Why People Don’t Protest Each Other (and Why They Should)

A couple of incidents when I was racing last year got me thinking about our attitude to enforcing the rules when sailing.

It was a light wind race, force 1 to 2 and after a so-so start I was approaching the windward mark in third.

I tacked for the windward mark right on the layline, with the guy ahead of me coming across on port and clearing me by one to two boatlengths. He went past me and tacked right on my wind, giving me a problem – I was now in bad air meaning my approach to the windward mark would be slow, and my pointing was affected by him too (because of the bad air) so I may not quite lay the mark.

So I decided to do two quite quick tacks to clear my air and give myself a better approach. I tacked onto port, but so did he – which surprised me as I thought he would comfortably lay the mark.

I then tacked back onto starboard, and as my tacks were better than his we were now on collision course.

But before I had the chance to tell him to keep going, and that I would duck him, he tacked onto starboard as well. Right in my water. I couldn’t even luff up to avoid him and we had a gentle bump.

I only had the chance to say “Erm…” before he apologised and bore off to do his 720 – fair play to him. So far, so good.

Now, we were sailing a triangle course, and I had a good reach to round the wing mark in first. I was a little way down the second reach when I heard yelling from behind, and saw a group of four boats line abreast approaching the wing mark, having a frank and open discussion about who should have water from whom.

They got to the mark and all four boats were touching, the inside boat hitting the mark and the boat outside her, and each boat outside them touching the next.

Not one boat called a protest or did penalty turns. Not one.

This produced a number of thoughts (in this order):

  1. What the…?
  2. Why are we racing if boats don’t stick to the rules?
  3. Do people think I’m a bit of a gobshite  because I call them on rules infringements and do turns when I infringe?

I suspect that the guy who did his turns for me at the windward mark did them partly because he is a good guy, and partly because he knew that I wouldn’t just pretend it had never happened.

I also know that the guys who didn’t do their turns at the wing mark are good people, but they knew that no-one would protest or even really mention the incident again. But I also think there is a chance that they weren’t 100% sure who was in the right, and they didn’t want to have what feels like an argument about a situation in which they were unsure of their own correctness.

The thing is, I don’t think that it is ok to say “I’m not sure who was in the right in this situation, so let’s just let it go”, which is essentially what happened here, for these reasons:

  • It is unfair on all the other competitors. Some of the boats behind may have got a better result if the infringer(s) had done their penalty turns – possibly improving their finishing position in the series.
  • There is no point in taking part in a competition if people don’t stick to the rules.
  • People gradually take more risks and get themselves into bad situations because they realise that most times no-one is going to insist they take a penalty.
  • People that do enforce the rules (like me) feel like the kid at school that’s always saying “ the teacher said we should…”, and no-one wants to be that kid.
  • It can lead to more unnecessary aggression on the water – (I had an incident once where I hit a leeward mark (at an event, not a club race), I turned to the guy behind me and said, unprompted, “I hit that, I’m going to do my turns”. His response was “I know you did – so bloody do them”, followed 3 seconds later by “do your f*!%$!g turns”, followed 3 seconds later by the same comment. I couldn’t believe the level of aggression, especially as I had said I would do my penalty, but maybe he was just used to people not doing their penalties).

So what should be done? My own feeling is that none of the sailors I race against wants to cheat, so it isn’t a case of having to deal with people wilfully breaking the rules. In fact, I think they’d be horrified if someone were to suggest to them that that was what they were doing. It is more the case that they haven’t got a channel through which to deal with the situations that arise in a way that they don’t perceive to be

Down with that sort of thing. Who's afraid of protests?a)      more aggressive or confrontational than they would like

b)      confusing and /or unfathomable to someone who is essentially sailing for fun

I’ve come across a few articles which touch on this topic or topics close to it, and some of the ideas suggested are quite good. Here are my thoughts on what clubs might do to try and deal with this issue.

Send out a communication detailing a new approach to rules infringements on the water which explains:

  • very clearly that protests are not an act of aggression, they are a means to resolving a differing of views.
  • that the club wants to help sailors learn the intricacies of the rules better, and the new approach is a way of doing this.
  • that a sailor will no longer be disqualified if they lose a protest. Instead their result will be penalised by 20%.
  • that all protests will be dealt with in public, allowing anyone that wants to watch the protest system in action to be able to do so.

I would also add to these two more optional points:

  • any incident witnessed by the race committee, rescue boats or other racers not directly involved in the incident, where neither protagonist does a penalty or protests, will be subject to a protest hearing.
  • That the penalty for an infringement be reduced to a 360, rather than a 720

The purpose of these changes is to change the perception of the sailors involved:

First, take as much of the confrontation/aggression out of the situation as possible by presenting protests as what they are: a means of untangling a situation, of clarifying a difference of opinion. The person you are protesting isn’t going to get thrown out of the race (assuming they lose the protest), and there is a tacit understanding that it is not that they think they were definitely in the right, just that they are not certain they were in the wrong.

Second, by opening the protest up for people to watch, there is an element of education about the proceedings, as sailors get the chance to learn about the rules in action. Hopefully they’ll also see that there is nothing to be feared by protesting someone else.

It is a tricky thing to deal with, as the self-policing nature of sailing is open to abuse, but also to apathy. The longer-term problem with letting things go is that slowly but surely people begin to sense that more aggressive or more risky sailors gain an unfair advantage, and some of the fun goes out of the competition.

5 thoughts on “Why People Don’t Protest Each Other (and Why They Should)

    • Absolutely. I’ve actually only protested someone once (mostly to avoid looking like an asshole) and that person happened to be the late Andrew Simpson, back when I sailed Optimists. What a person to choose! I can’t remember for sure, but I think he retired rather than go through the protest.

      In hindsight I should have been delighted that I was mixing it with a future Olympic Gold Medallist…

  1. A very excellent article, which makes needed points. For much of my sailing life, I have felt like lone enforcer of the rules. I have always preferred racing to day sailing, possibly because handling of boats is — or should — be predicable. But racing without rule enforcement amounts to nothing else than risk-taking group day sailing. Which is bad as it can get out there.

    Now, as I drift into the twilight of my sailing days, I sense that I have drifted into becoming less technical and more forgiving. If this continues, I fear I might even become careless. Hopefully, this fine article will serve as my wake up signal.

    Finally, thanks to Tillerman for introducing me to this attractive and thoughtful blog!

  2. A increasingly popular approach from down under….make an arbitration mandatory before a protest is heard. Get one or more old wise heads to host a relatively informal arbitration, (ie with beers), and see if the two parties can agree to a resolution before the formalities of a protest kick in

  3. Thanks Doc. There’s a fine line between being forgiving and letting things go that should be dealt with, isn’t there? I really like Luke’s Aussie solution as it is less confrontational and more of a learning experience. Taking a discussion of actual rules situations off the water, and analysing what happened, is the best way to get fair racing in the long run, I reckon. Plus, a beer always helps…

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