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Rules for the Racing Rules of Sailing

Published on March 24th, 2022

Internationally published journalist and writer Roger Vaughan, with 18 books to his credit, sees topics and captures them in words. His biographies of National Sailing Hall of Fame inductees Ted Turner and Harry Anderson, and Olympic medal making coach Victor Kovalenko, are legendary.

With the Racing Rules of Sailing as a popular topic to embrace and criticize, Vaughan offers this observation:

All sports have rules that govern play, but sailing is different. The rules that govern sailing are based on the rules that govern traffic on the water; rules designed to prevent collisions.

Racing sailboats is very aggressive traffic all trying to get to the same place before the other guy does. The Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) are akin to the rules of the highway. The boat on starboard tack is a stop sign. The overtaking boat must keep clear just as an overtaking car on the highway must. And so on.

RRS get complicated because more than any sport, the rules for sailing are an integral component of strategy. RRS get complicated because the very best sailors are always coming up with creative ways to employ the rules, or beat them.

For that reason, RRS are rewritten every four years – after the Olympics, after complex appeals often requiring lawyers. As a result, the rules get increasingly complex.

For years I’ve been racing in a Friday night club series that does not allow protests. We all know the basic rules and abide by them. There’s occasional yelling on the start line, but I don’t recall anything that hasn’t been worked out between boats.

I also race radio-controlled Lasers. Protests there are handled between skippers, with input, if necessary, from the PRO. Racing 40-inch boats that can be 80 or 100 feet away from you makes calling all but obvious fouls very difficult. When we foul someone, we do a turn.

Racing boats is supposed to be fun. If it’s a grand prix regatta, you better know the rules intimately, and have a lawyer on your team. Otherwise, knowing the basic rules, sailing like gentlemen and women, and keeping it simple, seems like the best way for the rest of us to ensure having fun at this game.

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