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Guide to running sailboat races

Published on April 17th, 2023

John Palizza, a Regional Race Officer and Club Judge from Lake Bluff, Illinois, shares this practical guide to acting as a Principal Race Officer:

The best race committees are transparent, races start on time, courses are clearly designated, the starting sequence runs smoothly and scoring is done quickly and accurately. The competitors come in after racing and they don’t even think about the race committee. Alas, in the real world, it ain’t necessarily so.

As a competitor, how many times have you headed out to the course area ready to start racing only to be forced to sail back and forth for what seems to be an interminable period while you waited for the race committee to do its thing? Or how many times on weeknight beer can races has the starting line been so skewed that there is a pileup at one end because you can barely lay the line on the other tack?

Or it’s your turn to run your club’s weekly races, which everyone has to do once a year, and although you’ve been racing for many years, you only have a vague notion of what occurs on the race committee boat?

What I hope to lay out in this article is a practical guide to acting as a Principal Race Officer so that you won’t embarrass yourself and to help you can avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made over the years. It won’t make you ready to run the Olympics, but it should allow you to competently run most club events.

If I’m lucky, I may even persuade a few of you to give back to the sport, take US Sailing’s Club Race Officer certification and to take on a regatta or two.

Step One: Do the Paperwork
All races are governed by a Notice of Race and the Sailing Instructions. These two documents form the blueprint of what the race committee has to do.

Important things such as a requirement to check in with the race committee, the starting sequences for the classes of boats sailing, the class flags being used, the courses that can be sailed, what the marks and the starting and finishing lines look like, time limits, and scoring are all covered in these documents.

If you have been asked to run a regatta, you should be intimately familiar with them, as you should have either written or reviewed them.

With season long series, it’s a little different, as the Notice of Race and the Sailing Instructions are usually posted to the club’s website at the start of the season and often thereafter forgotten. Competitors who have been sailing in the season series for years are often guilty of not re-reading the Sailing Instructions each year.

So here’s Practical Tip Number 1: Just because a competitor hasn’t read the Sailing Instructions doesn’t mean the race officer can skip them. It is absolutely crucial that the race officer knows the content of the Notice of Race and the Sailing Instructions.

The ideal is that you know them off the top of your head, but practically, it’s enough to know where to look when a question arises. So take 10 minutes to give a close read to these documents, and have them with you on the RC boat. It can save you a lot of heartburn later.

Step Two: Get Your Ducks in a Row
When I was a Boy Scout, I was taught to “Be Prepared”. The same holds true for a race officer when it comes to equipment. At a primitive level, you can run races with just a piece of string on a stick, a good sense of direction, and a watch. However, if you want to do things right, there is a lot of equipment that is needed.

This is complicated by the fact that you are never quite sure what is going to be provided by the club. Some venues do a great job.

For example, at the Houston Yacht Club when I first started working on race committee, the harbor master prepared a bag with all of the flags, zip ties, score sheets, and everything else you needed. You just went to his office and picked it up. If the bag was zip tied shut you knew that he had checked it and you were good to go.

Many clubs, especially smaller clubs, are not as well organized and will have some, but probably not everything you should have, scattered around the club and the RC vessel.

The very best race officers I have known assume nothing will be provided and show up at regattas with their own flags, GPS, startbox, and assorted paraphernalia they need to get races off. As this is not practical unless you are planning on doing a lot of race officer work, here’s Practical Tip Number 2: Work from checklists to see what they have, what may need to be gathered up, and what you need to bring. Click here for checklists for both the RC vessel and mark set vessels.

Step Three: Let’s Get Things Going
There is an easy, but commonly overlooked way to insure that races start on time and it occurs when you set the schedule well in advance of race day. This is because most schedules leave inadequate time between the competitors’ meeting and the first warning. This results in sailors being forced to sail around under a postponement flag and wait for the race committee to get the course set up.

Now it’s time for Practical Tip Number 3: When writing the schedule in the Sailing Instructions, leave adequate time between the competitors’ meeting where the race officer is expected to speak, and the first warning.

The amount of time will vary depending on the venue, how far you have to go to set up the course, whether you are using drop marks, and other factors. But, I guarantee that the 30 minutes you often see in SIs is not enough time to get things ready to go.

None of this means that you have to delay the start of racing for the day. There is no rule that says that the competitors’ meeting has to be after the skippers have rigged their boats and are ready to go. Simply hold the competitors’ meeting earlier in the day and then let the skippers go back and rig their boats.

If you are race committee for a season long series where there typically is no competitors’ meeting, the solution is even simpler: leave the dock with enough time so that you are not rushed in setting up the course.

