Play­ing by the Rules

Sailing World - - Starting Line Left Coast, Right Brain - PHOTO: PAUL TODD/OUT­SIDE IMAGES

It was a pur­suit- start race and the first event for our newly pur­chased Ale­rion 28. We had taken own­er­ship of the boat the night be­fore, so we were ar­guably rush­ing things, but it was just a low- key ran­dom- leg event with more than 130 boats. What could pos­si­bly go wrong?

The race at­tracted a wide spec­trum of com­peti­tors and boat types. Its sim­plic­ity is its ap­peal. The course is set re­gard­less of wind di­rec­tion, and it fea­tures an un­crowded start­ing line for most en­trants. Rat­ings are as­signed if needed, and there’s a party for ev­ery­one af­ter­ward. There are few hur­dles to en­sure max­i­mum fun, which makes it per­fect for en­cour­ag­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion.

We went off as the 10th starter, in a drifter, but with the wind build­ing soon af­ter, the fleet quickly caught up. When the sec­ond leg be­came a run, we could see the next turn­ing mark would be jam-packed. I an­tic­i­pated our plea­sure race was about to get un­pleas­ant. It’s one thing to have a crowded round­ing among ex­pe­ri­enced teams, but we were deal­ing with some­thing much more un­pre­dictable.

Do­ing our best to pro­tect our new prized pos­ses­sion, we ne­go­ti­ated the ap­proach, found an in­side lane to the mark, and felt safe with only sec­onds be­fore the turn. That’s when we glanced over our shoul­der to see a 43- foot boat aim­ing to round in­side of us. All they saw was the mark and the turn. All we saw was our glim­mer­ing new hull about to get bull­dozed.

What fol­lowed was re­gret­table. I shouted, telling them to spin out be­fore the mark. They told me to protest. Protest? We had no flag, plus this wasn’t a protestable sit­u­a­tion. It was

If the rac­ing rules of sail­ing are so black and white, why do we al­ways find our­selves sail­ing into gray ar­eas? The prob­lem is not the rules them­selves, but rather how we ap­ply them.

Rules keep races safe and civ­i­lized, but they are nu­anced and of­ten loosely ad­hered to in ca­sual races. For those who know the rules well, a clear and po­lite de­fense goes a long way to­ward main­tain­ing ci­vil­ity on and off the race­course.

a hit-and-run. I grabbed their toe rail to de­fend my gel­coat, yelling words like “Corinthian” to ex­plain what they were not. It was fu­tile. We were road­kill as they car­ried on past.

For­tu­nately, the only dam­age was to my dis­po­si­tion. In ret­ro­spect, we should have seen the big­ger boat’s ill-thought in­tent ear­lier and given them the room they didn’t de­serve. They were go­ing to pass us re­gard­less, and de­spite our rights, it would have been smarter to main­tain my mood. To para­phrase Ge­orge Car­lin, it’s best not to ar­gue with cer­tain peo­ple be­cause they will only bring you down to their level and beat you with ex­pe­ri­ence.

The sit­u­a­tion does shed light on a co­nun­drum in our sport, how­ever. We of­ten race among sailors of vary­ing skills. The most ex­pe­ri­enced of them un­der­stand the rules and tac­tics and how to lever­age every sit­u­a­tion. Newer sailors of­ten don’t know what they don’t know and find frus­tra­tion at mo­ments.

Oth­ers, like my friend at the afore­men­tioned mark round­ing, have been sail­ing long enough to know bet­ter but don’t. Bad things can hap­pen when we all mix, and when it does, how do we all get off the wa­ter at the end of the day feel­ing en­thused about our cho­sen recre­ation?

A panel dis­cus­sion I once co-hosted tack­led the topic of par­tic­i­pa­tion, to which rock-star Terry Hutchin­son replied that he pre­ferred qual­ity over quan­tity. Of course he does, I thought to my­self. When one is as good as he is, it’s per­fectly sen­si­ble to not want to be sur­rounded by boats that could un­fairly im­pact per­for­mance. You don’t want some­one barg­ing down the start­ing line or cre­at­ing a pileup at a mark. None of us wants that.

But con­flict does oc­cur, and how we han­dle it im­pacts the mo­ment and ev­ery­thing that fol­lows. This is where the wis­dom of the es­teemed Paul Elvström comes to mind. As bril­liant as Elvström was with his un­der­stand­ing of the rules, and as dom­i­nant he was as a com­peti­tor, he was an equally mas­ter­ful sports­man. He put friend­ships above all ac­co­lades, and saw the co­nun­drum in the sport. It’s one thing to be com­pet­ing for Olympics medals, but what about the other end of the spec­trum? For our sport to in­crease par­tic­i­pa­tion and be en­joy­able, Elvström coun­seled, we must at times be tol­er­ant of sailors of all skill lev­els. Those who did know the rules needed to be cau­tious in in­tim­i­dat­ing those who didn’t know them.

If I’d han­dled my­self more ap­pro­pri­ately at that turn­ing mark, the out­come would have been mea­sur­ably bet­ter for both boats. I didn’t know the other skip­per, but I did see him later at the af­ter-race party. I thought about ap­proach­ing him to dis­cuss what oc­curred but de­ter­mined the ear­lier hos­til­ity would prove too much a dis­trac­tion.

If I had han­dled it bet­ter on the wa­ter, it would have been easy to have had a

“For our sport to in­crease par­tic­i­pa­tion and be en­joy­able, we must at times be tol­er­ant of sailors of all skill lev­els. Those who did know the rules needed to be cau­tious in in­tim­i­dat­ing those who didn’t know them.”

con­ver­sa­tion af­ter­ward. We both might have learned some­thing. This wasn’t the Olympics, af­ter all, and nei­ther of us was in con­tention for a tro­phy. It’s best to keep the rac­ing fun and pos­i­tive.

This ex­pe­ri­ence got me think­ing about how such be­hav­ior im­pacts our sport. Con­sid­er­ing the Corinthian ethos isn’t what it used to be these days, min­i­miz­ing con­flicts for new rac­ers seems wise, if not ob­vi­ous. It’s an am­bi­tious ask of our self­polic­ing sport, but sail­boat rac­ing be­comes markedly less fun when the rac­ing rules get tram­pled by in­ex­pe­ri­ence.

A key com­po­nent to any race is the race­course it­self, and I believe a wind­wardlee­ward course is the worst op­tion for grow­ing the sport. While a su­pe­rior lay­out, the criss­cross­ing of boats up­wind and down­wind, along with busy mark round­ings, all lead to the like­li­hood of count­less confl icts. Con­sider for a mo­ment that the bulk of our rule book is crammed into Part 2, “When Boats Meet.” A bet­ter race­course for the ma­jor­ity of am­a­teur rac­ers would be one where boats meet less fre­quently. We need to cau­tiously move peo­ple from ca­sual rac­ing to “rac­ing with a pur­pose.”

Noth­ing en­cour­ages par­tic­i­pa­tion bet­ter than a well-man­aged cul­ture, and no as­pect of our sport does that bet­ter than what we call “beer can” rac­ing, when no­body re­ally takes it too se­ri­ously, which makes it more wel­com­ing to the masses. While week­end events might strug­gle with par­tic­i­pa­tion, twi­light rac­ing re­mains strong. How­ever, what we must re­mem­ber is that it’s still rac­ing, and rules and safety re­main im­por­tant.

Even if it’s meant to be ca­sual, the fun el­e­ment va­por­izes when the game is not played prop­erly by all. Q

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