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Understanding the Racing Rules, Part Three

Whenever a race is in progress, the Racing Rules of Sailing are in effect, so knowing the basic ones and how they apply only makes sense, and it's easier than you might think.
Last month, I wrote about racing rules that most frequently come into play during the pre-start of a race. It makes sense to follow that in a chronological fashion and take a look at the rest of the race to discuss the pertinent rules when boats meet on the racecourse. We'll leave the rules that apply at mark roundings and obstructions for the following month.

As I've mentioned before, the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) can be a daunting document due to the significant amount of information contained in it. However, by breaking the race down into its various parts, the applicable rules become much easier to digest, learn, and ultimately apply.

Before we begin discussing the rules that most often apply on the first beat of a race, let's define a few terms that will be important to this discussion. Sailors use the terms keep clear and room all the time, but I have often heard the terms used loosely and inconsistently relative to their actual definition. The definition of keep clear is as follows: "One boat keeps clear of another if the other boat can sail her course with no need to take avoiding action and, when the boats are overlapped on the same tack, if the leeward boat can change course in both directions without immediately making contact with the windward boat." Keeping clear does not simply mean having some space between your boat and another. The amount of space necessary for one boat to keep clear of another depends on several factors; the size and type of boat and the conditions at the time all come into play. And it's important to keep in mind, that just having space between your boat and the next one does not necessarily mean that you are keeping clear. Room is defined as follows: "The space a boat needs in the existing conditions while maneuvering promptly in a seamanlike way." Once again, the amount of room necessary will depend on the existing weather conditions. A boat might require more room in 20 knots of wind and three-foot seas than in eight knots of wind and flat water.

When you're on the racecourse in close proximity to another boat, all you need to do is to ask yourself two essential questions and you'll be able to figure out which boat is under what obligation.
The most important thing to keep in mind about the rules out on the racecourse is that there are only three ways boats can meet and interact: on opposite tacks, on the same tack and not overlapped, and on the same tack and overlapped. Rules 10, 11, and 12 of the RRS govern these three relationships. These are the most basic rules for you to know when boats come together on the course:

  • Rule 10 - On Opposite Tacks: "When boats are on opposite tacks, a port-tack boat shall keep clear of a starboard-tack boat."
  • Rule 11 - On the Same Tack, Overlapped: "When boats are on the same tack and overlapped, a windward boat shall keep clear of a leeward boat."
  • Rule 12 - On the Same Tack, Not Overlapped: "When boats are on the same tack and not overlapped, a boat clear astern shall keep clear of a boat clear ahead."

    Keep in mind that only one of these rules can apply at any one time with any one boat. When you are racing, just ask yourself a series of basic questions when your boat and that of another competitor start getting close together. First, ask 'Are we on the same tack?' If the answer is 'no,' then the only rule of these three that can apply is Rule 10.  If the answer is 'yes,' then ask yourself, 'Are we overlapped?' If the answer to that is 'yes,' then Rule 11 applies. If the answer is 'no,' then take a look at Rule 12. If you know these three rules and keep them in mind at all times, you will quickly be able to determine who has right-of-way in almost any instance on the racecourse.  Certainly, there are other rules to keep in mind, some of which we will review later, but these three should form the foundation of your rules knowledge.

    A fourth basic rule to always keep in mind on a windward leg is Rule 13 - While Tacking. "After a boat passes head to wind, she shall keep clear of other boats until she is on a close-hauled course. During that time, Rules 10, 11, and 12 do not apply. If two boats are subject to this rule at the same time, the one on the other's port side shall keep clear." In other words, this rules says that a boat that is tacking shall keep clear of a boat that is on a tack and not tacking. Keep in mind that the rule states that a boat is tacking from the moment it passes head-to-wind, until it assumes a close-hauled course. The completion of your tack has nothing to do with your sails being trimmed or your boat having forward progress.

    Rule 14 stipulates that boats should avoid contact on the racecourse "if reasonably possible."  In the above photo, the port-tack boat in the foreground is the burdened boat, and must take action to avoid a collision.

    Now that we have looked at the basic right-of-way rules, let's take a look at four rules that limit the power of the boat with the right of way. I like to think about my rules on the racecourse in two groupings, which boat has right of way in a given situation and what are the limits on the boat with right of way. It's important to remember that having right of way does not give you license to do whatever you want. There are always limits on what the right-of-way boat can do in any situation.

    The first and most basic limit on any right-of-way boat is Rule 14 - Avoiding Contact. "A boat shall avoid contact with another boat if reasonably possible. However, a right-of-way boat or one entitled to room (a) need not act to avoid contact until it is clear that the other boat is not keeping clear or giving room, and (b) shall not be penalized under this rule unless there is contact that causes damage." This rule is clear. You should always avoid contact when reasonably possible, even if you have right of way at the time. When you have right of way, this rule tells you that you don't need to begin avoiding contact until it is clear the other boat is not responding appropriately. But if you are involved in a collision that causes damage, even if you were the right-of-way boat at the time, you can be penalized.

