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Racing Rules Review

On the racecourse, boats in close proximity are always subject to one or more of the racing rules, so having a handle on those that apply most frequently just makes good sense, and it can enhance your experience whether you're steering the boat or handing out the sandwiches.
The vast majority of the post-race bar conversations that I hear these days concern situations where the racing rules play an integral role. The surprising thing is that many of the sailors in these discussions are often not overtly aware of that. But what really amazes me is how different sailors on different boats almost always have dramatically different perspectives regarding the same incident. One aspect of the game that most sailors should agree on, however, is that a good working knowledge of the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) can improve your performance on the water. And it is also safe to say that this is a fundamentally important principle for ensuring everyone's enjoyment on the racecourse.

I'm a US SAILING judge and something I witnessed about a year ago while judging a Laser regatta serves as strong evidence regarding the above notion. At this event, there was a lot at stake because the top two finishers would qualify for a prestigious national event. In the last race of the series, I was alone in a powerboat downwind of the leeward gate, watching a large group of boats jockey for position as they approached in a building breeze. This group was leading the race in a fleet of about 30 boats. One boat (I'll call him Tucker) was trailing the lead pack of four boats, just behind and to the inside, with no overlap on the most inside boat of that group (whom I'll call Dan). Dan clearly had an overlap on the next boat outside of him (I'll call him Steve). As the lead boats entered the two-boatlength zone, it appeared to me that Tucker did not have an overlap and was clear astern of Dan. (In a Laser, the two-boatlength zone is less than 30 feet.) Tucker, however, was coming on quickly and did indeed gain a late overlap inside the other three boats. Much yelling ensued, but Tucker did not give way, and rounded the mark inside of Dan and the rest of the large group.

In this photo, which approximates the incident observed by the author, sail number 170975 does not have rights on the lead two boats, but it appears as though he has the speed to force his way inside at the mark.

It appeared clear to me that Tucker had no rights for room at the mark because he had only gained his overlap well inside the two-length zone. Steve, who was outside Dan, had to react quickly and consequently became tangled up and slowed down dramatically. Because of that, he was unable to defend against another large group of boats that took advantage of his lack of speed and subsequent wide rounding. They all rounded inside of Steve as well. I made my notes immediately, and waited to see what would happen on shore between the competitors.

The rule that applies in this instance is Rule 18, and specifically 18.2.c, which addresses overlap situations: "Not Overlapped at the Zone - If a boat is clear ahead at the time she reaches the two-length zone, the boat clear astern shall thereafter keep clear. If the boat clear astern becomes overlapped outside the other boat, she shall also give the inside boat room. If the boat clear astern becomes overlapped inside the other boat she is not entitled to room." After you read that you can see how obvious it is that Tucker had no rights in the incident described above.

When one sailor doesn't understand the rules that apply in close-quarter situations, that can trigger problems for everyone else involved, just like the driver of a car who doesn't understand traffic patterns or the applicable laws for driving.
Once ashore, Dan and Steve both protested Tucker and in the process of the protest hearing, it became obvious that Tucker simply did not know the applicable rule. Based on what I saw and what the other competitors who testified at the hearing said, it was clear that Tucker had established his overlap well inside the two-length zone and therefore was not entitled to room. My decision was to disqualify Tucker and give both Dan and Steve their average points from the regatta as consolation for the infraction. The downside to this is that Dan and Steve had been in first and second place in the race at the time of the infraction, and after the mark rounding they ended up in sixth and tenth places respectively. Dan ultimately climbed back to finish fifth, and Steve finished tenth, with Tucker finishing well back in the fleet.

The important lesson here is that Tucker's lack of knowledge of the rules, and his consequent behavior at the mark adversely affected Steve's results in the regatta. Steve ended up finishing third overall, only two points out of second, and he didn't qualify for the national event. The mark-rounding incident cost him dearly because, he had steadily improved throughout the event and was on track to clinch second place overall. Had Steve finished the last race among the top eight boats, he would have qualified for the next event, and given his performance over the last several races of the regatta, top eight was well within his reach.

Tucker, though a much less experienced sailor who was not competitive in this event, played a critical role due to his lack of knowledge of the rules. So you can see how important a basic understanding of the rules can be, and how that can increase your competitiveness and your enjoyment, and allow your competitors to enjoy their time on the water as well.

Even for informal competitions like weeknight beer-can racing, a basic knowledge of the rules that apply when boats meet is an important element to ensure crew' enjoyment of the activity.
Of course your enjoyment is not necessarily tied to having an expert-level knowledge of the rules. Most sailors, even the best ones, canít claim an encyclopedic knowledge of the racing rules. But a strong working knowledge, especially of the key rules, is a good idea. Over the course of the next few months, I will be writing subsequent articles on the various rules that come into play around the racecourse, and sharing some anecdotes that should make understanding these rules a bit easier.

If you havenít done so already, take quick look at the most commonly applied rulesóthose in Part 2 of the Racing Rules of Sailing. Specifically, take a look at eight essential rules: Rule 10 (Opposite Tacks), Rule 11 (Same Tack-Overlapped), Rule 12 (Same Tack-Not Overlapped), Rule 14 (Avoiding Contact), Rule 15 (Acquiring Right of Way), Rule 16 (Changing Course), Rule 17 (Same Tack, Proper Course) and Rule 18 (Rounding Marks and Obstructions). Even if you limit your understanding of the rules to these basic situations, my guess is that youíll derive more enjoyment out of your time on the water.

Suggested Reading:

The New Racing Rules by Dobbs Davis

Protest Room Primer by Dan Dickison

Understanding the Racing Rules by Dan Dickison

SailNet Store Section: Racing and Dinghy Wear

Dean Brenner is offline  
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