This year, I’ve been involved in a handful of incidents on the racecourse that inspired me to write one of those “it’s important to follow the racing rules and also to enforce them” manifestos. But I loathe those rants the same way I loathe teachers’ pets, well intentioned though they may be, and I’ve resisted the urge to whine about the rule breakers, the cheaters, and the indignant victims who only compound the rules-compliance problem by failing to follow through with protests. This is the state of the game, and it doesn’t seem to be changing.
Last night, however, I had the opportunity to let my actions do the talking. I was making my triumphant return to Shields Fleet 9 Wednesday-night racing in Newport, R.I., crewing aboard Earl Stubbs’ Lisa. As we approached the second windward mark on the starboard layline, a port tacker came storming across our bow, causing us to alter course in order to avoid a collision. It was a simple, port-starboard, Rule 10 infraction, and you’d think the offender would’ve acknowledged the foul and spun a 720. But that wasn’t the case. The port-tack skipper simply ignored our shouts of “Protest!” and continued on his way as we raised our red flag.
Now, whenever we bust out the red flag aboard Lisa, we look for a reason to put it away again. Sometimes, the offending boat will have a change of heart and decide to withdraw from the race. Or if we end up finishing ahead of the boat in question, we’ll let them off the hook—which is a cop out, I know, but I’d be lying if I said we’d never done it. In this case, we finished mid fleet, as did the boat we protested, and the outcome of the protest wont have much effect on the standings. So it was really only on principle that we decided to go through with the protest.
It was the first time I’d filled out a protest form in a long time and, oddly, it felt kind of good. I hate protests as much as the next guy, and I’d rather not complicate Wednesday-night beer-can racing with a trip to the protest room. And it’s not like we have anything personal against the boat we’re protesting. Who knows? Maybe the skipper wasn’t flaunting Rule 10; maybe he honestly thinks he made a clean crossing; maybe we’ll end up losing the protest when the hearing takes place next week. However it pans out, following through with the protest felt like the right thing to do, even if it did cut into my beer-drinking time, even if it does make us look like a bunch of goodie-goodies. The way I look at it, this is our sport, and enforcing the rules is part of the contract we agree to each time we line up for a start. Furthermore—assuming we’re not total hypocrites—filing yesterday’s protest ought to keep us honest in the future. The next time we foul someone, rather than ignore them, or ask them to give us a break, or hope they don’t follow through with the protest, we’ll fess up, do our turns, and get on with the race.
A few more points: First, I’m by no means a saint when it comes to rules compliance. There have been plenty of times when I’ve fouled someone and neglected to do my turns, and plenty of times when someone has fouled me and I’ve let them get away with it. Second, the majority of racers are very good about the rules. Just last night, in fact, a boat tagged us during a mark rounding and, before we even knew what hit us, the skipper was already saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry. I didn’t see you. I’ll do my turns.” Third, US Sailing’s Racing Rules of Sailing app is awesome. Like so many sailors, I don’t carry around a rulebook the way I should. But I do now. The app cost me $6, it fits in my pocket (on my iPhone), and it presents the complete contents of the traditional rulebook in a simple, easily searchable format that makes it that much easier to fill out a protest form. Oh what fun!