Do sailboat racers have to stay between the nav buoys?
One misconception that continues to haunt sailboat racers is whether they are required to stay inside navigation markers. Frequently, navigation aids are used to mark the boundaries of "safe water". They also have implications for liability for the authority that is responsible for an area of water and for boat operators. In general is is not actually illegal for a boater to go outside of the markers but the boater is responsible for any damage that occurs as a result. For example, if an big ship strays outside of a channel, hits a rock, and leaks fuel and oil, that is certainly the operator's fault and civil and perhaps even criminal responsibility.
Navigation marks are often divided into two general categories. The first are the lateral aids, such as green and red channel marker buoys. The second are the non-lateral aids, including regulatory markers such as do-not-enter areas (dams, power plant intakes, swimming beaches), speed or activity limits (5 mph, no visible wake), information markers (marina 2 miles), and hazard markers.
For the most part, navigation aids are not defined as "marks of the course" and do not usually have any implications within the Racing Rules of Sailing. Sometimes they are so used, in which case the RRS do apply with respect to them.
I would make a distinction between ordinary risk taking -- going outside of channels or navigation aids that are not designated as marks of the course -- and doing something actually illegal, such as cutting off a restricted-maneuverability ship in a deep channel, cutting through a buoyed-off swimming beach, shaving by a moored warship, etc. I think a fair case can be made that doing something that is actually illegal and dangerous to others does not fit within the bounds of fair sailing and good sportsmanship.
But as for ordinary risk taking, that is within the rules of the game wherever it is not explicitly prohibited by the SIs or other rules. It is appropriate, reasonable, and right for the organizing authority (OA) and race committee (RC) to make provisions against any course features that may be particularly unsafe or unfair to some boats. If a race committee were to make it actually impossible for some boats to sail a race (i.e., something as egregious as putting a drop mark in three feet of water in a race with deep-keel boats entered) I would certainly expect a yacht to be able to win redress against the RC. And at least part of that RC would certainly be up for some remedial training.
Yet, no matter whatever the OA/RC may or may not do, it is the responsibility of each skipper and navigator to know the course and how it is likely to affect their race. Early this year, Gary Jobson told an anecdote about sailing out east in an international regatta in which the boat he was on was behind a rival. Gary's boat took a route around an island (I believe to get current relief against a flood tide) and came out ahead of their competition. The next year, they were in the same race in a similar situation, and a boat that they were competing against decided to take the same route that Gary's boat had taken the previous year. However, what the other boat's crew didn't know was that, in the meantime, a low bridge had been built to that island!
Rightly pointed out, navigation aids do not always provide reliable guidance as to where safe water is for your particular boat. If the navigation aids are primarily focused on guiding commercial traffic, they may be in very deep water. But in some remote areas, private or public aids may be placed in water that is unsafe for even smaller keelboats, especially at low tide or in special weather situations. And some authorities lack the capability of keeping up with buoy positions and maintenance (such as in reservoirs with radical seasonal changes in water levels) or have insufficient resources to mark hazards adequately. Breakwaters often accumulate shoals that extend well beyond any marks or lights placed on or near them. Of course, navigation aids do sometimes come adrift, sink, drag, or get beached. And, even in developed countries, some features are poorly charted and many hazards remain uncharted and unmarked.
In some congested harbor areas and approaches, it is actually good seamanship or even required by regulations for small craft such as sailing yachts to remain OUTSIDE of shipping channels or traffic separation lanes except when necessary for their own safe navigation. Vessel traffic control does NOT want a bunch of yotties hogging and clogging the shipping channels and endangering themselves and hindering heavy commercial traffic! And yachts crossing separation lanes are instructed to cross quickly at right angles and without getting in the way of the big boys. Ditto for obstructing traffic in naval ports; in our country if you dawdle in a channel that a naval vessel or a commercial vessel with naval security escort is using you will be faced with loudhailers or even aggressively driven patrol launches with large machine guns and they are authorized to use force to eliminate you as a hazard!
In these cases, it's quite appropriate for OAs/RCs to write SIs that DSQ people for creating hazards by violating navigation regulations and interfering with shipping.
While the OA/RC can do much to promote safety and have real responsibility in setting and restricting the course, safe and efficient navigation is first, last, foremost, primarily, and always the responsibility of the skipper and crew and a vital skill for anyone who pretends to be a sailor.