Thursday, July 15, 2010

Communication with the Race Committee

Last weekend I was at a regatta, and before the first race, I asked the Race Committee to confirm my understanding of the course. Their response was to point to a placard and say “course 6.” Well, that was helpful. If I had known what course 6 was, I wouldn’t have been asking the question. I realize I was a dolt for not having committed the 7 different courses in the sailing instructions to memory. I was even more foolish for deciding that there‘s no good way to carry reading material on a laser. And I was an irresponsible competitor to have tried to depend on the kindness of strangers to explain what had already been explained clearly enough in those sailing instructions next to the regatta tee shirt in my car. Clearly I deserved to be punished.

Needless to say, I was. The convergence of my reckless negligence with the unlikely good fortune to be leading the first race led to the inevitable tragedy of my snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. To finish the course, I managed to sail upwind back to the start line, while the competitors way behind me sailed to the real finish line which it turns out was not nearly so far upwind. While sailing to the “correct” side of the course, I succeeded in sailing around the real finish by so far that I didn’t even see it. Subsequently returning to the real finish, I recorded a 5 and was grateful for the small laser turnout for the regatta.

I get it - understanding all the sailing instructions is part of racing. But really! Is it too much to ask the race committee to explain their unique course designations to a visitor?

This all leads to the general question of how much the Race Committee should communicate with the sailors. At pre-race skippers’ meetings, it has been standard practice for years for the PRO to answer questions with the magic, unhelpful phrase “refer to the sailing instructions.” This has always impressed me as being unfriendly, if not arrogant. It suggests a tone of seriousness or gravity that is contrary to the expectations of most of the sailors I know. For most of us, this is supposed to be fun.
“Refer to the sailing instructions” sounds like homework, when we are looking for recess.

I realize that the thinking is that the PRO or Race Committee should be careful not say anything to contradict the carefully written sailing instructions. While there is some merit to this reasoning, it seems to me that it goes way overboard for any but the most serious high stakes regattas. The risk of offering explanations and clarifications to the instructions is that one could actually increase confusion or introduce contradictions that then could result in some disastrous consequence that in turn could cause a protest or even skew the results of the event. Does that seem likely? Are the explanations really likely to be so bad that they would do more harm than good? In a time when there is a need to attract more people to sailing, what is more important – covering for the remote possibility of an imperfect explanation by the Race Committee or establishing a friendly atmosphere where everyone enjoys the sailing experience?

One of the high school coaches I work with always tells the sailors “if you have any questions, ask; if you are confused about the course, ask the race committee – it’s not supposed to be a mystery.” I know that I would be happier if events were run with this philosophy. I admit that I was the stupid one last weekend, but who wants to win or lose because one of the sailors misunderstood the course?


  1. 1. You forgot to mention that you won the regatta in spite of the unhelpfulness of the RC. Congratulations!

    2. When I went to a US Sailing Race Management Course a few years ago, the general advice was that the RC should be helpful to the sailors and answer questions when asked. This "refer to the SIs" shit is very old school and not at all the recommended best practice these days as I understand it.

    3. When faced with a variety of complicated courses in the SIs I do sometimes put the relevant page in a ziploc bag and duct tape it to my deck.

    Congrats again. See you Saturday I hope.

  2. "Read the Sailing Instructions" may even run counter to the Americans with Disabilities Act. As an instructor at a community college, I have students with learning (and other) disabilities. For some of them, reading is a struggle. To comply with the ADA, the college has a department of Special Services that analyzes the needs of each student and issues a confidential memo to the student's instructors as to what sort of additional assistance the student needs. And yes, many of them need assistance in the form of tape recordings or other aural means.

    Any RC who instructed an individual with this type of disability to "Read the SIs" would be violating the ADA.

    Of course, even if you're not worrying about the ADA, it's just plain nice to give sailors clarification.

  3. I'm totally old-school on this. Why should a sailor who has the foresighted ziploc bag preparation have his advantage neutralized by people asking the RC for help and directions on the water? If you have served as RC, you would know that if you answer one question, 20 more will follow.

  4. Carol Anne - Once in a while I coach a kid with a special ed. plan, but most of my teen age sailors act like they have ADD anyway. No use fighting it. We all have lots of things going on, and it's easy to miss what turns out to be important instructions. I just try to have more fun with it than frustration.
    Doc - I frequently serve as RC - 4-6 regattas a year, 12 head to head high school team race meets, and a few other days at the local club. Sometimes I get a few questions, but then the word spreads about whatever was confusing and then everybody understands. I would much rather explain things (even if it got aggravating) than see an event marred buy confusion that I could have avoided.

    At our local regatta today, I saw an out of town a kid with SIs in a plastic bag. I was impressed, but while he was trying to get them out of the bag, I just explained the course to him. It seemed easier, and hopefully he will come back and sail with us again.

  5. I can also understand the RC point of view that no only is there a danger of re-interpreting the rules or course, but there's also a danger of giving help to some boats but not others. Probably a lot of RC people have been yelled at in the past.

    And it's hard to imagine anything more disconcerting than a purple-faced fat old guy yelling belligerently and threatening to give himself a heart attack.

    One hopes that, if the NORs and SI's are written well and not to confusing, and mark layers do their job on the course, then the racers will take responsibility for their part.

  6. as a newbie to sailing, I would find that very frustrating. I can pretty much guarantee that I wouldn't think to bring the race course layouts with me, and I would have thought that is what the committee was for (helping out with ???, that is).

  7. Pat, I think you are right in saying that many RCs avoid answering questions for fear they may give out wrong information and then have some sailor file a request for redress against them (for sailing the wrong course for example.) I have never understood this though. If the PRO of all people doesn't know exactly what the course is then he/she shouldn't be doing that job.

    I think some RCs also worry about Rule 41 which forbids a sailor from receiving "outside help." But there is a specific exception in Rule 41 for help in the form if information freely available to other boats, which surely includes anything that is specified in the SIs?

  8. And some race committees may use "Read your SI's" as a cover for "We're afraid if we answer your questions that we'll lose our focus and forget the start sequence or forget where we were going to have the mark buoys put or, worst of all, not give the PRO time to finish his morning coffee."