A Satisfaction Guarantee

If sailors are customers, then race committees should focus on delivering satisfaction while striving for perfection themselves. Jobson Report from our July/August 2012 issue.

Race Committee

RaceCommittee

“Many volunteers feel uncomfortable taking a rigorous exam. We need high standards, but we cannot afford to turn away volunteers.”Jean Marie Liot/DPPI

A heightened demand for perfection has crept into our sport. Competitors have come to expect high-quality races: fair courses, efficient race turnaround, and swift protest management. Race officials, too, are more focused than ever on meeting these expectations, but are challenged on many fronts. With faster raceboats, professionally managed classes, sponsor expectations, coaches, and evolving rules, this volunteer army of race officials is facing more pressure than ever to meet sailors' demands, which is why members of US Sailing's race administration committees convened in Annapolis, Md., in May with a simple goal: improve the regatta experience.

One conference attendee, Peter Reggio, who has served as a race officer at countless grand-prix events, the America's Cup, and the Olympics, says the way forward is for sailors, umpires, judges, race officials, hosts, and sponsors to work together. "At well-run events," he says, "every party is equal."

Success, he adds, only comes with an open mind. “Each morning I like to walk through the boat park to hear what concerns the sailors,” says Reggio. “We are there for them. I find that just listening to them makes most problems go away.”

Jeff Johnson, from San Diego YC, favors holding a daily briefing before racing. “A short meeting at events to collect thoughts from competitors helps the race committee know what adjustments are needed,” says Johnson.

Hank Stuart, Race Administration Chair, emphasizes the importance of connecting with sailors. “I have gone as far as to include my email address and cell phone number as part of the sailing instructions,” he says. “I encourage sailors to call, except during the starting sequence.”

A trend is for experienced race officers to be brought in to help run local regattas, a practice that’s not always popular with the locals. Reggio is often a race-management ringer, but he’s fully aware of his role when stepping into new territory: “When I go to a regatta, I am there to help, not take over. I make suggestions based on my experience of seeing what works at major events around the world. My goal is to pass on ideas that I have learned at international regattas.”

Taran Teague, Area Race Officer Chair, likes the concept of cooperation: “The local official knows the venue, while the out-of-town official may have class expertise. Working together can leverage all our talents to deliver great racing.”

Nearly 40 years ago US Sailing launched its system of certifying judges and race officials. To earn certification requires years of experience, studying, and testing. Many volunteers feel uncomfortable taking a rigorous exam. This system is particularly challenging and intimidating: Sometimes volunteers take the exam several times before gaining certification. I’ve heard numerous complaints about “trick” questions on these exams, egregious essay questions, and uneven evaluations. We need high standards, but we cannot afford to turn away volunteers.

To address this issue, Johnson and US Sailing Race Administration Director Chris Petracco floated a compelling idea at the conference. Their proposal called for the creation of a Race Administration National Faculty, which would set standards and help officials improve their skills. This program would also focus on improving training and testing methods.

There was a long discussion about offering online testing, a concept that was endorsed by Race Administration Committee Chairman Mark Foster. “It’s hard to take an intense, 90-minute exam immediately after a two-day seminar,” he says. “An online test would allow people to take the test when they are rested and ready.”

Publishing better training material is an important part of this initiative as well, and I believe that studying written cases helps race officials adapt their techniques for unforeseen developments. Bruce Cook, Umpire Committee Chair, says the purpose of studying cases is to promote consistency in decision-making. “Everyone needs to know how the Racing Rules are applied in a given set of circumstances,” says Cook. “Competitors can develop their tactics accordingly.” To which, Jim Walsh, Chair of the Competition Committee, adds, “By reviewing and understanding a case study you see an issue from many angles, and you become educated in the what-ifs of a situation. This helps us rethink how to organize and run a sailing event.”

With the Racing Rules of Sailing updated every four years, along with occasional modifications and amendments, continuing education of the rules is necessary for everyone involved—competitor and race official. The proposed National Faculty would create seminars to keep race officials current. A combination of on-the-water experience, educational sessions, discussion groups, and, yes, testing is the best way to build a strong pool of race officials.

There are several thousand skilled sailors graduating from U.S. colleges each year. Some of these sailors are interested in race management, so recruiting them as race officers must be a priority. I suggest that junior sailing programs require every participant to spend one day this summer working with a race committee to understand how races are run, and perhaps inspire them to stay involved. Rochester (N.Y.) YC, for example, recruits high school students to serve on the race committee.

As a competitor, I find the best regattas uphold basic standards and routines: It’s important to start races on time and minimize downtime between races. I prefer the use of code flags versus placards because flags are easier to see from many directions. Good communication on and off the water is essential. Repeating the boat numbers of premature starters is critical, and it should be as swift as humanly possible.

The conference was the first time in many years that the Chairs of these committees compared notes. After a full day of discussion, Walsh noted, “When racing is done for the day and you’re walking the docks, it is very satisfying to see smiles on the sailors’ faces, and hear how good the racing was.”

Hank Stuart ended the meeting with a smile and said, “Happily gone are the days where the race committee was not responsive to the sailors.”

Not all race committee situations are serious. To read Gary Jobson's account of the humorous side of RC duty, click here.