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Regulation, Good and Foolish

Many cruisers aren't aware that the Special Regs put forth by US SAILING make a wonderful guide to prepare a boat for an offshore passage.
When asked to recommend a guide for preparing a boat for cruising, I answer, “The Special Regs.”  If that usually draws a quizzical response, it’s because Special Regulations Governing Offshore and Oceanic Racing, to give the 50-page booklet’s full title, is not widely known outside the small community of owners of boats that go racing. (Only one sailboat out of ten is raced.) But it is a rich source of tips for making any boat, cruiser or racer, multihull or monohull, better in five types of sailing, from daylight events in protected waters (Category 4) to races to Bermuda or Hawaii (Category 1) to trans-ocean races in cold waters (Category 0).  This helpful booklet is available for $15 from the national sailing organization, US SAILING (, to the Store link, then Cruising).

The Special Regs provides two types of prescriptions: “shall” commands mandate safety practices; and “should” advisories are recommendations that aid seamanship.   Many are event-specific, like the requirement for watertight bulkheads for Category 0.  Yet numerous prescriptions apply to all boats, for example this very good one: “Sea cocks or valves shall be permanently installed on all through-hill openings below [the waterline]. . . .”  Some prescriptions combine commands and advisories, such as:  “A foul-weather suit with hood shall be provided for each crew member.  It is recommended that a foul-weather suit should be fitted with marine-grade retro-reflective material, and should have high-visibility colors on its upper parts and sleeve cuffs.”  

While a crusing sailor can judge for himself whether a safety practise makes sense on board his boat, a racing sailor doesn't have that option.
Advisories are important because most seamanship decisions should be left to the on-site participants, especially the captain.  Special Regs Rule 1 wisely says:  “The safety of a yacht and her crew is the sole and inescapable responsibility of the owner. . . .  He must be satisfied as to the soundness of hull, spars, rigging, sails, and all gear. . . .”   

Using the Special Regs as a reference, cruising sailors can judge for themselves whether a “shall” makes more sense if it is read as a “should.”  But for the racing sailor, there is no option because the Special Regs is part of the racing rules.  That’s true even when a rule is foolish.  An over-enthusiastic rulemaker can react to a perceived problem with excess alarm and write a regulation that should have been left as a simple advisory.  Here’s an example from the Special Regs: “A strong, sharp knife, sheathed, attached by a lanyard, shall be provided readily accessible in each cockpit.”  

A nice idea, that.  But, really, if we carry a folding knife or a Leatherman (or, God forbid, a sheath knife without a lanyard) are we at much at risk as a crew in a boat with no shut-off for a through-hull?  Why can’t I, the sailor, decide what type of knife to carry? And then there’s the issue of enforcement. Who on board will turn in a skipper to the race officials because the wrong kind of knife was at hand?

Fortunately, such silliness is rare in the Special Regs.  Like any good body of rules, it usually mandates commonly understood essentials while encouraging owners and sailors to come up with their own solutions. But the knife mandate does illustrate a point. Even in a pastime with a safety record that is the envy of all outdoor sports, we are not exempt from the urges on the part of well-intended individuals, first, to drum up alarm and, then, try to end it with a new regulation, no matter how narrowly written, unpopular, poorly drafted, and unenforceable that regulation may be.  

The mandatory use of PFDs and harnesses by all crew members from sunset to sunrise while on deck came as a reaction to several racing incidents in the past years, but it isn't without controversy.
The most recent example of this trend occurred in February, when the US Sailing Association’s Safety at Sea Committee (of which I am an advisor) considered a proposed US prescription to the Special Regulations. The following proposed rule was drawn up to apply to all ocean races run by US organizations: “US SAILING prescribes that harnesses and PFDs shall be worn by all crew members in Category 0 and 1 races from sunset to sunrise while on deck.”  (Harnesses here refers to safety harnesses.)  To say there was and continues to be considerable debate about this rule is an understatement. Glenn McCarthy, who reviewed the comments, reports that more than 125 people sent in written comments.  Of the 113 opinions about the rule as worded, 64 were opposed to the regulation and 49 favored it.  Still, after less than a month of public debate, the Safety Committee passed the rule, which US SAILING’s board then  passed into sailing law.

I expressed my opinion of the rule in the following comments that I sent in (and that are archived with all the others on US Sailing’s Safety site).

"I have never met a person who would turn in a friend to the authorities for violating a law concerning behavior."
From John Rousmaniere:  As strongly as I feel that safety harnesses (especially) and PFDs should be worn offshore at any time when risk is at hand, I'm opposed to making their use mandatory.  Some people may oppose this rule because it undermines the authority of the one person who, according to long-standing precedent, has ultimate and absolute authority, the skipper. Others may wonder why we're only concerned about night-time safety.  After all, gales blow, visibility is limited, and boats roll and pitch in daylight, too.  These are fair arguments against this proposal, but my chief concern is that this rule cannot be enforced.

I have never met a person who would turn in a friend to the authorities for violating a law concerning behavior. A law must be capable of being easily and clearly enforced by observers, for otherwise it's a bad law. Unenforceable laws are instantly disregarded and soon inspire cynicism.  A rule requiring crews to wear PFDs in a day race or a distance race started in daylight is enforceable because the boat is visible to officials and competitors. Not so at night.  

The backers of this rule must be alert to the enforceability question because they have not advised requiring that harnesses actually be used by clipping them on, an action that's often invisible to one's shipmates.  What are we to make of a law requiring possession of an object and not insisting on use that makes the object effective?

The author believes that instead of the mandatory rule, each crew should have a clear safety standard operating procedure on board.
As an alternative, I propose that race organizers, in their pre-race safety checklist or inspections, require that each crew have a clear safety standard operating procedure (SOP) and promise to follow it. The captain and watch officers would sign the following statement (or words to this effect):  

“The afterguard declares that our foremost concern is the safety of our crew and boat.  We have inspected the boat's safety gear and find it ready for use.  Our crew has devoted at least two hours to practicing crew-overboard rescues.  We have a written Standard Operating Procedure for the wearing and use of PFDs and safety harnesses during the race at any time when there is any risk of falling overboard. We shall follow that SOP ourselves and impose it on all crew members.”  

A signature on such a statement has legal and ethical implications that, I think, are far more enforceable than the proposed rule.


John Rousmaniere is offline  

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