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A Better Approach To the Rules

November 13, 2001

When I led an informal racing rules clinic recently, I realized yet again that most club racers don’t know the right-of-way rules well. US SAILING President Dave Rosekrans says the same thing on page 17–that people in club racing only use a one-page summary of the rules. In fact, most sailboat racing proceeds fairly smoothly because sailors typically avoid protests when they’re unsure of their rights. Even when they fly a protest flag, they often decide against the time-consuming, contentious process of following through with a protest.

Yet as most readers are aware, any time a fleet gets bigger and more competitive, this state of affairs causes the quality of racing to suffer. And I’m sure it’s one factor that limits the size of fleets.

I don’t think we should simply accept the status quo. Let’s see how we could improve everyone’s knowledge of the most basic rules–and then see how we could change the protest procedure to make both justice and advanced rules education more accessible. We could require, for example, that the principle rules be posted in the cockpit on a laminated card. The refresher would give confidence to those who haven’t reread the rule book since junior sailing class, and new racers wouldn’t feel so intimidated by all the rules they don’t know.

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The Basic Rules

Fundamentals: Help anyone in danger, and avoid collisions whenever possible.

1. Opposite Tacks: Starboard has right of way.

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2. Same Tack: Leeward or clear ahead have right of way.

3. Changing Tacks: Boats tacking or jibing keep clear.

4. Limits: Right-of-way boats changing course or when gaining right of way must at first give others room to keep clear.

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5. Giving room: Except at a starting mark surrounded by navigable water, outside boats must give room to those inside at a mark or obstruction.

6. At windward marks, Rule 1 (not Rule 5) applies to boats beating on opposite tacks.

To improve compliance and offer more chances to learn the rest of the rules, we’d then change the protest procedure for casual races. As Editor at Large Peter Isler told me recently, you never learn a rule better than when in a protest hearing. It follows, then, if we could make fast, open protest hearings the norm for fleet races, legitimate protests would be filed, not dropped, and everyone would learn the rules better by listening to the proceedings.

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Limit protest hearings to no more than 5 minutes and encourage everyone in the fleet to observe, silently. Choose a judge both parties accept and give each person a minute to tell their side of the story and another minute for cross examination. Then make a decision and, to take the sting out of losing such a protest, use a percentage penalty if there was no collision with damage.

A general discussion of the situation and applicable rules after the hearing would be entirely appropriate and healthy. (On a day with no protests, a mock hearing or discussion of hypothetical incidents could also be fun and useful.) Justice might not be served up perfectly in these instances, but progress toward an overall goal of deciding races on the water would be advanced as, gradually, the more advanced rules would be unveiled.

At higher-level regattas, this approach wouldn’t be appropriate, because these racers generally know the rules better. But in most of the racing that most people do, what’s at stake in the typical protest rarely merits cumbersome hearings.

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