Changing the Rules, Changing the Game


Rob Overton, Chairman of the US Racing Rules Committee along with being an International Umpire and US National Judge, provides this review of the new sailing rules…

The 2017-2020 Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) have been finalized and published on the internet. These rules come into effect on January 1, 2017 and can be found at The printed version, with US Prescriptions, will be available to members of US Sailing this month.

As in previous rulebooks, all changes from the previous version of the rules are indicated by change bars in the margins. But, unless you have your old rulebook in your hand or (God forbid) have memorized the rules, the change bars won’t do you much good, as they don’t indicate what change was made. And even if you do a word-by-word comparison, you still generally won’t know why the change was made.

For detailed answers to those questions, go to the same page as above and click on “Racing Rules of Sailing 2017-2020 Study Version”. That document, compiled by Dick Rose, shows all the changes in red; but also, if you click on the last word of the change (in blue), you can read the submission that led to the change. The submission shows what wording was originally proposed and, more importantly, the reasons given to the World Sailing Racing Rules Committee that caused that committee to adopt the change.

If you do look at Dick’s study version, you’ll see a lot of red, especially near the beginning of the rulebook and at rule 69. From this, you might conclude that the new rules are a huge revision of the 2013-2016 rules; but for most sailors, the changes are extremely minor. Below, I summarize the changes to the rules we’re most interested in: Part 2, When Boats Meet. But first, a word about the massive red ink.

Much of that red ink is legalese, addressing how to discipline coaches, medics, and other support personnel (including a new definition of “support person”, which says nothing not already in the ordinary meaning of the expression), as well as a new rule against betting (as if our sport should be so lucky as to attract the attention of bookies!) and yet another new rule, about the World Sailing Disciplinary Code (which I admit I haven’t read). Additionally, rule 3, Acceptance of the Rules, now reads like an insurance contract. These rules are, incidentally, “Fundamental Rules” of Part 1.

To my mind, these legalistic changes make it clear how detached the top people at World Sailing are from the thousands of us who actually participate in this sport. I, personally, have never had my own sailing coach, let alone my own medic. Are these people really a problem? Maybe at some top events, but not for the vast majority of event organizers and sailors like me. All the people who will never run or attend an Olympic event will just have to leaf past the Fundamental Rules, I guess. I hope they don’t miss rules 1 and 2, which are the only Fundamental Rules that are actually fundamental.

The rules we really need to read and know are the rules of Part 2, When Boats Meet, and the corresponding definitions. There have been seven changes in Part 2, none of which is likely to affect any of us much. These are summarized below.

Change 1: The preamble to Part 2 has been changed to permit penalties for boats that break rule 14, Avoiding Contact, in an incident when the boats are not racing, if there is injury or serious damage.

The rules of Part 2 apply to boats that are “sailing in or near the racing area and intend to race, are racing, or have been racing”, but until 2017, a boat not racing could not be penalized except for breaking rule 24.1, which says, “If reasonably possible, a boat not racing shall not interfere with a boat that is racing.” Starting in 2017, if a boat not racing breaks rule 14 and causes serious damage or injury, she can be penalized. Note that if the other boat’s score in a race was seriously affected by such an incident she has always been entitled to request redress, and that won’t change in 2017.

Change 2: Rule 18.2(d), which deals with when a boat is no longer entitled to mark-room under rules 18.2(b) and (c), adds the statement “[Those rules] cease to apply when the boat entitled to mark-roomhas been given that mark-room.” This addition incorporates into the RRS the conclusion of an excellent Q&A published in 2013 (since renamed B 005), so in some sense it’s not a change in how rule 18 works; but it’s always good to have basic principles in the rules themselves rather than in other documents. For a full explanation of the reasoning behind this change and its implications, see my earlier blog, “When does rule 18 turn off?”.

Change 3: Rule 18.3, Tacking in the Zone, has been extensively rewritten. This rule is more complicated than the 2013-2016 rule, but actually it now says what most sailors thought it said before – in particular, that rule 18.3 applies only at port-hand windward marks and only between a boat that tacks in the zone and one that doesn’t.

