When everything on the racecourse is running smoothly, it’s important to remember that it’s because good decisions were made by the race officials, leading to a fair and well-managed race. There are many variables that need to be addressed before a racecourse is set and the starting sequence commenced. While perfection is the goal, it’s incredibly difficult to achieve.
Pressure on race officers, judges, umpires and handicap measurers is immense these days. Highly motivated owners, professional crews and paid coaches push hard to win, again the reality that regatta organizers are staffed mostly by volunteers and have to deal with the strain of demanding competitors. There have been many changes in our sport over the past 10 years: faster boats, foiling craft of all kinds, kiteboards, new race formats, more professional sailors and coaches, drone and onboard footage, and telemetry leading to more sophisticated analysis of performance. With such a fast-paced evolution, I regularly wonder if our race-official system is keeping up with the changing times. The answer is not straightforward; it depends on who you ask.
Race management across America was uneven 50 years ago. To its credit, US Sailing launched a series of standardized educational and certification programs in the 1970s in order to elevate the collective skill level of our essential race managers. The goal was to conduct safe, fair and compelling regattas. These educational programs have been painstakingly upgraded over the years. The efforts by many people have paid off for all stakeholders, and as a result, sailboat race management is better today at every level.
Matthew Hill, director of US Sailing’s Race Administration, recently explained to me that the organization is focused on consistent race administration across the sport. “Our task is to make it better,” he says. “One of our priorities is to improve the pathway to get certified.” To do so, he says, they continually update the curriculum and offer proper tests for officials at every level. “This is important because our race officers have to make safety decisions and keep racing fair,” Hill says.
Taran Teague, chair of US Sailing’s Race Officials Committee, says: “It’s serious stuff. You have to take time to run through the judge’s [certification] process. To go beyond the club level takes time and money to take educational classes, and you have to travel. We try to make an easy on-ramp for the club-level race official. To do this job, you have to be passionate. It takes a lifetime to be a good race officer.”
The challenges race officials must grapple with are notable. “A race official needs to be balanced and have good judgment,” Teague continues. “We ask ourselves, how perfect should the racecourses be? When should a race be canceled?”
Teague also says that the pool of qualified race officers must grow, geographically, because the sport is underserved. Which prompts the question: How do we recruit volunteers to serve as race officers?
Kathy Lindgren chairs US Sailing’s Umpires Committee and is upbeat about attracting new umpires. She points to a recent surge of younger people looking to get involved. Many are former college sailors. “We need to expand our footprint and encourage them to stay with the program,” Lindgren says. “Our committee is working to clean up our requirements. We want to be more transparent in our process, and our tests need to be standardized and in sync with World Sailing’s Regulations.”
There are also a few practical challenges, Lindgren says. “We need to practice our techniques. Our people need to learn ‘umpire-speak.’”
So what exactly is umpire-speak? “We pair two umpires in a boat in match racing, and each takes the role of one boat. They verbalize the actions of each boat and use a specific language about each maneuver, cross or rounding. There is a cadence to it.”
Mistakes are made, Lindgren admits. “Remember, we are making calls in real time, with no video to review. If we are wrong, the competitors take it in stride. It is a learning experience for everyone.”
The GPS technology applied in the past few America’s Cup matches for precise location and racecourse management have made viewing better for fans. This technology has also been used by umpires to determine if boats are over the starting line, foul another boat, or go out of bounds. We might see a day when judges and umpires are obsolete, with competitors instead relying on software that instantly interprets boat-on-boat situations and start-line infractions. This would also eliminate the need for a formal protest hearing after racing, and would certainly improve the experience of yacht racing.
The size and scope of our Racing Rules of Sailing rulebook seems to expand every four years. The next edition is scheduled for release in early 2021. It seems there are always discussions at the committee level on how to make the racing rules easier to understand and how to streamline the text. Both sailors and judges must study the racing rules to understand the subtle differences every four years.
Judges are charged with making reasoned decisions when adjudicating a protest, and for them, there is a lot at stake, including the outcome of regattas or the determination of fault when it comes to damages after a collision. It’s not easy for judges to make rulings, but Sarah Ashton, who chairs US Sailing’s Judges Committee, says that while the goal of every decision is fairness, the rules are convoluted, and they require a certain level of mastery and experience that comes only with time. “It’s hard to get enough judges because most people would rather sail,” Ashton says. “Most judges are over 50 or 60, but I don’t think we should have [a minimum age] for judges.”
All three committee chairs have mixed opinions about the certification process. Ashton says she’s disappointed there are not more American international judges. World Sailing’s list of international race officials includes only 23 American judges, 21 umpires and 10 race officers.
“It seems difficult to get international certification,” Ashton says. “There seems to be a roadblock.”
She says the process in the United States is easy for club-level judges. “You take a seminar, work some local events, and take a test. For Regional Judge certification, there are more seminars and tests, and you need to work events in your region. It gets harder to be a National Judge so you can work anywhere in the States.”
What used to be an “old boys club,” she says, is improving. “We need to be more creative in the future. The tests are better, we have revised the Judges Manual, and we host clinics and webinars. We are proud of our education. I especially like working with the kids and young people. They accept more education.”
Ashton doesn’t feel as though judges like her are feeling more pressure from professional sailors and coaches. The greater demands, she says, are placed upon race officers and organizing authorities. “We do expect competitors to behave in the protest room,” she says. “They should understand that protest [hearings] are for learning too.”
With an increased presence of professionals and coaches on the water, there has been a noticeable demand—and expectation—for efficient races and race management. I have witnessed younger hotshots being highly vocal and critical of organizing authorities and race officials, sometimes to the point of being abusive. Most race officials are volunteers and need to be respected, and such behavior should never be tolerated. In college and scholastic sports, there has been a sad increase in abusive behavior toward officials, and as a result, 26 states across the United States now have laws protecting sports officials. The key to making our system work is mutual respect between all parties and understanding that post-race discussions can clear up any misunderstandings, and protest hearings are always learning experiences for sailors and juries alike.
At this writing, the roster of national race officers in the United States seems slim, with 114 national judges, 39 national race officers and 47 national umpires. Competitive sailing relies heavily on the dedicated work of these race managers, and each of them will welcome additional sailors who are willing to join their ranks. The process is easier and there are many opportunities, so the next time you’re at an event, take a moment to thank your race officials and regatta organizers for making our sport available and good for all of us.