Cheating or mere gamesmanship? The desire to win can lead to what some will regard as crafty fair play where others cry foul. Where would you draw the line? asks Jonty Sherwill


In football a dive in the penalty area in search of an easy goal is a regular occurrence – though the risk of a red card may act as a deterrent, the pressure to succeed in any sport can skew judgements. Even a usually level-headed club sailor can fall victim to the ‘red mist’.

If sailing is intended to be a self-policing sport, how is it that some racing classes have an ethic of strict rule observance where miscreants can expect a cold shoulder at the bar if they push their luck, yet others have a free-for-all attitude to cheating at yacht racing, where success for the ‘fleet-elite’ may rely on strong-arm tactics and mutual tolerance?

Bryan Willis is chair of the ISAF Disciplinary Commission and a member of the ISAF Review Board. He has been chairman of the jury and chief umpire for the America’s Cup and the Olympic Games and served on the ISAF Racing Rules Committee for 25 years. He explains it thus:

“Different cultures across the various racing fleets are OK as long as everyone is happy about it – why should we walk in and tell them otherwise? Some classes are very strict while others resolve it at the bar – the problem is when something happens and someone is aggrieved, that’s when we should step in.”

But others believe that there comes a point at which a distinction has to be drawn between crafty sailing and outright cheating.

“The only way is for those who object to protest and let a protest committee determine what is within the rules,” believes Chris Simon, an international judge, national umpire and national race officer. “It is not good that some racing classes have an ethic of strict rule observance while others have a free-for-all. Competitors generally do not realise that their ‘you owe me one’ attitude is unacceptable as the rule breaker affects the whole fleet, not just the boat fouled.”

Where to draw the line?

Close shaves and taking chances when they are presented are all part of the game, but perhaps each competitor has to decide if the standard they set for themselves matches what they expect from their rivals.

For example, minor knocks on the start line can seem trivial, but a question not clearly answered in the rules is whether you should take a penalty every time you think you might have infringed. In the confusion of a busy mark rounding there can be a temptation to sail on and ignore penalty turns even if a collision occurred. But does that matter if no one shouted?

Photo: Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

Photo: Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

“The sport should be self-policing and competitors should have a thorough knowledge of the rules, respect them and stand up to anyone else flouting them,” says Ian Barker, Olympic coach and former RYA coach.” If you stick to that principle then there is less need for the protest and judged aspects.”

To try to solve these sticky issues a growing number of major regattas are adopting umpiring or juries to observe the racing. But some argue it’s an imperfect solution, reducing the emphasis on self- policing because the attitude is that unless an umpire flags you, why put your hand up?

“The jury room remains a place of mystery and should be avoided at all cost,” says Barker. “There is not a case I can think of that a penalty on the water would not have been better than going into the room.”

Five times ISAF match racing world champion Ian Williams agrees that on-water umpiring can help, but believes there are ways of achieving better rules observance.

“I think that umpiring can be a good solution when the resources allow reasonably consistent decisions,” he says. “But it is an expensive solution and can be very inconsistent when many boats are involved. I think our sport could make greater use of video. If the competitors know a situation has been videoed then they would be more inclined to be truthful in protest hearings.

“As a result, the protest system would be used more by the competitors, which in turn would lead to more voluntary penalties on the water. The America’s Cup now does this in real time at great cost, but it is not a huge cost to have somebody pointing a video camera at the boats at each mark rounding.”

Lodging protests

Although the turns penalty system means protests and penalties can be done and dusted on the water, if place penalties are being used a yellow flag is needed, as is displaying a red protest flag on boats over 6m. Deciding to lodge a protest requires you to inform the other boat, not always easy when yachts are dispersing from the course area to different marinas, so you need to grab the chance when you can.

Even if the race committee is keeping tabs on who is flying what flag at the finish, don’t expect them to be protesting wrongdoing during the race. They will penalise boats for OCS and may note other infringements on the startline, but otherwise it’s the competitors who must do the policing. That includes checking the result sheet before the protest deadline to ensure a penalty acceptance has been lodged, something that can be conveniently forgotten as the après sail beckons.

