The Corinthian Conundrum

Published on September 28th, 2017

Play nice or play to win? In this Sailing World report, Jonathan Mckee ponders this competitive tussle we have every time we line up to race.

I was racing on an owner-driven J/70 at a recent regatta, and we were a little early while approaching the start. We luffed our sails to slow. Then I saw it: a boat coming in from behind with speed. We bore away to accelerate and defend our hole, but we were too slow to match its speed.

The other boat, crewed by an experienced match racer, sailed close to leeward and luffed us. We tried to respond but it was so close, there was nothing we could do to keep clear. It sailed into our luffing jib and hailed “Protest.”

We argued for a moment and then did our penalty circle, even though we didn’t feel we’d fouled. We felt we had done all we could to keep clear, but our chances would be slim in a protest, and more important, our social hour after ­sailing would be wasted in the protest room.

The experience got me thinking about the way we interact with our competitors. Yes, we got too close to the line and had to slow, and I should have seen them coming sooner, so there’s no denying we put ourselves in a vulnerable spot.

However, my experience is that typically in this scenario, the leeward boat simply prevents the weather boat from getting a good acceleration rather than forcing them to spin circles. Knowing the tactician of the other boat, I should’ve been aware that a more punishing outcome was likely, but my mind was in the mode of friendly Corinthian sailing, not stick-it-to-them, eliminate-the-competition match racing.

I wondered afterward: What are the social rules of play for quasi-Corinthian classes like the J/70? Is it no-holds-barred, use the rules to punish the other guy racing? Or should the rules be applied to simply prevent boats from hitting each other?

I have no problem racing either way, and I enjoy using the rules for tactical advantage myself, but I wonder if the racing would be more fun for everyone if top teams applied a softer approach?

I also wonder whether it’s necessary to do all you can to slow the boats around you at the start, even if it does not improve one’s own start. The situation I experienced is a common one: Two boats are overlapped approaching the line, and the leeward boat dictates when the weather boat can put the bow down and go.

They can do this in such a way that the weather boat can still get off the line, albeit compromised, or they can try to crush the weather boat with a late and high-speed build. Why is it necessary or even desirable to do that if it doesn’t improve your own start?

And here’s another one to consider: Do we treat boats differently depending on who is on board? Personally, I tend to be a little more relaxed about rules compliance when the other boat is less skilled, but is that really the right attitude? Every class has an innate competitive spirit. Some classes are cut-throat, others are more casual. These are social rules, however, not racing rules.

I believe it’s important to try to embrace the ethos of the class, even it means occasional compromises in competitive possibilities. In a grand-prix class, for example, it might be acceptable to drive another boat back in the fleet to beat them in the regatta, while in a grass-roots class, that might be considered a breach of etiquette.

I am in no way questioning the skills or ethics of the other team in my story. They were marginally within their rights to try to make us do a penalty turn, and they skillfully executed a very aggressive maneuver. But just because you can do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

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