Room at an obstruction
During the last race for one boat class at the Arizona Yacht Club's Birthday Regatta, an incident occurred when two 25-foot keelboats were overlapped downwind, both on the same tack. As they approached the mid point of their downwind run, they neared the pin buoy of the start line. The sailing instructions for the regatta had made the start and finish lines the equivalent of obstructions, severely penalizing any boat that crossed either line after its first leg, and before finishing, with a DNF.
Caveat: A real protest hearing would have established facts and conclusions based on input from all involved parties, and additional facts would likely have been found. This post is necessarily based on my personal conclusions and interpretations and thus cannot define all of what really happened or what a real protest committee would have decided. However, in addition to being a witness to the incident, I did visit with some of the sailors involved, and would have been the chairman of the PC had a full hearing been held, so this post should address the issue fairly reasonably.
The wind was about 8 to 10 kts from the NNE with the line oriented generally E-W and the two boats were approaching on starboard gybe at about at 70 degree angle to the line. The inside leeward (IL) boat appeared to have established its overlap at least some 5 boat lengths from the line and appeared to be within two boat lengths of the outside windward (OW) boat when it established its overlap. The boats were each flying mainsail and symmetrical spinnaker.
At that point, the boats' courses would have taken the outside boat just outside the starting pin and the inside leeward boat about a boat length inside the pin. The incident was viewed by several persons about 400 feet away on the race committee boat, who, however, could not hear hails or determine whether a protest flag was flown.
The IL boat did not get room and was forced to sail through the "poisoned line". It protested, and announced to the race committee that it was protesting at the finish. After sailing through the line, and continuing downwind for several boat lengths, the IL boat was able to take down its chute, sail back to the line, go back outside, and thus "unwind her string", as was allowable (exonerated) because she had been forced over the line by another boat's foul.
The OW proceeded most of the way down the course but completed a 720 (two turns penalty) before reaching the leeward mark.
Afterward I discussed some of the issues with crew members of the boats and in that fleet and noted some questions that they wanted clarified. Although a protest hearing didn't happen, the fleet members wanted to know their rights and obligations and had some theories about them that needed to be answered.
What rules applied here? 11 (windward leeward), 17 (proper course), 19 (obstructions) (also, 15, acquiring right of way)
Was the line a continuing obstruction? No.
A continuing obstruction is one that isn't passed momentarily, such as a beach, long pier, etc., that a boat is generally parallel too. At the speed and angle (almost a right angle) the 25-foot boats were approaching the pin, they would pass it in roughly 3 seconds.
The line could have been a continuing obstruction if for some odd reason the course the boats were following had required them to sail roughly parallel to it (for example if sailing between the east and west marks), but it wasn't.
What made the line an obstruction?
The SIs made it an obstruction by prohibiting the boats from going through it, and the basic test of an obstruction is whether a boat within a boat length of it would have to make a substantial course change to avoid it. IL, at boat length away, would have had to have headed up about 70 degrees to avoid the line, which is substantial, especially when dealing with a spinnaker in a healthy breeze.
Were the competitors aware of their obligation to avoid the line? Not all of them.
In addition to the incident with the 25-foot keelboats, two Buccaneers crossed the finish line on their downwind run, and were scored DNF as required by the SIs.
What were the boats' initial obligations?
When the overlap was first established, from clear astern, IL became the right-of-way boat (leeward boat, same tack under RRS 11) but was "limited" by RRS 17 (proper course, overlap established from clear astern) and could only luff OW up to IL's "proper course". However, IL's proper course was to avoid the "poisoned" line; therefore she had the right to call for OW to head up so IL could sail her proper course. IL was required to give OW enough time to respond to her hail and OW was not required to anticipate her hail.
What happened under the rules when they got close to the line?
Now the two boats came under RRS 19, dealing with obstructions. (RRS 20 didn't apply since the boats weren't heading upwind. Also, the starting line and pin were an obstruction, but they were not a rounding mark for the boats and they did not have a "zone".)
When IL got close enough that avoiding action was required, she had the right to get room from OW under RRS 19, subject to OW being able to do so. Under the obligations of this rule, OW was required to keep a lookout for the obstruction, and, once it was clear on which side the obstruction was to be passed, OW was required to give IL room, even without a hail being heard. Because the start and finish lines were very long, it was obvious from a very long distance (at least 20 boat lengths) which side the obstruction would be passed. At this point, the onus for following the rule fell upon OW.
Did OW exonerate herself successfully with the two-turns penalty? Maybe.
One crew member of the IL boat thought that the turn-turns penalty still left the OW boat in a much more favorable relative position than she would been in without the foul, because the IL boat had to take down her chute and travel perhaps an extra 15 boat lengths along with multiple turns. A boat that gains a gross advantage through a foul is not allowed to exonerate herself with turns, so a protest committee or arbitrator might have imposed a greater penalty upon OW.
Was the protest executed properly? Probably not.
The IL boat used the red cover of an inflatable PFD as its "flag". A strict protest committee could disallow this, since the rules specifically call for the flag and Dave Perry's 2009 edition of Understanding the Racing Rules of Sailing notes that articles such as a piece of clothing don't qualify as flags; it's important that the flag be clearly understandable as being a protest flag. The protesting boat (small dinghies are exempt) needs to be equipped to display conspicuously something that's obviously a protest flag.
Would arbitration have been a good option? Likely yes.
An arbitrator would have had more flexibility to establish a fair settlement for the two boats while saving on the complexity, uncertainty, and perhaps more severe consequences of a full-fledged "trip to the room". As just one example, an arbitrator might have given OW a penalty less than DNF/DSQ, such as a scoring penalty, that might have more closely restored equity to the situation.
Are there lessons for the race committee and birthday regatta? Yes.
(1) It would be good to make it more obvious to the competitors that the line is "poisoned" even though this is done commonly in large regattas. The RC is not in the business of reading the NOR and SIs to the competitors, but it can be helpful to point out a few special features.
(2) To make the status of the line even more clear, the word "obstruction" should be
part of the wording about the start and finish line in the SIs.
(3) It would help for every club to periodically remind sailors of the requirements for protests. A mock protest hearing wouldn't be a bad idea.
(4) Rules awareness is always a good thing, and the AYC is very active in this area, with briefings on the new rules already scheduled.
(5) The procedure of signaling protest time at Spinnaker Point is more suited for normal regattas but less so for the Birthday Regatta, where all the on-shore action occurs at the large tent. A more specific site should be designated for receiving protests. This could be combined with having a specific site for bulletin boards for race and schedule updates, posting protest time, posting the NOR and SIs, etc.
Are there lessons for the competitors? Yes. Going into a protest hearing, the boats would have risked having the protest thrown out (IL) or being disqualified from the race (OW). Knowledge of the rules is good "risk management" for racers. Knowing their rights and obligations, the boats could have entirely avoided this situation and enjoyed a fair test of boat speed and sailing ability without the distraction of a protest situation.