Erosion of Fair Sailing at the Club Level

Erosion of Fair Sailing at the Club Level

Published on December 2017 is an online platform that assists in the understanding of the racing rules and provides answers to rules questions. In this report by Angelo Guarino, he discusses the impact of how unhealthy mindsets are impacting the sport.

The very first things the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) establishes are the Basic Principles and the very first Principle is ‘Sportsmanship and the Rules’ which says:

“Competitors in the sport of sailing are governed by a body of rules that they are expected to follow and enforce. A fundamental principle of sportsmanship is that when competitors break a rule they will promptly take a penalty, which may be to retire.”

FOLLOWING the rules and ENFORCING the rules are the first things the RRS call upon us to do, and are of EQUAL importance. The second demand put upon us is to police ourselves, and take our penalty when we know we have committed a foul, regardless if we are protested or not.

Follow the rules. Enforce the rules on yourself and others. Do your turns if you commit a foul without being prompted or protested. Pretty simple stuff.

But, over many years in the sport, I’ve consistently observed some sailing-community “cultural mindsets” which suppress the even application of the RRS across the fleet and erode the adoption of this Basic Principal, and thus fair-sailing in club-level racing.

Some of these can be categorized as attitudes, others are peer-pressure and misunderstandings, but taken together they combine to suppress the improved-understanding and fair-application of the rules by inhibiting racers from embracing their responsibility to enforce the rules, not only to their benefit but more importantly for the benefit of all competitors in the race.

At the heart of these erroneous mindsets, is a me-centric point-of-view in deciding how to handle on-the-water fouls. These racers ask themselves…

“Can I ignore my foul because my competitor let me go by saying, ‘You owe me one!’?”

“Did the foul effect MY score or standing?”

“I am not in contention for silver, so why ruin a top boat’s chances?”

“Will I get a reputation if I keep protesting boats that foul me?”

I short-cut the above as…
• I owe you one.
• Was my score effected?
• I’m Not Worthy.
• Stigma.

I put this one first because it’s so emblematic of the me-centric thinking at the heart of the problem. The bottom line is that it is NOT at the discretion of a fouled-boat to let another boat off the hook. The rules are very clear. If a racer knows they have committed a foul, they must take a penalty whether they are protested or not. Period. A boat saying ‘I owe you one’ is acknowledging that they committed a foul and their intention to not take a penalty.

On the surface, this might seem “friendly”, but the absence of the fouled-boat’s protest, and the fouling-boat’s turns, cannot be described as anything less than collusion between boats to break the rules … basically forming a rule-breaking compact to benefit each other to the detriment of all other fleet competitors. When put in these terms, it becomes obvious how corrosive to fair competition for all “I owe you one” is.


I put the “my/your” in the title because this question is just as often asked by others as it is to ourselves. We’ve all had the experience of being asked after protesting, “well, did the foul really hurt you?”. The notion underlying this question is the idea that one needs to justify enforcing the rules based upon a calculation of whether or not the infraction was significant enough to affect the fouled-boat’s score. That somehow it is incumbent upon us to do a complicated analysis projecting the race forward and predict if infraction had a significant effect.

Again, it’s me-centric thinking which totally misses the point. The question is not, “Was the fouled boat harmed?”, but rather it is, “Was the fouling boat advantaged?” The fouling-boat is advantaged against all other racers in the fleet by not taking their proper penalty. Fair sailing requires all of us to enforce the rules upon ourselves and upon others regardless of the perceived gravity or impact of the foul upon the boat(s) directly involved.

I put this one between ‘Was my score effected’ and ‘Stigma’ because I feel it incorporates a little bit of both. There is pressure on boats who are at the bottom of the fleet’s standing to not ‘ruin-it’ for the top boats. This stratifies the fleet into sub-classes where the top boats can unfairly gain advantage when interacting with ‘lower boats’.

Some may think, ‘why protest as I know I won’t be in the mix anyway’. Others may associate top sailing performance with top understanding of the rules which results in an improper deference to the top boats during incidents.

But these concepts aren’t completely self-inflicted as I think there can be social pressure on boats that are consistently in the bottom half of the fleet to understand their place and that there are really two races going on … the race between the top boats and the race between everyone else.

Let’s face it, if you are a racer who accepts the RRS’s ‘Basic Principal – Sportsmanship and the Rules’ and accepts what it says, that it is each of our responsibility to enforce the rules to ensure fair sailing for all, you are going to feel peer-pressure to not be.

I’ve heard it coming from respected sailors suggesting that, ‘… you don’t want to get a reputation’… or ‘…you don’t want to be that-guy’. These are typically from those same top performers that are first to think it’s their prerogative to yell, ‘I owe you one’, or be the ones to ask ‘was your score effected?’ and fouling lower-performing boats figuring that they are protected from ‘I’m not worthy’ thinking.

Sometimes the Organizing Authority or Race Committee (OA/RC) can inadvertently support this environment with short-hand statements like, “Let’s keep the protests down,” at a pre-race briefing or, “We had very few protests .. ” at an awards ceremony, which could be misconstrued that protests should be avoided. Instead, they should be more deliberate and spell it out to support the Basic Principal with something like…

“Let’s have clean racing out there people. Follow the rules and if you know you fouled someone, just do your turns like you are supposed to. Let’s reserve the protest hearings for only those incidents where the foul or fault is in question”.

Or after the race, praising the number of turns they saw people do on the race course ….”We saw great sportsmanship out there, we saw boats doing their turns for clear fouls without any fanfare.”

Both of these would continue to remind and reinforce racers of their obligations and help support the correct mindset.

Concluding Remarks
I don’t have a silver-bullet to address this, but I think a first step is to shine light on it and start the conversation. There needs to be more emphasis on what the RRS’s Basic Principal says, means and how important it is in club-level racing. Somehow, we need to turn the page on the ME-centric thinking and the stigma and turn both 180 degrees on their heads. So that …

Instead of the one-on-one thinking that ‘I owe you one’ represents, we think about our responsibility to the entire fleet and how unfair it is to all competitors in a race for one boat to let another boat break a rule without penalty.

Instead of asking ourselves if the foul was significant enough to change MY score, realize that no one can project what advantage the fouling-boat might have gained, as even the smallest change in course might make the difference in that boat’s next crossing with another competitor.

It’s an impossible task to project all those outcomes, so let us just stop. The realization must be that a fouling boat has gained an incalculatable advantage against all other competitors in the fleet and that boat must take a penalty.

That lower performing boats need to evenly enforce the rules, not to improve their own score, but to ensure a fair race for all racers from the bottom of the fleet to the top.

And finally, that the stigma and reputational fear of protesting too much disappears and instead that reputational fear and stigma is turned toward its proper target… on those competitors that try to get away with fouling, on those who shirk their responsibility (for whatever reason) to enforce the rules for the benefit of all, and onto those who socially intimidate others from doing the right thing.