    The next limitation, Rule 15 - Acquiring Right of Way, concerns that moment when a boat first gains right of way. "When a boat acquires right of way, she shall initially give the other boat room to keep clear, unless she acquires right of way because of the other boat's actions." This rule prevents boats from doing something to gain right of way, and then immediately exploiting their rights with aggressive actions. Let's look at a hypothetical example. Say you're sailing downwind on port jibe. I am on another boat, about four lengths to windward of you, also on port jibe. Suddenly, I jibe onto starboard, point my boat directly at you and begin screaming "Starboard!" You have precious little time to react before a collision occurs. In this situation, once my jibe is complete and I am on starboard, I have right of way under Rule 10, but Rule 15 limits my rights. I am required to give you room to keep clear (remember your definitions). But while the rule gives you some protection from me in this example, that protection does not last long. Take a look at the rule again. I must initially give you the opportunity to keep clear. In other words, in this example you would need to quickly come up hard and sail behind me on port jibe or jibe onto starboard and sail to windward of me.

    "Often sailors don't realize that when a right-of-way boat changes course, that boat is obligated to give the other boat sufficient room to keep clear."

    Rule 16 - Changing Course, poses another important limitation on the right-of-way boat. The rule states: "16.1 - When a right-of-way boat changes course, she shall give the other boat room to keep clear." Let's go back to the downwind example I used above. You are on port jibe, and I am again on port to windward of you. We are about four lengths from the leeward mark. I jibe onto starboard, but this time, our courses are such that without any alteration of course you will pass behind me. Not wanting you to pass behind me and get to the left side of the course, I quickly alter my course towards you, sail right at you, requiring you to execute an immediate emergency jibe to avoid a major collision. In the process of jibing, your boom hits my spinnaker pole and I yell "Protest!"

    Rule 16 tells us that I have probably committed the foul in this case. When I jibed onto starboard, you were keeping clear and would have sailed behind me. But since we were at the bottom of the leeward leg and getting close to the leeward mark, my tactician did not want you to get to the left and inside of me. So I aggressively sailed right at you and forced you to jibe. The contact between your boom and my spinnaker pole was caused by my altering course towards you.  Since you were already keeping clear of me, my alteration of course caused the incident and I would probably lose any ensuring protest.

    Rule 16.2 covers this situation on a windward leg. The rule states: "16.2 - In addition, when after the starting signal boats are about to cross or are crossing each other on opposite tacks, and the port-tack boat is keeping clear of the starboard-tack boat, the starboard-tack boat shall not change course if as a result the port-tack boat would immediately need to change course to continue keeping clear." In other words, if you are crossing me on port on a windward leg, I cannot alter my course to windward and sail at you, if that would require a further alteration from you to keep clear.

    In the scenario pictured above, the boat to the left (the weathermost boat) is obliged to keep clear of the boat to leeward. However, if the boat to leeward established the overlap by coming in from behind, her rights to luff are limited and she must not sail above her proper course.
    The final rule we will look at here is Rule 17 - On the Same Tack; Proper Course. As we learned earlier, Rule 11 tells us that a windward boat shall keep clear of a leeward boat. But there are limits on the leeward boat, based on how the overlap was established. This rule state: "17.1 - If a boat clear astern becomes overlapped within two of her hull lengths to leeward of a boat on the same tack, she shall not sail above her proper course while they remain overlapped within that distance, unless in doing so sails astern of the other boat." This rule does not apply if the overlap begins while the windward boat is required by Rule 13 to keep clear. Here's an example of what I mean. Your boat and my boat are sailing along on a reach leg, on the same tack and not overlapped. I am clear astern of you. I then move forward and become overlapped to leeward of your boat, and Rule 11 tells me that I now have the right of way. But Rule 17 limits my rights. Since the overlap was established by the leeward boat (my boat) coming in from clear astern, I am not allowed to sail above my proper course to the next mark. If, however, the overlap was established when you (as the windward boat) overtook me from clear astern, I would be free to protect my wind and luff up toward you, above my proper course, in order to defend my wind. The limitation on the leeward boat only comes into play if the leeward boat was originally clear astern and is overtaking. In all other cases, if there is an overlap, the leeward boat is not limited and can luff above proper course to defend.  Keep in mind though, that the leeward boat is still limited by Rules 14 and 16.

    That's all for now, and it's probably enough to digest in one sitting. We've covered a lot of ground here, but just keep in mind the two questions you'll want to ask yourself when you meet another boat on the racecourse. First ask, "Who has right of way?" Once you have answered that one, ask, "What, if any, limitations are there on the right-of-way boat?" Until next month, sail fast and sail safely.

    Suggested Reading:

    Racing Rules Review by Dean Brenner

    Racing Rules, Part Two by Dean Brenner

    Understanding the Racing Rules by Dan Dickison


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