How to Improve Compliance

When it comes to dealing with a few bad apples in a fleet of sailors, all it takes are carrots and sticks.

September 5, 2014

Our sport depends on an honor system. We rely on competitors to take penalty turns if they break a rule, and to protest if another competitor breaks a rule and doesn’t do his or her penalty turns. This basic principle is prominently located on the first page of the rulebook.

The vast majority of events conducted under these rules are fleet races without judges, umpires, or referees on the water. There are exceptions—at championships for lightweight one-designs, it’s common to have judges on the water enforcing Rule 42, Propulsion; match races and team races are umpired; and at a few international championships for one-designs the final “Medal Race” is umpired.

Over the past few years, while serving as a judge at events for a variety of classes, I’ve had many opportunities to see how well our rules work. I’m usually on the water watching the races from up close—either as a judge enforcing Rule 42 or as a spectator. At most of these events, boats generally comply with the right-of-way rules. I see boats bump, particularly in light winds before the start and at crowded mark roundings, but rarely does significant damage result, and I hear few complaints about competitors not complying with the rules. So, for these events, our honor system works in that it allows competitors to enjoy racing without having to spend time and money repairing their boats.


However, compliance with the basic principle, Sportsmanship and the Rules, is variable between fleets. Every fleets finds its own level of rules compliance that remains stable from race to race, but I often see dramatic differences between fleets. One recent large international event had ten different fleets racing, and I watched each of them at some point during the several days of racing. Rules compliance was excellent in seven of the fleets. Nearly all boats were complying with the right-of-way rules almost all of the time, and there was little yelling and few protests. In the other three fleets, however, I saw rules broken, penalty turns not taken, and hardly any protests filed. Ashore, I heard serious grumbling about the abysmal level of rules compliance in those three fleets.

There are three ways in which I’ve seen rules compliance fail:

  1. Only one or two boats flaunt the rules, while the rest of the fleet complies.
  2. The failure is fleet wide, but the fleet is made up of novice racers and the failure to comply is simply a result of not knowing the rules.
  3. The failure is fleet wide despite the fact that the competitors are skilled. Many competitors break rules repeatedly, rarely are penalty turns made, and protests are few and far between.

If any of these problems exist, and no action is taken to improve rules compliance, the consequence can be dwindling turnout for races because those discouraged by the disregard for the rules choose to sail in other fleets, or even give up racing and take up other activities. However, turning a rules compliance situation around is easier than you might think. On several occasions I’ve seen a fleet show striking improvement in a surprisingly short time. There are a variety of ways to make that happen.


Let’s start by considering what can be done when just one or two boats in a fleet consistently ignore the rules: First, quietly call a meeting of experienced fleet members who do abide by the rules. Convince that group to agree to promptly and firmly protest the offending boat or boats in the next race as soon as one of those boats breaks a rule. If you are nearby and see an incident that another member of the group protests, hail “I saw that! I’ll be a witness for you.” We tried this when a dinghy fleet I was racing in had one sailor who consistently and flagrantly ignored Rule 42, Propulsion. A group of veterans in the fleet met and agreed to take action. In the next race, one of them protested the offending boat, and several others hailed that they would witness. The protested boat sensed an abrupt change in the fleet’s attitude toward his behavior. He sailed back to shore and had gone home by the time the day’s racing was over. Chastened, he returned a couple of weeks later and sailed in compliance with the rules.

It’s not always that easy. In one large keelboat fleet, there was a fellow who flaunted the rules and had a severe anger management problem. Fleet members asked him to clean up his act, but that did no good. One night he was protested after he “lost it” and caused damage by intentionally barging his way into an inside position at a mark. The protest committee not only disqualified his boat but also initiated a Rule 69 action against him for a gross breach of the rules and of sportsmanship. In this case, the fellow quit racing, but racing was more pleasant after he left and the fleet has since flourished.

To improve rules compliance in a fleet when many members of the fleet simply do not know the rules well, try buying a copy of The Sailor’s Guide to the Racing Rules for each boat in the fleet. This new, inexpensive 20-page booklet written by David Dellenbaugh is available for purchase from US Sailing. It does an amazingly thorough job of covering the rules in a clear manner and with neat graphics. The next step would be to contact the US Sailing Regional Area Judge for your part of the country, and arrange for an experienced judge to watch your races, make notes about rule issues, and then conduct informal debrief sessions after racing. The judge could discuss incidents that he or she saw and answer rules questions. If there were any protests, the judge could hear them, with the hearings open to the entire fleet to listen in (except witnesses; see Rule 63.3(a)).


Another idea: During the offseason, schedule a rules seminar and encourage everyone to attend by making it count as a “race” in the first series of the year. Score each boat that attends with first place in that “race.” Those that don’t attend could be scored with a 10th. Schedule time for socializing and provide food and drink.

When experienced competitors in an international event are ignoring the rules and not protesting, it may be time to crack down. At such an event, it’s likely the judges will be experienced. They should call a competitors meeting and announce that they will observe the races closely and will exercise their right under Rule 60.3(a) to protest, if they see what they determine to be a clear rule violation with no boat taking penalty turns or protesting. Later, if the protest committee finds that a boat involved in an incident knew that a rule had been broken, and did nothing about it, the committee should warn the boat that, if the same thing happens again, the committee would consider protesting the boat under Rule 2, Fair Sailing, or possibly calling a hearing under Rule 69, Allegations of Gross Misconduct. The committee’s decision, including the warning, should be posted on the official notice board. In a top-level fleet, where a Rule 69 penalty might well jeopardize a competitor’s financial support, one or two such protests and warnings are likely to produce a surprising improvement in rules compliance.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Sailing World. To read more from rules expert Dick Rose, click here.

Crowded Mark Rounding
Whether it’s a crowded start or a raft up at a mark, there’s bound to be rule bending. Tolerance varies from fleet to fleet, but when compliance becomes an problem, there are easy ways to get everyone to play by the rules. Paul Todd/

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