The first change, making rule 18.3 only apply at marks to be left to port, is of little interest to most sailors because we commonly only encounter port-hand windward marks. In fact, rule 18.3 was really written for port roundings. Its basic purpose was to solve a problem that had become common in large fleets before rule 18.3 existed, where boats tacking in at a port-hand mark caused boats on the layline to luff up and stall, thus creating a cluster of boats nearly stopped at the mark, preventing all boats behind them from rounding the mark. When teaching rule 18.3, I emphasize that its purpose is to encourage boats coming in on port tack to find their way through the boats on the starboard layline and tack above them, rather than crash-tacking at the mark.

But in the case of a mark to be left to starboard, the situation is reversed. The boats on the layline are on port tack, and the boats that have to tack to round the mark are on starboard, with right of way. In that situation, we want to encourage the starboard-tack boats to tack at the mark (as long as they can do so without tacking too close). If they continue on starboard tack past the layline, they may cause havoc as the port-tack boats are forced to tack away to avoid them. So current rule 18.3 is counter-productive at starboard-hand marks. The 2017-2020 rule solves that problem.

The second change in rule 18.3 stems from a question that was raised some years ago about what happens when two boats both tack in the zone. Suppose PL and PW are on port tack inside the zone of a port-rounding mark and they meet S coming in just above the layline on starboard tack. Both port-tack boats tack ahead and to leeward of S. It’s clear that they both have to obey rule 18.3 with respect to S, i.e., they cannot cause S to sail above close hauled or prevent her from leaving the mark to port, and that hasn’t changed in the new rule. But under the 2013-2016 rule, which of PL and PW has to obey rule 18.3 with respect to the other?

The answer depends on which boat passes head to wind first. Normally, I’d say, “So what?” One or the other tacks first, and current rule 18.3 applies to the other boat. But the problem here is that commonly both boats wait until the last possible moment and tack together. So it’s very hard for even the crews of the two boats, let alone a protest committee, to know which boat passed head to wind first.

The solution is to only make rule 18.3 apply between a boat that tacks in the zone and a boat that sails into the zone on the opposite tack and is fetching the mark, which fortunately is exactly what most sailors thought the rule said, anyway.

Change 4: Rule 19, Room to Pass an Obstruction, has been changed so that when three boats are overlapped going into a mark and rule 18.2, Mark-Room, applies, rule 19 does not. To see why this change is necessary, consider the following very simple scenario: Three boats, W, M and L are approaching a leeward mark to be left to port, all on port tack and all overlapped when they enter the zone. As everybody knows, the outside boat L owes mark-room to the middle boat M, and M owes mark-room to the inside boat W. So far, so good. But L has right of way over both M and W and hence is an obstruction to them. According to rule 19.1, W owes M room to pass the obstruction (L) on the same side. Now suppose there is contact between L, M, W and the mark; what then? Most protest committees would penalize only L, the outside boat, for not giving M and W mark-room. But under the current rules, that’s wrong – W should also be disqualified under rule 19.1 for not giving M room to pass the obstruction L!

There are a lot of words in new rule 19.1(b) about overlaps. Why not simply say that when rule 18.2 applies, rule 19 does not? To answer that question, consider two port-tack boats, PW and PL, inside the zone of a windward mark to be left to port, and a starboard-tack boat S, also approaching the same mark. If PL decides to duck S, she has to give PW room to duck S, too – and the rule that says so is rule 19. So we clearly need rule 19 to apply in this situation, even though rule 18.2 also applies between PL and PW.

Change 5: Rule 20 has been changed for 2017-2020 in order to make it illegal to hail for room to tack unless there’s an obstruction that the hailing boat must change course to avoid. The 2013-2016 rule is not clear on that point. It begins, “When approaching an obstruction, a boat may hail for room to tack and avoid a boat on the same tack. However, she shall not hail if …” The rule goes on to list the reasons a hail might be invalid. If there is in fact no obstruction at all, the hailing boat does not break this rule because the rule doesn’t apply. So under the 2013-2016 RRS, the hailed boat has to decide whether there really is an obstruction. If there is no obstruction, then she need not tack. But if there is an obstruction and it’s a right-of-way boat the hailed boat can’t see, or a person in the water, or some other object visible to the hailing boat but not to the hailed boat, that could be a catastrophic decision.

