats and, later, Interloper's had, in effect, checkmated them. They asked for my analysis of how the rules applied to the incident.

Clearly Rule 20.3 applied to Kelpie after she started to move astern by backing her main, and it required her to keep clear of any other boat that was not also moving astern by backing a sail. Rule 20.3 is in Section D of the Part 2 rules, and the Section D preamble states, "When [Rule 20.3] applies between two boats, Section A rules do not." Therefore, Interloper had right of way over Kelpie at all times while Kelpie was moving astern, regardless of whether Interloper was on port tack, starboard tack, or tacking. Two other rules applied-Rules 14 and 16.1. As you can see from the diagram, when Kelpie began to back down Interloper was on port tack. While Kelpie was gathering sternway Interloper tacked and assumed a collision course with Kelpie. As soon as Kelpie's crew saw the course that Interloper had assumed, they made every effort to avoid contact, but were unsuccessful.

Here is my interpretation of how the rules applied to this incident. Obviously if Interloper had not changed course after position 2, when Kelpie began to back down, Kelpie would have kept clear. It was Interloper's 180-degree change of course between positions 2 and 3 that put Kelpie in an untenable position. When Interloper made that course change she was required by Rule 16.1 to "give [Kelpie] room to keep clear" -i.e., to give Kelpie "the space she needed in the existing conditions to maneuver promptly in a seamanlike way" to keep clear (see the definition Room). Kelpie did everything she could in an effort to avoid contact, but she was unsuccessful. In my opinion, Interloper broke Rule 16.1 because her course change did not give Kelpie room to keep clear. Interloper also broke Rule 14 because it was reasonably possible for her to have avoided the contact after it became clear that Kelpie was not keeping clear.

You might question my interpretation of Rule 16.1 by pointing out that Interloper actually held her course for several lengths before the contact with Kelpie. However, when a heavy keelboat is sailing backward, she needs quite a bit of time and space to maneuver clear of a boat that turns and assumes a collision course toward her, and there is no requirement in Rule 16.1 that the course change occur just before contact (although in most applications of the rule it usually does).

You also might ask whether a boat intentionally being sailed backwards is maneuvering in a "seamanlike way". In my view, as one who has sailed in kelp-infested waters for years, it is a seamanlike and common pre-start maneuver to get well clear of other boats and back down to remove kelp wrapped around your keel, as Kelpie did.

Did Kelpie break any rule? She certainly broke Rule 20.3, but Interloper's breach of Rule 16.1 put Kelpie in a "checkmate" position where she could not avoid Interloper. Therefore, I would, under Rule 64.1(b), exonerate Kelpie because she was compelled to break Rule 20.3 as a consequence of Interloper's breach of Rule 16.1. There was contact and so we must consider whether Kelpie broke Rule 14. I believe she did not. Here's why: Kelpie was a boat entitled to room, and therefore she did not need to act to avoid Interloper until it was clear that Interloper was not giving that room. As soon as Kelpie's crew saw Interloper turn onto a collision course, Kelpie made every effort to avoid contact, but it was not possible for her to do so.

Had this incident come to the protest room, some other interesting questions would have arisen. The incident occurred before the preparatory signal, and so the boats were not racing. Did the racing rules even apply? Yes, because both boats were intending to race and were sailing in the racing area (see the preamble to Part 2).

That preamble also states that a boat that is not racing cannot be penalized for breaking any Part 2 rule (except Rule 22.1, which did not apply here). If one of the boats had protested, would the protest committee have been required to hold a hearing? Yes, the protest committee is required by Rule 63.1 to "hear all protests and requests for redress that have been delivered to the race office. . ." The committee must hear a protest, apply the rules and decide if any boat had broken a rule, even though no boat involved can be penalized as a result of a breach.

Kelpie's helmsman was injured in the incident. What would the decision have been had Kelpie asked for redress? Rule 62.1 lists several bases for requesting redress. A boat may request redress if she claims that her score in a race or series has, through no fault of her own, been made significantly worse by injury suffered because of the action of a boat that was breaking a rule of Part 2. Kelpie's helmsman broke his ribs as a result of Interloper's breach of Rule 16.1, a rule in Part 2. Kelpie did sail the race after the incident. Therefore, in order to receive redress, she would have had to convince the protest committee that (1) the injury was through no fault of her own and (2) the injury resulted in her race score being made significantly worse.

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