How to use the racing rules of sailing

How to Avoid Trouble, Use the Regatta Rules of Sailing to Your Advantage, and Handle a Protest When You’re in One: Rules Advisor and Referee Bill O’Hara speaks to Andy Rice

When working as a Rules Advisor, it is Bill O’Hara’s job to work with his Sailors to ensure they understand the Rules well enough to stay out of the protest room. But when they make their way to the room to understand how best to present their case.

O’Hara comments, “There’s a live-and-let-live culture, especially on the water. You see very few protests most of the time until you get to the day it’s trying to make it into a gold fleet, or at the Olympics where so much is at stake. Then, in those critical moments, everything changes dramatically and the protests begin.”

O’Hara’s advice is to test your rules knowledge and protest technique well in advance of serious championships. Unlike the higher end of the sport, which thrives on the attention of judges on the water and instant decisions (and penalties) on the racetrack, the majority of us are still left to navigate the regatta rules of sailing alone. And face the consequences in the protest room if an incident cannot be resolved with a penalty on the water.

Here are Bill’s five tips for staying safe and getting through the racecourse and protest room with minimal risk to your scoreboard results.

Avoid collisions

It may sound obvious, but avoid collisions, especially with keel boats. As soon as you have a collision there will be a protest, most likely damage, everyone will get upset and someone will have to be disqualified.

Some sailors feel that if there is no contact you will not make a protest stick, so they are tempted to gently tap the other boat. The problem is that you end up risking walking into the room and if it turns out you could have avoided a collision you could also end up being disqualified. So it is best to avoid contact at all costs.

The Rolex Fastnet Race fleet pours out of the Solent: French crews can now land ahead of the start © Kurt Arrigo/Rolex

Communicate clearly

The only shouts in the rulebook are ‘Protest!’, ‘Room to tack!’ and ‘You turn!’. ‘Starboard!’ and many other shouts that sailors use mean nothing in a protest room. But my advice is to always be very clear about your intentions with the boats around you. ‘You crossed yourself.’ ‘You are not overlapped’. “You have space”. ‘You have no place’. The chance of a collision is much less when everyone is talking to each other. So, good communication with your competitors means you are less likely to end up in the protest room.

Understand course hotspots

Most incidents occur at mark corners and at the start, particularly at the end of the starting line where boats try to squeeze into gaps that do not exist. People are confused about the difference in rules between a mark round or an obstruction where you can request room on a leeward boat. But that is not the case in an initial situation.

If you enter a small gap between two or more boats, you run the risk of not keeping clear of the leeward boat. When you’re the boat to windward, it’s important to close the gap early and decisively so the guy trying to get in knows 100% there’s no way he’s getting in there.

As you approach a downwind mark, you may be a starboard right-of-way boat over a port boat, but by the time you reach the three-length zone and the port-tack boat becomes inside boat at the mark, it has give way to you now. Understanding that rights shift from you to another boat the moment you enter the zone can be difficult in the heat of battle.

Rounding of marks is a key moment for potential problems. Photo: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Use your testimony wisely

Bringing a witness into the protest room can be very helpful to your cause, but only if what he says supports your case. I’ve seen many times a witness actually corrupt the argument the protesting sailor is making, so find out what the witness is likely to say before you bring him into the room.

People bring video evidence with them quite often these days, but they rarely tell the full story, and the angle the video captures often doesn’t show you the gaps and distances accurately, so it’s of limited use. Ditto for evidence from GPS tracking. Aside from the fact that the boats were nearby at the time of the incident, it’s of little use.

Identify the crucial fact

If you end up in the protest room, be polite. There’s no use getting angry. Bring your case calmly and identify the key fact of the incident. The jury will hear evidence that establishes the facts of what they believe happened. Based on these found facts, they make a decision and there is always what I call a key fact. It usually has to do with space at a mark, or time and opportunity to keep clear, and so on. Identify this key fact and think like the jury. A good way to practice this is to sit on a protest committee at your local club. See how things look and sound from across the table.

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