Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Beyond the Rules: Is is Safe? Is it Right?

Note: This essay may seem a little strict, but sometimes that’s the way these things may have to come off in order to emphasize that the safety-related parts of racing and navigation rules are vital to keeping lives and limbs whole, not to mention keeping us out of expensive trouble.

Beyond the Rules:
Is it Safe? Is it Right?

The Rules, Ethics, Safety, and the Law

Most of us, even racers, sail for enjoyment, relaxation, and fun. Some of us have invested a great deal of effort and expense in our boats and in becoming better sailors, and just about all of us enjoy socializing, cruising, or competing with our fellow sailors.

The pace of socializing and cruising is usually pretty mellow, and these activities often don’t have a whole lot of structure; sailors can come and go as they please to parties, raft-ups, and similar events.

But with racing, the pace can be rapid, with boats and crews jockeying in close quarters. Racers especially must obey the rules and meet their other obligations out of consideration for the safety, property, and well-being of themselves and others. Each skipper and crew member has obligations under federal, state, and local laws, including legal responsibility to operate a boat in a safe and controlled manner, respect the environment, respect the property of others, allow other boaters to enjoy their rightful activities safety, not place other boaters in danger, and not infringe upon the safe navigation of other boats.

Racing skippers should also think about the reasons why they and other people participate in sailboat racing, and follow the written and unwritten rules of good sportsmanship and courtesy.

Irresponsible behavior can hurt the offending skipper as well as his or her victims and even result in bad consequences for the sailing club and sailors as a group.


In New Mexico, most popular sailing waters are under the jurisdiction of the New Mexico State Parks.

• State police officers, county sheriff’s deputies, and state parks marine enforcement officers can write citations against boaters who violate laws, and they can arrest a lawbreaker.
• They can terminate a voyage and order a crew ashore, or haul a crew off a boat and tow it ashore. They can close the lake to boating when conditions are unsafe.
• The state parks also decide whether to issue permits to allow the sailing club to hold regattas. Further, the sailing club, as the operator of the mast-up sailing lot, is a state parks concessionaire and has associated obligations to the state.

For these reasons, it is absolutely vital that our sailors obey the laws and sail safely and courteously.


Skippers in a tight race situation need to think beyond the immediate concerns of a maneuver. An aggressive racing move might be perfectly appropriate in a national one-design championship where all the skippers are highly skilled and have boats with identical maneuverability. But is this okay in a local, small club regatta such as those hosted by the RGSC?

Here, race boats are different in size, speed, and maneuverability; safety facilities are limited (such as no safety or chase boats); water temperatures can be frigid; and crew and skipper experience levels vary hugely. Thus, wanton rules violations, reckless sailing, or indiscriminate use of aggressive tactics could be a recipe for mayhem and disaster and could cause grave harm to the club and to its racing program.


Consider some possible actions and the consequences that could result:

• Approaching the starting line on a fast broad reach, an experienced skipper points a boat straight at the beam of a leeward boat. Both boats are on starboard tack, with the leeward boat close hauled and the windward boat looking for a hole in the line.

Not knowing whether the windward boat has seen her and fearing a collision that could sink her boat, the less experienced skipper falls off sharply to avoid disaster, hits the pin, does a penalty turn, and starts the race more than a minute behind the boat that caused the incident. The victims were too busy avoiding collision to yell protest before the other boat was well up the course. The give-way (burdened, no-rights) boat gains a significant advantage by her wrongdoing, and finishes ahead of the victim on corrected time. The give-way boat neither takes penalty turns, nor disqualifies herself from the race.

• Two boats are approaching the starting line near the committee boat on starboard tack when a port tacker passes close in front of the leeward boat, forcing her to quit heading up, and to sheet out to avoid collision. Then the port tacker tacks to starboard very close to the windward boat, forcing her to luff to head to wind to avoid collision, and then to give up her start to avoid collision with the committee boat. The near collision startles the crews of the starboard tack boats and the port tacker is on her way upwind before one of the victims puts up a protest flag.

• A group of boats is approaching what was originally the windward mark, but due to a huge wind shift the boats are on a downwind course in very light conditions. The inside boat does not immediately turn around the mark, but continues on for another 10 boat lengths, carrying the outside boats with her and in close proximity to some sharp rocks and shallows. The skipper of the inside boat then turns, and the other boats have to take avoiding action to avoid the hazard, placing them further behind.

• A port-tacker approaches a wall of starboard tackers and fails to take avoiding action, fouling some boats and causing others to get tangled up and start poorly. In the confusion, no protest is called.

• An experienced racer modifies his boat to carry sails larger than those allowed by the boat’s class, and does not declare the changes to the race committee.

• A racer, while breaking one of the racing rules, collides with and damages a smaller boat. The racer doesn’t pay for the damage and the owners of the smaller boat quit the club and sell the boat that had been damaged not too long before one of them dies.

