Dear Sporty, Did I Mess Up?

Everybody can decide whether to go left or right on the beat and live with the result. But during a tense regatta, tough situations sometimes come up that aren't so straightforward, and having an all-knowing advisor would be nice. "Maybe Sporty could help?" suggests JJ Isler, who offers her own insights and then some from Sporty, her sidekick in good conscience. -Editors

When you take a break from competitive sailing like I have since the 2000 Olympics, it's funny what races you can recall in great detail and which incidents fade over time. I wish I could remember only the highlights--hitting a great shift to pass a chunk of boats or some perfect pin-end start--and luckily I remember enough of those highlights to keep my ego intact. But I seem to remember in clearest detail the situations where I'm not sure I did the "right thing." I'm nagged by those incidents and wonder if I'm justifying what I did because "everybody else would do the same thing." One incident that keeps bugging me was in the last race of the Sydney Olympics. The German team tacked a bit too close as we were about to duck them (they were on (starboard), and I made a dramatic turn and yelled "protest." Now, I don't want to sit down and diagram the incident for a rules committee--after four years, it would be impossible to recreate the distances, closing speeds, etc. But I do know that in hindsight, I would rather have beaten the Germans with better tactics or boatspeed than by an awkward "we said/she said" rules situation. So from an ethical standpoint, was I wrong to call "protest?" They immediately bore off to do their circles; should that make me feel better? They must have felt (as we did) that they would be at risk in the protest room and, as it was the first leg of a long race, they had a better chance of sailing their way back into contention. Weighing on my decision to yell protest was a similar (yet, in my mind, even less clear-cut) incident earlier in the series where the roles had been reversed and another team had protested us for a close tack and we'd done a 720. But there's little moral justification in saying it's OK because someone else already did it to me. Most of us can come up with broad outlines of what defines "doing the right thing" or, in other words, good sportsmanship. I think most of us don't want to win at any cost. We wouldn't cheat even if we knew we wouldn't get caught. We don't want to win just because our competitor broke down or was OCS. We would rather win the race fair and square with our competitors sailing at their best. We want the respect of our competitors. I think being a good sport means doing your utmost to win under the rules and not hurting anyone else's chances to sail their personal best. This doesn't mean you won't tack on anyone; it just means that you will treat them on and off the racecourse in the same way you'd expect to be treated. The Racing Rules of Sailing acknowledge the importance of sportsmanship right up front in Rule 2: Fair Sailing by saying that we "shall compete in compliance with recognized principles of sportsmanship and fair play." Under Section C, Gross Misconduct, the penalties for committing "a gross breach of a rule or of good manners or sportsmanship" are very serious. Rule 2Fair Sailing: A boat and her owner shall compete in compliance with recognized principles of sportsmanship and fair play. A boat may be penalized under this rule only if it is clearly established that these principles have been violated. A disqualification under this rule shall not be excluded from the boat's series score.Paul Elvström made the ethics of sailboat racing sound so black and white when he said "You haven't won the race if, in winning the race, you've lost the respect of your competitors." And I've met and had the chance to sail with numerous people whose moral compasses never waver from doing the right thing, people like Dave Perry, Pease Glaser, and Dave Ullman to name a few. But for the rest of us, sportsmanship gets murky, and it's hard to know what the right thing to do is, especially in the heat of the moment.It seems there are a wealth of articles and seminars about the rules and about tactics, but what about advice on ethics and sportsmanship? How do we figure out those "recognized principles of sportsmanship and fair play" and those "good manners?" Especially since those principles vary across our sport. In umpired match-racing events, for example, you can wait until the umpire's decision before taking your penalty without being considered a bad sport, even if you know you're in the wrong. Some sailors criticized Alinghi for not offering to resail first America's Cup Race in '03 after Team New Zealand broke down. But the America's Cup is a design contest and getting your boat to the finish line is an essential part of that competition so I believe Alinghi acted properly. On the other hand, in 2001 I raced in a match race in Monaco where we did offer to resail when the trailing