Sailing Club Responsibility?
Recent events have had me musing on the topic of who is responsible for what during a sailboat regatta. The racing rules of sailing, along with sailing instructions and age-old tradition, very firmly hold the captain (skipper) of a vessel accountable for the safety of the boat, crew, passengers, and other vessels and their crews and passangers.
Yet, we live in an ever more litigious society. On land, people behave recklessly and then file lawsuits, often winning huge judgments in spite of their own negligence and misbehavior. Friends tell me not to worry and claim that there's never been a successful suit against a yacht club or sailing club based on events out on the race course. But, I wonder if that's really true and whether it's at all wise for a club to dismiss the threat as imaginary.
I would think it prudent for a club to take all reasonable precautions in running regattas. Paperwork (Notices of Race, Sailing Instructions, registration forms, government permits, and, not least, insurance) should be in order. The race committee and other volunteers should be trained. Chase boats, safety equipment, and emergency communications should be in order. Weather forecasts should be checked and the principal racing officer on duty should be prepared to call off racing if conditions are unsafe for the types of boats being sailed.
What happens if these things aren't done? I certainly don't think the club has to do a flawless job, and certainly there are inherent hazards of sailing and racing that can't be eliminated. If the club does a good-faith effort, and shows that it acted as competently and prudently as most other clubs do, then I think the club would be able to defend itself in protest hearings or in the law courts. However, if club race management is really sloppy, and both the paperwork and the on-the-water preparations and activities are substandard, then I think the club and its leaders are really asking for trouble. There are just too many lawyers looking for work.
Besides taking precautions to ensure safety and defend against possible lawsuits, club leaders should want to run regattas properly because it's the right thing to do. It also means the racing is being run fairly, and that skill and hard work are being rewarded. Club leaders should ensure that their race managers are trained and are organizing regattas and races in accordance with national standards (US Sailing), local law, and best practices.
Clubs that rely on very informal or outdated race documents may find that they've exposed themselves to embarrassment or even serious legal liability. For example, a local club had an incident a few years ago in which actions of its protest committee were overturned because it didn't follow correct procedures. And, US Sailing has given guidance that certain legal language formerly found in many registration forms has been held to be bad policy. It could actually put the club at greater risk in court.
If the racers can't predict how the rules will be interpreted, and if racing policies are hard to pin down, or subject to frequent, unpredictable last-minute changes, then racers may feel that they're at the mercy of the race manager's changing moods and might not get a fair shake. If race administration is sloppy, the race managers may open themselves to charges of incompetence, bias, favoritism, or even cheating. The resulting bad reputation could drive good sailors away from the club and quickly drain the energy and fun away from the club.