What we’d like to have is a rule that says the hailed boat has to tack, obstruction or not, and if she thinks there was no obstruction, protest. The 2017 wording accomplishes that by moving the lack of an obstruction into the list of reasons the hail is illegal. The 2013-2016 rule begins,

“A boat may hail for room to tack and avoid a boat on the same tack. However, she shall not hail unless
(a) she is approaching an obstruction and will soon need to make a substantial course change to avoid it safely, and…”

The new wording doesn’t set the scene as well as the 2013 wording, but it does solve the problem.

In case you think this is about angels dancing on the head of a pin, this exact situation came up in a race in which I was participating a few weeks ago on the San Francisco city front (where there can be a ferocious current and rule 20 is used a lot). A boat several boats to leeward of us hailed, the hail was passed up through the intervening boats, we all tacked, and later it was determined that there was no obstruction the hailing boat needed to change course to avoid. It would have been fruitless to protest under the current rule – but next year, it will be a different story.

Change 6: Rule 21, Exoneration, has been moved and extended. In the 2013-2016 RRS it is the last rule in Section C, Marks and Obstructions, and says that if a boat is taking room at an obstruction or mark-room to which she is entitled under a rule of Section C, Marks and Obstructions, she is exonerated from breaking a right-of-way rule or rules 15, 16 or 31 (Obtaining Right of Way, Changing Course and Touching a Mark, respectively). Rule 21 will now be the first rule in Section D, Other Rules [that apply when boats meet], and the words about rules of Section C are deleted. This means that no matter what rule entitles a boat to room or mark-room, if she breaks any right-of-way rule or rule 15, 16 or 31 while sailing within the room to which she was entitled, she is exonerated.

The effect of this change is that rule 21 will apply to situations where a boat is entitled to room to keep clear, as well as situations where she is entitled to mark-room or room to pass an obstruction. For example, if boat B establishes an overlap to leeward of A from clear astern, and A immediately tries to keep clear but is unable to do so because B didn’t give her enough room, A breaks rule 11, On the Same Tack, Overlapped. But the reason this happened was because B didn’t give her room to keep clear, and she will be exonerated under rule 21 for breaking rule 11.

Until now, this has been covered by rule 64.1(a), which says that a protest committee shall exonerate a boat if she was “compelled” to break a rule by another boat that was already breaking a rule. Putting the concept into rule 21 is a cleaner solution and removes the issue of whether the boat entitled to room was compelled to break a rule. Overall, though, there is no practical impact on sailors of the change to rule 21.

Change 7: Rule 22.3, which currently says, “A boat moving astern through the water by backing a sail shall keep clear of one that is not,” has been expanded to deal with boats that are moving sideways through the water by backing a sail. From 2017 on, boats crabbing sideways by backing a sail must keep clear of boats that are not doing so.

This apparently tiny change has the biggest repercussion of all the Part 2 changes for 2017, at least for small dinghies. I recently judged an Optimist Dinghy event where at every start, sailors were coming up to the starting line, pushing their booms out to leeward and pulling their helms up to windward at the same time. The net effect is for the boats to crab to windward, opening the gap with the boat to leeward and closing the gap with the boat to windward. Under the 2013-2016 RRS, the windward boat (that was not crabbing) was required to keep clear, even if that meant tacking away or sheeting in and crossing the starting line early. (In Optis and many other dinghies, she cannot separate from the boat to leeward by imitating the crabbing maneuver unless she has way on, without sculling and breaking rule 42.) Under the 2017-2020 RRS, the crabbing maneuver is still legal, but the boat crabbing to windward by backing her sail must keep clear of the boat to windward of her.

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