Too Close to Call

There are clear-cut rules to minimize the potential for contact, but when it comes to close encounters, there’s still “room” for interpretation. "Rules" from our July/August 2012 issue.

September 12, 2012
too close to call

appeal 16

This incident led to US Appeal 16, which resulted in both boats being disqualified – Paul for breaking Rule 23.1 and Sue for breaking Rule 14. Kim Downing

In the June 2012 issue, we examined the question “How close is too close?” when the governing rule was one of the nine rules that require one boat to keep clear of another. Now let’s turn our attention to the many other situations in which the answer to that question depends on the interpretation of a different word or phrase in a rule.

We’ll start by studying what it means to give room. There are eight rules that require room to be given, so getting a handle on that term’s meaning is almost as important as mastering keep clear.

The definition Room in the Definitions section of the rulebook looks short and easy (see below), but it’s packed with crucial words.


Whenever Jack is required to give Jill room, Jill is entitled to room to carry out a maneuver. Jill’s maneuver could be:
Acting to keep clear of Jack when Jack has just acquired right of way (Rule 15) or when Jack has right of way and is changing his course (Rule 16.1);
Sailing to a mark or sailing her proper course while at a mark (Rule 18.2(a), (b) or (c));
Sailing between Jack and an obstruction (Rule 19.2(b)); or
Tacking and avoiding Jack at an obstruction (Rule 20.1).

There are several key points to be mastered in order to grasp the meaning of room. Because the word “while” is used in the definition, Jack is always required to give room to Jill for a period of time—the time it takes for her to carry out the relevant maneuver.

The use of the word “promptly” in the definition creates a “use it or lose it” aspect to room. Jill loses her entitlement to room if Jack gives her the needed space, but she does not make use of it promptly.


How much space Jack must give depends on the “existing conditions,” which include the wind, the size and pattern of the waves, whether other boats or objects are nearby, how responsive Jill’s boat is to the helm, and what sail handling is required during the maneuver.

When Jill is entitled to room from Jack and a third boat is nearby, ISAF Case 114 applies. It establishes an important principle – that room for Jill includes space for her to keep clear of or give room to the third boat when she is required to do so by a rule.

Jack must give Jill space to maneuver in a “seamanlike way.” ISAF Case 103 is helpful here. It states, “The phrase ‘seamanlike way’ in the definition Room refers to boat-handling that can reasonably be expected from a competent, but not expert, crew of the appropriate number for the boat.” ISAF Cases 60 and 93 and US Appeal 78 also interpret “seamanlike” as used in the definition Room.


Rule 14 includes a requirement to “avoid contact with another boat.” Rules 20.1(b) and 22 include requirements to “avoid” another boat. A boat meets these requirements if no part of her hull, crew, or equipment touches any part of the other boat’s hull, crew, or equipment. No deep thinking is necessary to understand “avoid.”

Rule 23.1 states, “If reasonably possible, a boat not racing shall not interfere with a boat that is racing.” What does “interfere with” mean in this rule? No ISAF Case or US Appeal provides guidance, so here’s my opinion. “Interfere with” has, according to dictionaries, quite a broad range of meanings. These include affect, hinder, hamper, and obstruct. You would clearly interfere with another boat if you got in her way and she had to change course to avoid you, but you would also interfere with her if you back-winded or blanketed her. You could interfere with her well before you got so close that she had to take avoiding action.

Suppose boat A believes she has broken a rule and intends to take the appropriate Turns Penalty. Rule 44.2 requires her to “get well clear of other boats” before beginning to spin. (Again, there is no appeal or case that interprets what “well clear” means. So what follows is my opinion.) While A is spinning, she will be required by Rule 22.2 to keep clear of all others boats that are not also spinning, and each nearby boat will be allowed by Rule 23.2 to sail her proper course even if doing so interferes with A while A is spinning. Given that these two rules will apply while A spins, it seems to me that A is not “well clear of other boats” until she has sailed far enough from all other boats that it is reasonable for her to expect that, if they sail their proper courses while she spins, none of them will come close to her.


Rules 41(b) and 42.3(g) use the phrase “get clear” referring to what a boat would try to do after a collision or after running aground. In my opinion, a boat gets clear of something she hit when she is no longer in contact with it and is far enough from it that she can easily avoid making contact with it again.

A boat is no longer racing after “she finishes and clears the finishing line and marks.” This raises two questions, “When does a boat clear the finishing line?” and “When does a boat clear a finishing mark? There is a clear and simple answer to the first question in Appeal 16, where the appeals committee states, “When no part of a boat’s hull, equipment or crew is still on the finishing line, she has cleared it.” No appeal or case answers the second question. In my opinion, a boat that finishes near a finishing line mark has “cleared” it when she is far enough from it that she is no longer at risk of hitting it.

The decision in Appeal 16 required the appeals committee to interpret both the definition Racing and Rule 23.1. The two boats involved were Flying Dutchmen flying genoas. As shown in the diagram, to nip Sue at the finish line, Paul luffed to head to wind just before his bow crossed the line. His genoa then back-winded, forcing him onto port tack right in front of Sue. She hit him, causing damage, and protested. Paul obviously broke Rule 10, but he could not be penalized for doing so because he was no longer racing when he broke it. However, he also broke Rule 23.1 for which he could be and was disqualified even though his breach occurred when he was no longer racing (see the preamble to Part 2).

When Sue’s bow hit Paul, she had not cleared the finishing line and, therefore, was still racing. The appeals committee decided that it was reasonably possible for Sue to have borne off and avoided contact with Paul after it became clear that Paul was not going to keep clear. So Sue broke Rule 14 while she was still racing and so she too was disqualified.


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