After a 3 hour protest hearing Comanche won their protest and Wild Oats was docked an hour to their finish time for the Sydney to Hobart Race. Comanche was then crowned the new line honors champion after the results of the protest. The aftermath from the much covered incident and protest has sparked a new discussion of the place protesting has in our sport. A certain level of stigma has been connected with filing a protest and “winning in the room.” The disdain for protests and using the rule book stems from a lack of use by most sailors of the protest system. Filing more protests will lead to a more fair, better educated, and ultimately more fun sailing experience.
Sailors generally are hesitant to file protests. Filing can create enemies and eat into much needed relaxation (drinking) time after a day on the water. The lax atmosphere has created an environment where rules are enforced haphazardly. By filing more often, we remove the stigma from a once in a blue moon event as it becomes common place. Equal and more common enforcement of the rules will make those who abuse the system more accountable and those who are unsure of the rules more knowledgeable. How often has a race ended with boats complaining of the actions of another without doing something about it?
The byproduct of this environment is more penalty turns being performed on the racecourse. On average a penalty turn will cost much less than the penalty assigned by the protest committee. If Wild Oats had taken the time to do two spins as allowed by the rules and Sailing Instructions, the team would have lost a lot less than the one hour imposed by the protest committee. Sailors can start using the penalty turn as a strategic option. Don’t want a questionable situation to go to the room where the odds are not in your favor? Do a quick spin on the water and avoid an afternoon of worry as to whether the competitor will file. Don’t want to do turns? Stay out of low percentage situations or bail out early when one arises.
Regatta and class organizers have made strides to making the protest and penalty process more user-friendly and less painful. The majority of events I sailed this summer switched to a one turn penalty for fouls taken outside the 3 boat length zone. A 360 is a very small penalty to take for a mistake. Major events are moving to used Appendix T which allows arbitration. A prehearing session allows the guilty party to take a percentage penalty and avoid a hearing that could lead is a DSQ. We use 3 minute justice in our Vanguard 15 fleet, where all protests are decided in a very short informal hearing judged by other fleet members. I applaud these efforts to make the protest system less intimidating so that it can be used more effectively.
Every sailor has run into a situation where there is uncertainty of fault or if there is even a foul. Sitting down with the competitor in questions can go a long way. I have a habit of walking over to someone who had a different opinion on the race course with a beer in hand to discuss the incident in question. We don’t always agree who was wrong, but more often than not we gain an understanding of what happened on the water and learn something new. I have been pulled aside at the yacht club to help fellow sailors discuss rule situations and even to informally judge an incident with both parties present. The more we talk and learn about the rules and how boats interact on the water, the more comfortable our competitors will be when sailing in close quarters.
Sailing and racing are supposed to be fun. Let’s create an environment where the self policed aspects of our sport are actually policed. Sailing within the rules, admitting wrongs when they happen, and filing protests when appropriate will make the sport safer and more enjoyable for all of us. I give credit to Comanche and Jim Cooney for following through with the protest and setting an example for sailors from the highest level.