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Understanding the Racing Rules
This article was originally published on SailNet in October, 2000.
Whether you race once a year or you make your living as a racing sailor, it’s important to be familiar with the rules that govern conduct on the racecourse. Just as automotive traffic laws keep activity on the roads from dissolving into chaos, the racing rules provide a framework for competition. It may be easy to dismiss the rules because you think you already know them or you feel that they’re just too complex to bother with (and both situations happen regularly), but spending just a little time and energy to better familiarize yourself with those rules that come into play regularly—and to stay up to speed with the occasional rule changes—will pay off in spades on the racecourse. So here’s a brief introduction to the racing rules, their structure, and where you can find out more information.
For sailboat racers worldwide, the initial authority on all matters pertaining to rules is the international governing body of the sport—the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), which is based in the UK. ISAF committees establish the Racing Rules of Sailing and review them every four years to amend and update them as necessary. In turn, ISAF member nations—represented by the national governing bodies for the sport (like US SAILING in the US) adopt these rules for racing competition in their own countries. If you live in the US and want a copy of these rules, you can join US SAILING and receive a copy by virtue of your membership. Or you can purchase a copy in SailNet's on line Store. Also, a complete text of the Racing Rules of Sailing is available on the Internet at the ISAF website—www.sailing.org/rrs2001.
The racing rules are organized into two main sections. The first, Parts One through Seven, contains rules that affect all competitors. The second section contains appendices that provide details of rules, rules that apply to particular kinds of racing (like match racing and team racing), as well as rules that pertain only to a small number of competitors or officials. Chances are, when it comes to working with the rules, most of your energy will be spent understanding and using Parts Two and Three of the Racing Rules—"When Boats Meet," and "Conduct of a Race." However, the Fundamental Rules as outlined in Part One discuss some essential concepts for all racing sailors, including "Helping Those in Danger," "Fair Sailing," and "Acceptance of the Rules," so these should be absorbed and understood as well.
Once you begin delving into the Racing Rules, you’ll find that the entire book is very dependent upon specific terminology, and the words and phrases that are used to convey a specific meaning are defined in the back pages of the book. When these terms are used in the sense stated in the Definitions, they are printed in italics or bold italics (racing). It’s a good idea to be familiar with these basic definitions because they often come into play in discussing the application of a particular rule. After you gain a basic familiarity with the Racing Rules of Sailing—and you equip yourself with a rule book and access to a book of the appeals—you’ll have a lot more confidence on the racecourse because you’ll be able to answer 99 percent of the questions you’ll encounter regarding the rules. As continue to race, you'll no doubt encounter situations that will test your knowledge of the specific application of particular rules, and that's when you'll really learn them.
So quick, who has the right of way when a boat on starboard heading downwind meets a boat on port headed upwind? That's simple. Rule 10 (Opposite Tacks), which can be found under "Section A Right of Way," tells us that when boats on opposite tacks meet, the starboard-tack boat maintains the right of way and the port-tack boat is obliged to keep clear.
OK, in that same scenario, which boat has the right of way if both boats are on the same tack? Again, it's pretty simple. Rule 11 (found within the same section) tells us that the windward boat has the obligation to keep clear of the leeward boat.
The rules for racing sailboats are really not as complex as their reputation might suggest. So don't be intimidated, just get a rule book and start looking things up whenever you find yourself confused. See you on the racecourse.
The New Racing Rules by Dobbs Davis
Protest Room Primer by Dan Dickison