Knowing when and why to take a penalty can get lost in the heat of competition. Jonty Sherwill asked top match racer Ian Williams for his 5 tips

“It’s close, but we are easily clearing them,” is the call from the tactician as you beat to windward on port tack. But the breeze is veering and the other boat is now lifted and hailing “starboard”. You press on, confident of still clearing them, but suddenly the other boat crash-tacks onto port and is now shouting “protest!” There’s been no contact, so what do you do now?

Avoidable or not, unexpected incidents like this can jeopardise your results and will need decisive action. Taking a penalty is the easiest solution – hoping for the best and doing nothing is a risky strategy and likely to see you in the protest room.

Acquiring a good knowledge of the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) will help you avoid infringements and, while protest meetings are not as daunting as some like to make out, avoiding the humiliation of being given a schoolboy’s guide to the rules is worth the extra homework.

Nowadays race officers and their assistants are discouraged from lodging protests against competitors for infringements seen while racing, even for sailing the wrong course. It is preferred to rely on other competitors to protest, the exception being during a start sequence.

This can add a moral dilemma that works two ways; if you think you see another boat hit a mark some way off, but near a committee member should you protest and risk being accused of gamesmanship, and if you touch a mark and no one sees or protests should you take a penalty?

Whether to own up or wait to be protested is a personal decision and different classes will have different cultures. In some fleets competitors take responsibility for the fairness of the racing, but the system has come under enough pressure to force some regattas to introduce umpiring, a costly and imperfect solution.


 1. When to take a penalty

When another boat protests, you have to make an instant decision whether to take a penalty or not. Of course, your first thought will be whether you think you have infringed or not but, if you believe you have not, you also need to consider the likelihood of the protestor going ahead with the protest and the chances of winning. Most likely they have seen the incident differently from you. Important factors are whether either has a witness, who had the best view of the incident and whether there are any onuses in play (see, for example, RRS 18.2(d)).

 2. How long do you have to take your penalty?

If the Sailing Instructions say nothing about penalties, the default is RRS 44, and 44.2 states that penalty turns should be taken ‘as soon after the incident as possible’. In practice, many boats push the definition of this, but rarely get punished for it, so each class tends to find its own understanding of what is acceptable. Getting well clear to avoid impeding other boats is important, especially at busy mark roundings.

 3. Types of penalty – read the Sailing Instructions

There are few things worse than infringing a rule and then realising you do not know what penalty you have to take. Is it one turn, two turns, or a scoring penalty? There’s no time to read the Sailing Instructions (SIs) at that point so make sure you know what is required in advance, which may include having a yellow flag ready to display if it’s scoring penalties (RRS 44.3). Unless otherwise specified in the SIs, the penalty for touching a mark (RRS 31) is a one-turn penalty.

4. How to do the penalty

It is worth spending time practising penalties as we do not (hopefully) get much experience of it during racing. Although it must be done immediately, that does not mean it needs to be taken in a blind panic. Keep the turns smooth and use the bottom part of the turn, as you start to wind back into the breeze, to slow the turn slightly and allow the boat to accelerate.

Think in advance about whether it is better to tack first or gybe first – in most instances the tack first is the better option, but there are situations where gybing first will put you in a better position on the fleet.

5. Preparation

Use the time while sailing clear to prepare the boat for the manouevre, ensuring sheets are clear to run and somebody is ready to ease the vang if the breeze is up. If you are on a downwind leg, you should also consider how you want to exit the penalty and ensure the spinnaker and pole are set up ready.

On some boats you may be able to leave the pole on by executing a leeward drop, then you are ready to hoist immediately after the penalty. Or it may be better to do a windward drop so you can hoist out of the last tack without the pole and do the last gybe with the spinnaker drawing.


  • RRS 18.2(d) – ‘If there is reasonable doubt that a boat obtained or broke an overlap in time, it shall be presumed that she did not.’
  • RRS 44.2 – ‘After getting well clear of other boats as soon after the incident as possible . . .’ etc.
  • Scoring penalties (RRS 44.3(a)) – ‘A boat takes a Scoring Penalty by displaying a yellow flag at the first reasonable opportunity after the incident.’
  • (RRS 31) – ‘While racing, a boat shall not touch a starting mark before starting, a mark that begins, bounds or ends the leg of the course on which she is sailing, or a finishing mark after finishing.’


Ian Williams is a four-times ISAF Match Racing World Champion and the only European to hold multiple match racing world titles. He has won the World Match Racing Tour ten times. Williams is also well-known on the professional big boat circuit as a tactician and has been shortlisted twice for the ISAF World Sailor of the Year Award


This is an extract from a feature in Yachting World March 2015 issue