Ideas for Making Racing More Fun

I’m writing this column shortly after the horrific events in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11. We are all being urged to go back to our normal routines, resume our jobs and activities, but it’s clear that our world is anything but normal. I find myself pondering where sailboat racing fits into the scheme of things in this somber new world.

For the tens of thousands who read Sailing World, racing sailboats is an important recreation. Look up recreation in the dictionary, and you’ll find that it is "an activity or pastime pursued for the pleasure or interest it gives." The word’s two parts, "re" and "creation," suggest that the activity serves to "create again" the person engaged in it. Thinking back to my decades racing in many different classes of boats, I recall most fondly those rare days when I was perfectly in sync with the wind or with my boat. Days when I managed to read the headers off the surface of the water, tack just as a header hit, and feel the sails fill a fraction of a second sooner than they would have had there been no windshift. None of those great memories, I realized, include time spent in rules disputes or in the protest room as either protestor or protestee. The best sailboat races clear my mind by totally blocking out everyday cares, problems, and worries, and, at the end, leave me tired but refreshed. Maybe that feeling is what is meant by the re-creation implied by recreation.

So what does all this have to do with the racing rules? The rules define the game we play, and if that game is to serve as recreation, we should design the rules to maximize the pleasure the activity offers. These thoughts suggest that those of us who write the rules should be emphasizing two important goals: first, making the rules clear, simple, and non-bureaucratic and second, either minimizing the time participants have to spend involved with protests or improving the protest experience. SW’s editor, John Burnham, did some great out-of-the-box thinking and made several suggestions along these lines in his Editor’s Letter in the Oct. ’01 issue.

Learning rule basics: John suggested requiring that the most basic right-of-way rules be posted in the cockpit of every racing boat. Just a handful of the simplest of our rules cover the vast majority of rules situations that crop up in fleet racing. US SAILING publishes The Rules in Brief, a simplified, condensed summary of the important racing rules on a waterproof plastic card. That card should have far wider circulation than it now does. More sailors might learn the basic rules if this card was mounted where everyone in the crew could read it, particularly on PHRF boats with their large and frequently changing cast of characters in the crew. A club or a PHRF fleet could try John’s idea by simply including in its sailing instructions a requirement that each boat post a copy of The Rules in Brief. (US SAILING charges $1 for one copy of The Rules in Brief and offers a 50 percent discount for purchases of 100 or more.)

A new look at protests: There are many ways that we might take the sting out of protests or actually make them fun. Before we consider them, let’s quickly trace the history of how rules disputes have been handled in our sport. I recently found a fascinating and revealing quote in a history of the Royal Yacht Squadron, one of England’s oldest and most prestigious yacht clubs, by Ian Dear. Dear quoted from an article in an 1826 edition of Sporting magazine reporting on a dispute between two large yachts competing in one of the first races run by the Squadron. Arrow, on port (or "larboard" as it was called in those days), tried to cross ahead of Miranda, a starboard tacker.

"The Arrow had the temerity to cross the Miranda on the larboard tack and had not Captain Lyons taken the [Miranda’s] helm just in time she must have been run down. As it was, the two vessels became entangled, and a scene of much violence took place. . . . [On the Miranda] the gallant Sir James Jordan had a narrow escape from a dreadful blow aimed at the back of his head by one of [the Arrow’s] men with a handspike. . . . He avoided the blow by ducking his head, and hitting out right and left floored the rascal with such tremendous violence that he thought the man was done for."

Clearly the sport needed a better method for resolving disputes. By 1890, a system essentially identical to our current protest and appeal procedures had been adopted and red flags were in use as protest flags. Before 1973, when a boat’s crew knew she had broken a rule, the rules stated that she was expected to retire from the race. The 720-degree Turns and Scoring Penalties were introduced in the 1960s, starting first as experiments at clubs on inland lakes, then from 1973 through 1996 as options stated in an appendix to the racing rules. During those years a boat could exonerate herself for a right-of-way rule violation by making a 720 only if the sailing instructions so stated. It was not until 1997 that the 720 became the default method of exoneration and was moved from an appendix into Rule 44.

The use of the 720 and the simpler rules introduced in 1997 have markedly reduced the number of protest hearings that are held. Nevertheless, the protest procedure still seems to be a feature of our sport that competitors uniformly dislike.

How might we resolve our disputes in a more satisfactory way? Several ideas are being tried, some of which were mentioned in the October issue.

Arbitration or mediation: There are many variations being used. In one, the protestor and protestee meet for a few minutes with an experienced judge and each presents his version of the incident under protest. The judge states whether he or she believes a rule was broken and, if so, by which boat. If the protestor and protestee accept the judge’s view, then no protest hearing is held and a boat that broke a rule receives a lesser penalty than disqualification, such as a 30-percent penalty.

Summary justice: A protest hearing is held, but the time devoted to the presentation of evidence and the testimony of witnesses is limited to a very few minutes.

Reduced penalties: The penalty for breaking a Part 2 rule when there was no damage is reduced from a disqualification to a lesser penalty, such as a 30 percent penalty.

Open hearings: Instead of allowing only the parties to the protest and, at most, one witness in the hearing room, the protest committee holds the protest hearing in a public forum open to all competitors, except those who may be called as witnesses. Such a hearing is not any more fun for the protestor and protestee, but, just like Court TV, it’s great fun for the observers. As Burnham pointed out, open hearings provide a great opportunity for the protest committee to teach the observers some of the fine points of the rules. I have held open hearings at some high school regattas and the contestants have come in droves and listened attentively. At the end of the hearing, questions from the floor can be permitted to broaden the discussion to other rules issues.

Umpiring: On-the-water umpires follow the competitors closely and rule if a protest flag is displayed and the protestee doesn’t accept a 720. This works well in team racing, but it takes a lot of good umpires and equipment to make it work. There are virtually no protest hearings and, when everyone goes ashore, both the umpires and the sailors can enjoy the party and discuss the day’s calls over drinks and dinner. Unfortunately, the manpower and equipment requirements make umpiring difficult and expensive to implement.

If your club or fleet is trying one of these alternative approaches for handling protests or some other approach, I would like to hear from you with a report on how it’s working and how you implemented it in your sailing instructions. If some of these ideas seem to be catching on, then US SAILING can include them in an appendix in the next rulebook so that they can easily be used at more regattas.

E-mail for Dick Rose may be sent to rules@sailingworld.com.