How to stay out of trouble use the racing rules of sailing to your advantage and handle a protest if you find yourself in one: rules advisor and umpire Bill O’Hara talks to Andy Rice

When working as a rules adviser, Bill O’Hara’s job with his sailors is to make sure they understand the rules well enough to stay out of the protest room. But if they do find themselves heading for the room, to understand how best to present their case.

O’Hara comments: “Mostly on the water it’s a live-and-let-live culture. You tend to see very few protests most of the time, until you reach the day when it’s trying to make it into a gold fleet, or at the Olympic Games where there’s so much on the line. Then everything changes dramatically at those critical moments and the protests begin.”

O’Hara’s advice is to test your rules knowledge and your protest technique long before the serious championship. Unlike the top end of the sport, which benefits from the attention of on-the-water umpires and instant decisions (and penalties) on the race course, the majority of us still have to navigate the Racing Rules of Sailing on our own. And face the consequences in the protest room if an incident can’t be resolved with a penalty on the water.

Here are Bill’s five tips for staying safe and getting through the racecourse and protest room with the minimum of risk to your results on the scoreboard.

Avoid collisions

It might sound obvious, but avoid collisions, especially in keelboats. Once you have a collision there’s going to be a protest, most likely damage, everyone gets upset and someone has to be disqualified.

There’s a feeling among some sailors that you’re not going to make a protest stick unless there’s contact, so they’re tempted to go for a gentle tap on the other boat. The problem is you end up risking going into the room and if it’s proven you could have avoided a collision, you could end up being disqualified as well. So best to avoid contact at all costs.

The Rolex Fastnet Race fleet streaming out of the Solent: French crews will now be able to touch land before the start © Kurt Arrigo/Rolex

Communicate clearly

The only hails in the Rule Book are ‘Protest!’, ‘Room to tack!’ and ‘You tack!’. ‘Starboard!’ and many other hails that sailors use don’t mean anything in a protest room. But my advice is to always be very clear with the boats around you about your intentions. ‘You’re overlapped.’ ‘You’re not overlapped’. ‘You have room’. ‘You don’t have room’. There is a much smaller chance of a collision if everyone speaks to each other, and so good communication with your competitors means you’re less likely to end up in the protest room.

Understand the course hot spots

Mark roundings and the start are where most incidents occur, particularly the committee boat end of the start line where you see boats trying to push into gaps that aren’t there. People get confused about the difference in the rules between a mark rounding or an obstruction, where you can call room on a boat to leeward. But that’s not the case in a starting situation.

If you push into a small gap between two or more boats, then you’re putting yourself at risk of failing to keep clear of the boat to leeward. If you’re the boat to windward, the key thing is to close the gap early and decisively, so the guy trying to come in knows there’s 100% no way he’s getting in there.

Approaching a downwind mark you can be right-of-way boat on starboard versus a port boat but the moment you hit the three-boatlength zone and the port-tack boat becomes the inside boat at the mark, he’s now got rights on you. Understanding that the rights pass from you to another boat the moment you hit the zone can be hard to get your head around in the heat of the moment.

Mark roundings are a key moment of potential trouble. Photo: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Use your witness wisely

Bringing a witness into the protest room can be very helpful to your cause, but only if what they say brings support to your case. I’ve seen plenty of times when a witness has actually harmed the argument that the protesting sailor is bringing to the table, so find out what the witness is likely to say before you bring them into the room.

People these days quite often bring in video evidence but it rarely tells the whole story, and the angle the video captures often doesn’t show you the gaps and distances accurately, so it’s of limited use. The same goes for evidence from GPS tracking. Apart from establishing that the boats were in the vicinity at the time of the incident, it’s little more use than that.

Identify the key fact

If you do end up in the protest room, be polite. There’s no point in getting angry. Make your case calmly, and identify the key fact in the incident. The jury is going to listen to evidence, determine the facts of what they think happened. Based on those facts found, they’ll make a decision, and there’s always what I call one key fact. It’s usually to do with room at a mark, or time and opportunity to keep clear, and so on. Identify that key fact and think like the jury. A good way to practise that is to sit on a protest committee at your local club. See how things look and sound from the other side of the table.

If you enjoyed this….

Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.
Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.