Rights Near the Windward Mark

Dick Rose looks into an all-too-common weather-mark incident. From our June 2007 issue.

RoseRules0607

Elizabeth Wishe

Windward-leeward courses are popular these days and most fleet racing is conducted with the requirement to leave all rounding marks to port. As a result, the incident shown occurs frequently.

Clark Chapin, who races at the Portage YC near Ann Arbor, Mich, wrote asking for an analysis of this incident, which he said had been puzzling several experienced sailors and a few veteran judges. Two Interlakes, 18-foot sloops, were beating in about 8 knots of wind toward a windward mark they were required to leave to port. As he began his starboard-tack rounding, Stan was about eight boatlengths ahead of Portia. Portia was closehauled on port tack on a track to pass two boatlengths to leeward of the mark. The course to the next mark was almost dead downwind. Stan bore off to round the mark between positions 1 and 3. At position 3, Portia believed she would have no trouble crossing Stan's bow and keeping clear. Then Stan, still on starboard tack, continued to bear off-between positions 3 and 4-until he was a few degrees by the lee. As Stan bore off it began to look to Portia as if she and Stan might collide, so she bore off in an effort to continue to keep clear. Portia hailed, "Hey, give me room to keep clear." Stan then headed up and defused the incident by steering a course to pass astern of Portia. Relieved, Portia returned to a closehauled course.

No protests were lodged, but a lively discussion followed ashore, the combatants enthusiastically maneuvering plastic knives and forks representing the boats with a saltshaker standing in as the mark. The group tried to list the applicable rules, but immediately had a major disagreement. Some thought Rule 18, Rounding and Passing Marks and Obstructions, applied while others were quite sure it did not.

As a first order of business, it makes sense to decide whether Rule 18 applied. If it did apply, then-to the extent that any part of Rule 18 conflicts with a rule in Section A or B of Part 2-Rule 18 "takes precedence" (see the preamble to Section C). If it did not, then the situation will be much easier to analyze. In my opinion Rule 18 did not apply-for two reasons.

First, Rule 18.1 states a criterion for Rule 18 to begin to apply. It is: "Rule 18 applies when boats are about to round . . . a mark . . ." Many sailors are not sure what the phrase "about to" means, and criticize it for being a vague criterion. Whenever you are in doubt about the meaning of a word or phrase in the rulebook that is not in italics, you should consult a good dictionary. I did a thorough search in my New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which hardly seems "short" at 3,767 pages), and found that "about to" means "on the point of" or "going to" or "on the verge of," where "verge" is defined as "the point just before which something begins or happens." Note that Rule 18.1 refers to "boats" in the plural and, therefore, the criterion for Rule 18 to begin to apply is that at some point in time both boats involved must be "about to round."

Stan had rounded, and was past the mark well before Portia was "on the verge of" or "on the point of" rounding it, so there was never a time when both boats met the "about to round" criterion. Therefore, I conclude Rule 18 did not apply to the incident. (Note: ISAF Cases 84 and 94 provide helpful discussions of the interpretation of "about to round.")

Even if you do not buy my interpretation of "about to round", Rule 18.1(b) definitely implies that Rule 18 did not apply between Stan and Portia because during the incident the boats were on opposite tacks and the proper course for Portia, but not Stan, to round the mark was to tack.

If Rule 18 didn't apply, then which rules did? The four basic right-of-way rules in Section A of Part 2 are mutually exclusive-i.e., only one of them can apply at any moment in time. During this incident, the applicable Section A rule was Rule 10, which required Portia, as the port-tack boat, to keep clear of Stan, the starboard-tack boat. Rule 16.1 also applied because Stan, the right-of-way boat, was changing course. It required Stan to give Portia room to keep clear.

Obviously, before position 3 Stan never needed to take action to avoid Portia, and therefore Portia satisfied Rule 10's requirement that she keep clear of Stan (see the definition keep clear). It's also obvious that during that time Stan's change of course while rounding the mark never broke Rule 16.1 by depriving Portia of room to keep clear (see the definition Room).

When Stan continued to change course between positions 3 and 4, Portia needed to change course to continue keeping clear. However, Portia only needed to bear off about 30 degrees, which she was able to do in a "seamanlike way." Therefore, Stan didn't break Rule 16.1 between positions 3 and 4. Stan headed up after position 4, and in so doing, eliminated any chance of Portia needing to take further action to keep clear. Therefore, at no time during the incident did Stan's changes of course deny Portia room to keep clear, as those italicized terms are defined in the rulebook. Neither boat broke a rule.

Here are some final notes on why this frequently occurring incident resulted in so much discussion. The rules involved have changed over the past few years and, under earlier versions of the right-of-way rules, the wording of applicable rules was different. For example, before 1997, while Stan was rounding the mark and assuming his proper course for the next leg he was permitted to change course even if that course change prevented Portia from keeping clear. The authors of the simplified rules, which came into effect in 1997, eliminated this feature because they felt it was dangerous in situations near the windward mark exactly like that in which Stan and Portia were involved.

Also, from 2001 to 2004, a different version of Rule 16.2 would have applied to the incident we've been discussing. At that time, Rule 16.2 stated, "when after the starting signal, boats are about to cross or are crossing each other on opposite tacks, and the port-tack boat is keeping clear of the starboard-tack boat, the starboard-tack boat shall not change course if as a result the port-tack boat would immediately need to change course to continue keeping clear." Stan would have broken that now obsolete version of Rule 16.2 because at position 3 the boats were near enough that Portia needed to change course immediately to continue keeping clear of Stan. Current Rule 16.2 applies only "when after the starting signal a port-tack boat is keeping clear by sailing to pass astern of a starboard-tack boat." It did not apply to Stan and Portia's incident because at no time during the incident was Portia "sailing to pass astern of" Stan.E-mail for Dick Rose may be sent to rules@sailingworld.com.