• An experienced racer, on port tack, approaches an inexperienced racer, who is on starboard. The port-tacker loudly yells “Port!” in an attempt to bully and confuse the beginner into giving up his rights. This is an obvious violation of rule 2, Fair Sailing.

• A club member/racer “borrows” a slip from a marina during a busy weekend without paying for it.

• During a windy regatta, the race committee hoists the “flotation required” code flag Y before the preparatory signal for a race. However, some crews don’t bother to observe the requirement, or bother to obey the state law requiring life jackets for racing. A state parks patrol officer notices that the racers are not complying with the law and questions whether the club is able to safely host a regatta in accordance with the state parks permit.


Now, for the above scenarios, think about the following:

Which of the actions were allowed under the racing rules?
Were they legal?
What should the parties have done?
What should the race committee have done?
What would you have done?
What should be told to the skipper and crew of the no-rights / burdened / give way boats or the skippers who caused an incident?
Who should have done what to prevent a dangerous situation?
What were the possible consequences or liability for the club?
What was the right thing to do?


Other thoughts…

Contact resulting from a luffing match between a couple of like-sized boats creeping along at one or two knots isn’t likely to cause any appreciable damage and isn’t a very big deal.

But, “bumper boats” behavior is strongly discouraged by the rules and is a bad habit that could cause disaster. A resulting accident in stronger wind conditions could result in damage, injury, and serious legal consequences. A port-starboard collision at only 5 to 10 knots could lead to a boat being holed or sunk, rig failure, crew injuries, and crew being dumped into frigid water and endangered by cold shock response or hypothermia.

The rules are written to prevent the skipper of one boat from “trapping” another boat into a dangerous situation from which the victim boat can’t escape and is placed in danger of collision or grounding. Such behavior not only breaks rules, but also is unethical and contrary to the ideals of Corinthian sailing. Any skipper who thinks it’s fun to “trap” novices or “teach ‘em a lesson on how it’s done” without regard to safety is not only a boorish bully but also a menace. And, since other skippers are likely to see the bullying, what goes around just might come right back around… and around again.


The skipper of a stand-on (right of way, privileged) boat must maintain course and speed until it appears that he is in danger of collision with an offending boat. Then the skipper must do whatever is possible to avoid or minimize a collision.

It’s been said that some skippers, especially of bigger racer-cruisers, would rather lose their homes than see their boats sunk. After all, reasons one such skipper, “I can probably sleep on my boat, but I sure as $&*&@#*%! can’t race my house!”

Certainly the skipper of a starboard-tack boat doesn’t have to wait to be t-boned by some clueless port-tacker (or a leeward boat let itself be run down by a windward boat), but should avoid collision as best as possible and then protest the offending boat. Boats and skippers that are protested properly are more likely to learn their obligations and observe them in the future.


Under the racing rules, a skipper who is maneuvering can expect other skippers to be able to maneuver and control their boats in a seamanlike fashion. But, courts of law are likely to consider many factors, including the relative skill levels of the skippers and their relative ability to avoid collision. It’s possible that an experienced, but overly aggressive racing skipper might still be within the racing rules when colliding with a novice skipper of a less maneuverable boat, yet still violate laws and be held liable for negligent or reckless operation and face civil or criminal sanctions.


Under the racing rules, a boat and crew that gain a significant advantage through breaking a rule are not allowed to excuse themselves with penalty turns. Such a boat must retire immediately from the race. Boats must also retire in the event of a serious collision, although the victim boat will be entitled to redress if she can show that the collision occurred through no fault of her own or was unavoidable by her.

However, the consequences of breaking the rules go far beyond penalty turns, retirements, or disqualifications by a protest committee. Among the them could be:

• Offending crews are required to attend mandatory safety training.

• Skippers of offending boats are cited or arrested.

• Offending skippers find themselves dropped from insurance coverage or unable to get affordable coverage.

• Offending skippers are the subject of civil lawsuits by the victims or the estates and survivors of the victims and are subject to discovery proceedings, subpoenas, restraining orders, and other legal proceedings.

• Novice racers are frightened, confused, and leave the club and the sport.

• Ethical racers refuse to participate in a racing program in which one or two “bad apples” are allowed to continue without being penalized; racing participation withers.

• The club has difficulty in recruiting officers, board members, and race committee volunteers.
• The club gets a bad reputation in the community and is unable to obtain sponsorships, meeting places, or invitations to participate in local activities.

• Regattas are terminated or the state refuses to issue regatta permits.

• Incidents on the lake lead to more restrictive legislation that limits the freedom of all boaters within the state.

Since none of these are desirable outcomes, we should follow not only the Racing Rules of Sailing and the local laws, but also abide by courtesy and Mom's Law: Just Be Nice.

Pat Byrnes
(volunteer safe boating instructor, National Association of State Boating Law Administrators instructor certification)


At 6:44 AM, March 28, 2007, Anonymous AdriftAtSea said...


Well said... unfortunately, niceness and common courtesy are often overlooked in the heat of competition, and seem to be slowly disappearing in many other aspects of life today.


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