An infringement at the mark. The culprit must take a penalty. Photo: Daniel Forster/Rolex

An infringement at the mark. The culprit must take a penalty. Photo: Daniel Forster/Rolex

“There is certainly a feeling among on-the-water judges and umpires that unless boats act, why should the judge/umpire?” says Chris Simon. “The absence of any protest by a boat can be construed as the boat not being aggrieved. This is something I try to cover in pre-race briefing.”

Bryan Willis believes that if there is an incident between two boats, but neither party is aggrieved then jury members on the water will not take action. For example, in a situation in light airs when boats raft up at a turning mark, it is not a part of the jury’s role to lodge protests, since no one is aggrieved.

But he also believes that if jury members see a boat hitting a mark and it is obvious the sailors knew about the contact, yet the boat doesn’t take a penalty, they will lodge a protest and if it is upheld, the boat will not just be disqualified, but will have to count the DSQ in their overall score (under Rule 2). The difference is that in the second case, every other competitor is disadvantaged.

Basically, if a skipper knows he has broken a rule and the other party is aggrieved, then he/she is required by the fundamental rules to take a penalty.

The fine line of fair play also extends to boat measurement and equipment. Sailing with bigger sails than those rated may be fairly obvious and tales of offshore boats making unexpected gains after nightfall may have been eradicated by GPS tracking, but only spot checks or a whistle blower will reveal the temptations that remain invisible below deck or round the headland.

It might be a genuine mistake and easily put right, but if you do take it to a protest committee, there are IRC rules that deal with this. If a rating review shows an error of less than 0.005 then the committee may require the results to be recalculated, but can also penalise the boat.

“Ninety-five per cent of rating discrepancies turn out to be measurement errors or ignorance, not deliberate, and if you think another boat has a wrong handicap or is using sails they shouldn’t then my advice is talk to the other guy first before protesting,” says Mike Urwin, technical director of RORC Rating Office.

One-design cheats

Development class rules can be open to creative measurement interpretation, but strict one-design classes provide less scope for an unfair speed advantage. Even so, the potential gains from saggy guardwires or excessive crew weight can draw the unwary to the dark side through peer pressure or the desire to win at any cost.

“Everyone wants a good rating and I look at it a bit like tax avoidance and tax evasion. Knowingly doing the latter is cheating,” continues Urwin. “It comes down to one’s personal moral compass; if you accidentally leave the flares ashore then just make sure you don’t do it again, but if you’ve spotted that you raced with an oversized sail, then do the right thing and retire from the race.”

In one-design classes Ian Barker believes there is work to be done: “One area that does need to be tightened up is class rules. Very often there are big grey areas in class rules that lead to suspicion and rumours.”

So does rules observance vary across the sport? Bryan Willis believes it does: “The culture is much more uniform at the top level, but there is much more dishonesty. Nowadays rule knowledge is much better than it used to be and ISAF juries give consistency across the fleet, but the biggest problem in the sport is lying. Did you shout ‘protest’?, ‘yes’, and did you hear ‘protest’?, ‘No’, is a prime example.’

And what of the next generation, how should they be encouraged to strike the balance about playing by the rules?

“By giving a good example to young sailors,” says Chris Simon, “and teaching them that protests are a tactical opportunity, not a gladiatorial exercise, we can encourage them to sail by the rules.”

Relevant rules

Rule 2 Fair Sailing

A boat and her owner shall compete in compliance with recognised principles of sportsmanship and fair play. A boat may be penalised under this rule only if it is clearly established that these principles have been violated. A disqualification under this rule shall not be excluded from the boat’s series score.

Rule 69 Allegations of Gross Misconduct

Obligation not to commit gross misconduct:

(a) A competitor shall not commit gross misconduct, including a gross breach of a rule, good manners or sportsmanship, or conduct bringing the sport into disrepute. Throughout Rule 69, ‘competitor’ means a member of the crew, or the owner, of a boat.

Click here to see the whole of Rule 69

Words of wisdom from Bryan Willis

When an invalid protest is no excuse:

If a protest is lodged, but ruled as invalid (perhaps because there was no hail of ‘protest’), if the jury is satisfied that the protestee knew at the time that he had broken a rule, an experienced jury will interview him and if he doesn’t agree to retire, the jury would consider opening a hearing under Rule 69.

This is an extract from a feature in Yachting World May 2015