boat broke down right after the start (even though a new Mercedes was the first prize). The boat owner, Leonardo Ferragamo, wisely advised me as helmsman that it was in the spirit of that event (we were using borrowed boats and had sponsors and guests aboard) to offer to resail. And after some soul-searching (I had been sailing upwind daydreaming about whether I wanted a tan or black leather interior), I agreed to a resail. Well, would it help if we could turn to an all-knowing icon of sportsmanship--we could call him Sporty Sportsmanship (a la Dear Abby)? He could answer all those questions that might later weigh on us a little heavily. Let's see how he would do with the following sticky situations: Feeling guilty: My wife and kids like to come out on weekends sometimes to watch me sail my Etchells. So I keep a spare spinnaker and spinnaker pole and other gear aboard their motorboat. Last weekend my good friend, who has one of the top teams in the fleet, ripped his chute--and I didn't speak up and offer him my spare because it was a windy day and we had a few more races to go. He sailed in and I felt bad all day. What should I have done?Sporty: Oooh, I hate feeling guilty. I also hate having to loan people gear when they aren't as prepared and organized as I am (and sad to say, not many people are). So here's the deal I've always made with moochers: Yes, you can borrow my spare whatever, but if I break or lose mine before the end of the day, then you have to give it back. And you'd better return it in as good or better shape (i.e. buy me a new one if the spinnaker has the slightest rip). And just maybe you should think twice the next time you're about to tack right on me.In the weeds: I'm a 12-year-old girl and I race Sabots in Newport Beach, where we have lots of kelp in the water and our coaches are always reminding us to check our leeboard and rudder before the start. Last weekend, as we were reaching back and forth before the start, I saw a big clump of kelp on the rudder of this cute 12-year-old boy from a different club. I yelled over that he had kelp, and he reached back, cleared it and had a good start. After the race he came up to thank me in front of my coach. My coach thought it was OK to help him this time, but not at a big regatta like the Nationals. What do you think?Sporty: Imagine that you're tied with that same boy going into the last race of the national championship. You see kelp and don't tell him and beat him easily--then you'll never know if you could have beaten him because you were better on that day. Wouldn't your victory feel a little sleazy? Or what if everyone else has kelp and you win every race easily--wouldn't that victory feel hollow? Because of your honesty, he knows that you are a fair competitor--and having the respect of your competitors is what makes sport worthwhile. Plus someday soon you'll need a date for the prom and if he's cute?but that's advice for a different kind of column. Trouble ahead & behind: On my wedding anniversary, my wife and I had made dinner reservations and bought theater tickets. But in the afternoon, she encouraged me to head down to the yacht club for the Thursday night Lido 14 racing. We keep scores for the series and ultimately there's a fleet champion, but only a handful of the sailors are usually very serious about it. Well, I witnessed a collision between the two top contenders for fleet honors. But when they asked me if I'd seen the incident, I lied and told them no, because I couldn't wait around for the protest hearing. Then I hurried off to meet my wife. I found out the next morning that the boat I thought was in the right had been thrown out by the protest committee. What would you have done?Sporty: You did the right thing by meeting your wife. I just hope you remembered to shower and shave before you left the club and stayed awake during the entire play (often a real struggle for my spouse). There's nothing in the Racing Rules that says you must appear in the protest room just because you saw the incident. But you did the wrong thing by lying and saying you didn't see something you saw. So just be honest--tell them that your wife will murder you unless you leave--then get the heck out of there.As for my situation with the German sailors, I think Sporty would say it was acceptable to yell protest because, in the heat of the moment, I was sure they had fouled us?not just put themselves at risk in the protest room. Plus, I didn't force them to do a 720. If they didn't think my protest had merit, they had every right to continued to race. Ultimately, in a competitive game, we're all going to make decisions while the adrenaline is flowing--decisions that we may or may not view differently with time. It's important for all racers to understand this and remember to forgive ourselves if we're not perfect; on the other hand, if we're not regularly thinking about doing what's right, even Sporty won't be able to save us from ourselves.Please take our Sportsmanship Survey