When in doubt, put tiller towards trouble

Published on March 18th, 2020

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt Sailing News
The collision between two J Class yachts has captivated our sport. Not often do these 140+ footers compete, and when they do, all effort is made to maintain safe distances. But to have a T-bone collision, and for it to be on video, has given voice to significant commentary

This observation by Jack Karabasz is similar to many:
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Incredible video…no excuse for professionals to make these mistakes! Certainly the fault was the port tack yacht’s duty to keep clear, however, when the skipper of the starboard yacht altered course to windward to luff, that maneuver exacerbated the situation.

As the starboard vessel turns to windward, the stern swings well to leeward and her forward speed slows only further inhibiting the port tack vessel from keeping clear as she bears off.

IMHO, the proper action of the starboard skipper to avoid a collision would have been to alter course sharply to leeward so that by bearing away the stern would swing away from the collision and likely accelerate forward thus giving the port yacht more room to avoid. So again, IMHO, the redress was overly generous to the starboard yacht.
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All very reasonable, but what the video does not detail is the actions before the footage began, which apparently had Svea turning up to tack below Topaz. This is what prompted Topaz to initially head up to make space, but then Svea bore away, which is when the footage began.

Ultimately, when trying to turn these 175 ton yachts, nothing happens fast, which is good reason for this clause in the Notice of Race:

“If the organizing authority receives corroborative or substantiated reports of a yacht being handled in an overaggressive, unseamanlike or unsafe manner, it may excuse the yacht from the regatta and/or declare the yacht and/or its afterguard members ineligible for future Superyacht Challenge Antigua regattas, with or without a hearing.”

It should also be noted how there were two Umpire RIBs that witnessed the entire incident and all the officials were in agreement with the facts found.

Beyond the Racing Rules of Sailing that were referred to within the Protest Decision (Rule 10 – On Opposite Tacks to Port, Rule 14 – Avoiding Contact), it is good to note the relevance of Case 50 and 88.

The two cases make it clear that once a starboard-tack boat (S) has a “reasonable apprehension of contact,” that is the moment she “needs” to take action to avoid a collision (Rule 14 also says that a right of way boat need not take action to avoid contact until it is “clear” that the keep-clear boat is not keeping clear; that is the same moment as when S has a reasonable apprehension of contact).

Assuming S had a reasonable apprehension of contact before it changed course, that was the moment P failed to keep clear and broke Rule 10. Any course change by S after that moment is not a breach of Rule 16.1 (Changing Course) because P was already not keeping clear before the course change…and the course change may have been an attempt (albeit an unsuccessful one) to avoid the contact as required by Rule 14.

As Svea was aiming for Topaz, S’s helmsman was correct in their concern about being hit by P, so S’s helmsman did the understandable thing in the few seconds they had to deal with an impending collision which is to put the “tiller towards trouble.”

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