Step Four: Getting Things Set Up
Race officers should always keep one important maxim in mind: The competitors did not come out to watch the race committee set up courses; they came out to race. Therefore, setting the course quickly and efficiently goes a long way towards making for successful races. This means you get to the race course well in advance of the racers and decide where the start line should be and then start taking wind readings.

After 15 – 20 minutes you should have a pretty good idea of what the wind is currently doing. That, combined with the forecasts you have looked at and, if you are lucky, local knowledge, should allow you to formulate a plan for the race(s). Now you can set your windward mark and start line, announce the course and get the starting sequence going.

Wait, you say, don’t all of the marks need to be in the water and the course completely set before you start the sequence? The answer is no. As a matter of fact, although I don’t recommend this, the windward mark doesn’t even have to be set before you start the race and you can be moving a starting mark up until the preparatory signal.

So if you really want to move things along efficiently, I recommend you get your upwind mark set, get your start line done and start your first sequence. Your mark set vessels can worry about setting the other marks while the fleet is headed up to the first mark. This will save the fleet from sitting around waiting for everything to be set up and it really speeds things up if you are working with limited resources, such as only one mark set vessel.

Step Five: Things Change
As sailors we all know that the wind is not constant; it changes speed and direction with some frequency. This is just as true for race committees as it is for sailors. It is a rare occasion when the wind direction remains constant throughout the day. And on inland lakes? As they say in New Jersey, “fuhgeddaboudit”.

A corollary to the maxim listed in Step Four is that most sailors would rather be racing on a course that is slightly off than waiting around for a perfect race course. If the wind is oscillating, find the median of the oscillation and get your race off before things change dramatically. If the wind is shifting persistently, try and anticipate where it is going and set your course a little ahead of it.

I’ve worked inland lake regattas where we were getting oscillations of up to 60 degrees. If we had waited to set a perfect course, we would have made the fleet wait all day. Sometimes you just have to pick a course you think is reasonable and fair, given the conditions, and go with it.

If you are running multiple races, you may find that the wind has shifted enough during a race that you want to reset the course for the next race. Here’s Practical Tip Number 4: Don’t wait until all boats have finished to reset the marks.

Have your mark set vessel waiting at the windward mark to move it to its new position as soon as the last boat rounds the mark. Then you can reset the start line, get the fleet off and worry about the other marks. Obviously, if you are using a combined start/finish line, you can’t move the line until the last boat finishes the race.

Step Six: Starting and Finishing
As a race committee, the two areas you can get into trouble are the starts and the finishes. Racers may grumble that the course was not perfect, but there is no rule that says that it has to be. But, if the race committee doesn’t get the start right or screws up the finishing order, you may be spending time in the protest room as a competitor may ask for redress for those errors.

The standard five minute starting sequence is relatively simple; two flags and four horns. There is simply no excuse for getting it wrong, yet I have seen it done multiple times at beer can races. Charitably, I put this down to inattention.

The person who is responsible for the horn or the flag is chatting with a friend or otherwise distracted and is late with the horn or the flag. Don’t let this happen!

The principal race officer or timer should be counting down to each action, for example, “30 seconds to P flag up and one horn.” Never assume that people know how the sequence works or where they are in the sequence. A little attention to detail here can save a lot of pain later.

The opportunities for distractions or missing something are even greater at the finish, as competitors may be sailing up to the committee boat and informing you of their intent to protest, just as a bunch of boats are approaching the finish line or five or six boats all finish at the same time and your scribe simply can’t keep up.

So here is Practical Tip Number 5: always have the scores taken down by at least two sources – the race officer dictating into a recorder (almost all smart phones have voice recorder functions these days) and a scribe writing things down.

I can’t tell you how many times this has cleared up things post race, when you discover that a finisher did not get written down in the heat of action. Having a voice recording to go back to sure beats tracking down competitors and asking them who finished around them.

Step Seven: Work from a Playbook
Commercial airline pilots still utilize a checklist every time they take off. There is no rule that says you have to remember everything that you have to do to run races and when to do them. With the multitude of things that should happen to run a good race, it makes sense to work from a checklist. For people who don’t run races all of the time, using a checklist will insure that all of the bases are covered. Click here for the PRO checklist.

Step Eight: It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over
Once the races are over, the race committee needs to record the time and publish the time limit for filing a protest or request for redress. The rules state that this is two hours last boat finishes, however, this is often changed by the Sailing Instructions.

Commonly used at events are when the committee boat docks or when the last competitor reaches the shore or docks. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to score the event. Finally, put away all the RC stuff and strive put it away better than you found it – DONE!

Reprinted courtesy of US Sailing Race Management Committee,

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