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The Lemming Effect

How many times have you started a race, unsure what the racecourse is? The answer should be, “never.”

March 3, 2020
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Dr. Charles Shoemaker, Dr. Robin Wallace, and Nancy Parillo convene at Newport YC for the Frostbite season's first hearing.
Dr. Charles Shoemaker, Dr. Robin Wallace, and Nancy Parillo convene at Newport YC for the Frostbite season’s first hearing. David Reed

I missed one frostbite Sunday in early February while getting my snowbird dose of Florida at the Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta in St. Petersburg. While it was nice to be warm, I was itching to be back home racing. You know…that fear of missing out thing. So, the first thing I did on Sunday night after work was to peck my way to the results on Newport Yacht Club’s webpage to see who did what and how much damage the top guys did to me in the standings.

My jaw dropped when I saw the top-three sailors had each posted a “DNF” in race No. 37 of the series.

What the heck?

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I thought maybe the three of them had had some sort of calamitous three-boat pile up at the weather mark, or maybe their rigs got so tangled they had to bring them back to the dock to unwind them. Did they hole each other and sink?

Three top boats DNF? Something wasn’t right.

An e-mail from our fleet secretary later came to my in-box, informing everyone that a protest committee would be convened the following Sunday, with three highly-regarded race officials of the Rhode Island sailing scene on hand to pass judgement. They would sit before anyone in the fleet who wanted to listen in and hear all sides of this story. What this story was about I still had no idea.

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When I arrived at the club on the appointed day, I promptly asked around and learned it was not necessarily a protest hearing, but rather requests for redress. Apparently, a few of the fleet hot shots had sailed the wrong course in the first race of the day, were scored DNF, but wanted their points back.

So, here’s what happened, in sum, from what I could gather from their stories: Rick Nebiolo, a past champion and the current season leader, is very particular about having a proper racecourse, so he typically shows up early, fires up the race committee boat and sets the course while the rest of us are gabbing inside the club or rigging boats. Readers of this space might recall that the Turnabout Frostbite racecourse is usually a windward/leeward affair, all marks to port, with a finish line set off a dock in front of the club. When the wind blows from the south, this is the course of choice. When the wind is anything right of 270 degrees, the second weather mark is left to starboard, so as boats turn down on the run, they’re heading straight toward the finish, on either a short run or a shy reach.

Now, up until this day in question, given the northwesterly flow of our early winter, the second starboard rounding was the norm. “Port, port, starboard, finish.” Simple enough to remember, right? But Nebiolo went out and laid the course as a perfect port sausage, square to the breeze and set just right. In his mind, as he plopped the weather mark and its cement block, all marks would be left to port. That’s the way it should be, he reasoned, and that’s the way it’s been for all the years he’s sailed with the fleet.

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With marks set, he returned to shore to rig for the first A-fleet race of the day. He was running a bit late, he told the protest panel, and was harried getting off the dock. So late was he that he failed to explain the desired course to the ad hoc race committee from B fleet, charged with running the race. While Nebiolo hustled to the starting line, the race committee communicated to most everyone in the starting area: “Port, port, starboard, finish.” Everyone got that?

Yes, most everyone, except for Nebiolo, FJ Ritt, and old Bob Morton, all of whom in their right minds would never ever round the last mark to starboard in a southerly. Why would they? That’s not how it’s been done for like…forever.

So, off they went, leading around the course, as they usually do, until that final fateful weather mark, which they left to port and happily carried on toward the finish. A few lemmings followed them off the cliff, before a couple of tail-enders started rounding to starboard. Sailors that eventually realized, or were told, the error of their ways turned back and re-wound their string.

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General confusion followed, and naturally, the top guys lodged their redress.

The esteemed panel convened to hear their case in an open forum, set in front of the club’s fireplace: Dr. Robin Wallace, head of all things racing in Rhode Island, Dr. Charlie Shoemaker, a club legend and decorated one-design champion, and Nancy Parillo, the Newport YC’s PRO. As the sun set on another day of glorious winter racing (a story for another day) the threesome took their places at a round table and gathered facts from those in attendance: those who sailed the course properly, and those who did not.

Nebiolo explained in detail how he painstakingly set the marks, and then missed the race committee’s verbal announcement of the course to be sailed. Most everyone knew the course and acknowledged the on-water announcement to that effect. The enquiry took less than 12 minutes and while the committee then deliberated, attendees dispersed to bar for a quick beer. The protest committee’s judgement was hardly a surprise. Dr. Wallace succinctly reviewed the facts found: Most competitors heard the announcement by the race committee; Some thought starboard was an error and rounded the second mark to port; Some recognized their error and returned to leave the mark to starboard.

“Thus, redress is denied,” Wallace emphasized in his deep and articulate Old English tone. “We suggest that the race course always be displayed on the race committee boat, in addition to being announced verbally.”

Simple enough; that’s basic race committee protocol, right? Yes, but in a laid-back fleet such as this there was never really a need to be so formal and by the book. It was a good lesson for all, including the top guys and myself. We must never assume, because—as the old saying goes—it can indeed make an ass out of you and me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a race blindly assuming it was the same as the last, but from now on, and until we post the course on a whiteboard or whatever means necessary, I’ll be checking in with race committee and confirming the dang course before every start. It’s a good thing I wasn’t there that day. I’m sure I would have followed them right off the cliff, too.

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