Prescriptions for Bumper-Car Syndrome

Dick Rose has a few remedies for preventing routine collisions. "From the Experts" in our April 2008 issue.

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Steve Arkley/sailshots

When it comes to rules compliance, fleets have their ups and downs. I have seen fleets cycle through years when most everyone dutifully does their turns if they foul, and no one rocks or pumps to excess, and then experience years when there is lots of contact, lots of prohibited kinetics, and very few actual protests. I’ve received many letters and telephone calls from competitors looking for ways to increase rules compliance in their fleet.

No fleet is perfect. A few misjudgments and, therefore, rule infractions are bound to occur. New sailors often don’t know the rules well. However, if a bad case of “bumper-car syndrome” develops in a fleet, it can really hurt participation. You don’t want fleet members selling their boats because they’ve experienced too much aggression or damage, and you sure don’t want to hear someone comment about your fleet, “Don’t join that fleet-no one sails by the rules.”

I hope rules compliance in your fleet is high, and that you have no need for the advice I’m about to give. However, even if compliance is high today, it might be a good idea to save this article-I’ve seen rules compliance disintegrate in fleets that for years had very high compliance.


Bumper-car syndrome can have many causes. Some lie with the competitors and some with race management. Let’s first look at a few ways that competitors can be at the root of the syndrome:

1. A fleet with sailors who do not know the rules very well grows in size, but keeps racing on courses of the same length with the result that there are more rules confrontations and more multi-boat incidents in which it is difficult to apply the rules.

2. Several new sailors who hardly know the rules at all join your fleet.


3. There are one or two “bad apples”-sailors who blatently disregard the rules.

4. Competitors don’t bother protesting because they don’t like long protest hearings.

Now, here are some prescriptions for curing bumper-car syndrome in such cases:
1. Arrange for a course on the racing rules for your fleet. Make it long enough to do a thorough job. Consult with the US SAILING Regional Area Judge for your part of the country to find instructors. Make these sessions fun by combining them with a fleet party. Motivate each boat in your fleet to send at least one person to the course by giving some points toward the season championship to the boats that attend.


2. Appoint experienced members of your fleet who know the rules to mentor newcomers and answer rules questions.

3. Meet quietly with a few of your fleet members. Get them to agree to hail “Protest” loudly whenever they see one of the “bad apples” break a rule, and then follow through with a written protest. When several boats see one of these boats break a rule, they should all hail. A concerted effort by even a half dozen boats can make a big change in the offender’s behavior in a surprisingly short time.

4. Two ways to shorten protest hearings are arbitration or mediation by an experienced judge, or streamlining protest hearings in which each party to the protest is limited to 2 minutes to present his or her case.


Another approach is to hold pre- and post-race competitor meetings. In the pre-race meeting, ask each crew to pledge to make penalty turns if they think they may have broken a rule. Then, in the post-race meeting ask the crews to describe any incidents that happened in which they did not know how the rules applied, and then discuss those incidents with the entire fleet. If you can’t work out an answer, get an opinion from a local US SAILING judge and announce it the next week at the pre-race meeting.

The racing rules simply do not work if the race committee uses procedures that result in too many boats trying to crowd into too small a space. Unfortunately, sailboats don’t have brakes. When the density of boats gets too high, it is almost impossible for even the most skilled sailors and the most knowledgeable rules experts to avoid incidents in which boats collide or break rules. There are common examples of poor race management procedures that contribute to a breakdown in rules compliance:

1. Setting a starting line with one end heavily favored.

2. Setting a starting line that is so short that not every boat can find a spot on the line in clear air.

3. Letting boats that are over the line at the starting signal race without scoring them OCS.

4. Setting too short a first windward leg for a closely matched fleet, with the result that too many boats round it in too little time.

5. Setting the marks for a leeward gate or the finishing marks for a downwind finish too close together, so that when a pack of boats arrive overlapped they cannot all fit through.

6. After a period of flat calm, a new wind comes up from behind the fleet and blows them all into the next mark or the finish line en masse. When this happens at a rounding mark, the boats will be simply unable to round in compliance with the rules. When it happens at a finish line, it will be very difficult for the race committee to determine the finish order, and I guarantee that, even if the committee manages to come up with an order, the competitors will not think that the race was a fair test of skill.

And here are some prescriptions for excellent race management that can help avoid each of these errors:

1. If the fleet is congregating at one end of the starting line, postpone the race before the boats start to pile into one another at the favored end. Drag the mark at the end of the line that had the crowd downwind and restart.

2. If you see that the fleet is using the entire starting line, but the line is so short that not every boat is able to get a place on the line with clear air, postpone before adjacent boats begin to make contact. Lengthen the line and restart. It’s always better to postpone early before boats begin to bounce off each other and before there are clumps of boats over early.

3. Invest in a powerful and reliable sound amplifying system so that your hails of boats over early can be heard down the line even in fresh winds. Such systems are surprisingly cheap. Make liberal use of flag I and the Round-an-End Rule (Rule 30.1) and state in your sailing instructions that you will hail boats that are over during the last minute. If you’re starting a fleet of boats with cabins, make your hails by VHF radio.

4. If there is the sound of crunching fiberglass and anguished hails as the fleet rounds the first windward mark, you’re first leg was too short. Either lengthen the leg in the future or, if that is not possible, break up the fleet into two groups and start them separately. There are lots of ways to vary the composition of each of the smaller groups and to score the fleet so that they are still all racing against each other on a fair basis over a series of races.

5. A good rule of thumb is that the marks at a leeward gate should be separated by no less than seven times the length of the boats racing. For a downwind finish, use at least the same separation between the finishing marks. To avoid boats using just one gate mark or one end of the finish line, set the line between the gate marks or the finishing marks at 90 degrees to the wind. If, because of current or local wind conditions, the boats still congregate at one of the two marks, then in future set that mark further upwind.

6. Don’t let such mass roundings or finishes happen. Abandon the race before the fleet reaches the mark or the finish line. Take advantage of the new wind, and restart the race.

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