Monday, May 4, 2009

Learning to Embrace the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS)

After coaching high school kids, watching them struggle with the RRS, and serving on too many protest committees for my liking, I observe a 7 stage process high school sailors follow as they simultaneously develop their sailing skills and try to learn and use the rules. It might be true for adults too, but probably with less yelling (in most cases) and a little more civilized behavior. Girls, with some notable exceptions, also follow the pattern with more civilized behavior.

  1. Intimidation. Both the rules and the more experienced sailors are intimidating. There are too many rules to learn, so the kids focus on three right of way rules - starboard port, windward leeward, clear ahead and clear astern. The only goal is avoiding collisions. In most situations the one who yells the loudest intimidates the other and gets right of way. Hollering “PORT” with enough authority is likely to get the starboard boat to forget the opposite tacks rule and to tack away, and the starboard boat is a long way from knowing about Rule 2, Fair Sailing.
  2. I’m not gonna take it anymore! Tired of being bullied, sailors figure out when they have right of way, and they have heard something about tacking too close and room at the mark. They are confident in their grasp of a few bits of the rules, don’t back down to loud yelling, and end up in the protest room talking about the rules they don’t yet fully understand.
  3. I AM the right of way boat! Empowered with the idea that they are the right of way boat, sailors command other boats to move out of the way while ignoring the sailing realities of clear air and the abilities of boats to change positions in real time and space. One of my favorites occurs on a beat when a boat is being overtaken by another boat slightly to windward. Our stage 3 sailor waits until the opponent is ¾ of a boat length ahead, then hollers “leeward” and comes up hard. Most often the windward boat avoids, letting the screamer sail into a totally blanketed position, and rolls our bewildered stage 3 sailor. Sometimes there is contact, a protest, and a DSQ for Stage 3 for failure to give windward room to keep clear. Another high school classic is the exclamation “don’t go in there” when they have room at a mark. The hollering occurs 90% of the time at this stage, but the screamer leaves so much room for the next boat that he only occasionally closes the gap to shut out the other boat..
  4. There’s no justice! Now our intrepid sailor has been in a few protest hearings and has suffered a disproportionate share of DSQ’s. Life is not fair. A few more of the rules come into consciousness, but now racing is to some degree a matter of matching cunning and power with the other competitors. Aggressive or passive behavior is determined by sizing up the other guy, by what he just learned at his last DSQ, and the sailor’s psychological response to stressful situations. Sailor behavior is totally unpredictable. There are a fair number of protests, and lots of discussions about the rules, mostly on an ad hoc basis. Somehow a better understanding of the rules emerges from this chaos, and the rule book as a whole is starting to make sense.
  5. We need a team lawyer! Our developing sailor has a decent grasp of the rules but now realizes that the facts according to the protestor are frequently different than the facts according to the protestee. Kids realize that they need to clearly explain themselves and present a coherent version of the incident. Being able to cite the appropriate rules also wins points in convincing a protest committee that one knows what he’s talking about. In the early part of this stage, the focus is on writing up the protest, which becomes a team effort with the best lawyer on the team helping the others. Toward the end of this stage a wonderful thing happens – the sailors start to clarify things with each other on the water! They talk about the overlap several boat lengths before the zone, and they negotiate luffing with statements like “you have to give me room to go up.”
  6. Master’s Degree in RRS. At this stage the silly protesting stops. The sailors know the fundamentals of the rules and how they apply in most situations. Protests occur when two boats justify their actions using different rules, each appearing to have validity, thus creating apparent contradictions or ambiguities in the rules. We had an interesting case recently. At a windward starboard mark rounding, boat A is stalled, setting a mark trap. Boat B comes in from port and tacks to windward of A and claims mark room as a result of an instantaneous overlap. How can a starboard boat who reaches the zone first lose mark room through no fault of his own? After the protest committee decided that B didn’t really have the overlap (and got us off the hook), we consulted an expert who said that if B had really done what he said he did, he would have been entitled to mark room. Wow! We all learned something new.
  7. Ninja Master. It seems to me this is the pinnacle of team race or match race sailing. Tactics and rules merge. In every situation, certain tactical moves are both allowed and limited by the rules, and sailors have to instantaneously process all information and act on it. I doubt that anything but lots of experience gets a sailor to this point. Maybe this is why I like team racing so much. It is an amazingly complex sport.

It’s a lot to ask of high school kids to evolve through these seven stages and to end at such a remarkably high level. Most adults I sail with are more at stage six than seven. Dave Perry, Dave Dellanbaugh and others write entire books on stage six situations, and readers are infrequently able to process information quickly enough for stage 7 performance.

What is amazing to me is that good high school sailors, college sailors, and the world class team and match racers reach such a high degree of mastery at such a young age.


  1. Yes, this progression applies as much to adult sailors as to younger ones. Here in New Mexico, club racing often involves sailors at different levels of evolution. Some people get the hang of it and catch on swiftly, while others seem to plateau at about level 4 or 5.

    I wonder whether maybe younger sailors have an advantage over those of us who didn't even get into sailing until much later in life.

  2. Very incite full.
    It would be interesting to hear what your think the best approach to kids in each of the stages is.
    I've posted a link on Look to Windward so that PC-members and judges will read your post.

  3. Achievement of the higher stages may depend upon having good feedback. Sailors who learn in an environment with ready access to sailing gurus (coaches, instructors, competent race and protest committees, clubs or schools that are eager to provide information) have an opportunity to progress rapidly. Sailors with fewer sources of guidance will take longer.