PART 1: Covers about 80% of the rules.
When there are no other boats around you on a race course, you are pretty much free to sail where you want and how you want. Of course, if your goal is to win a race, you will be attempting to sail the course that will take you around the race course in the fastest manner possible. Part 2 – When Boats Meet of the Racing Rules of Sailing is designed to keep boats from hitting each other when they get close to each other.
There are eight basic rules that cover the situations that arise when boats are out on clear water, with no obstructions or marks to deal with. There are then ten rules to deal with how to behave around marks or obstructions. As the windward and leeward marks are the places on the race course that all boats eventually must sail by, the rules are very specific on who has to stay out of the way.
Which brings me to an important point- the rules are designed more to tell us who is obligated to stay out of the way of other boats, rather than to tell us who is free to do as they please. The rules are all about “keeping clear” and “avoiding contact”, they are not designed to give one boat the rights to “mess” with another.
Definitions of Terms
Before you understand the rules, there are some important definitions you must understand.
Keep Clear – You are keeping clear of another boat if she can sail her course without needing to take any avoiding action because you are there. When you are overlapped with another boat, keeping clear means that the leeward boat can change her course in either direction without immediately making contact with the windward boat.
Clear Ahead, Clear Astern and Overlapped – Imagine if you where to draw a line down the middle of the boat from the bow to the stern, then, all the way in the back of the boat you drew another line, perpendicular to the first. That imaginary line lets you identify if another boat is clear astern, clear ahead, or if the boats are overlapped. If the other boats hull and equipment is behind that line, then you are clear ahead and she is clear astern. If she is across that line at all, then the boats are overlapped.
Windward and Leeward – The windward side or boat is the side or the boat that the wind strikes first. So if you are on starboard tack, the main sail is on the port side of the boat and the wind is striking the starboard side of the boat first. That means the starboard side of the boat is windward, and the port side in leeward. This also means that any boats to starboard of you are windward boats, and any boats to your port side are leeward.
Proper Course – The course a sailboat would sail with no other boats around to finish the race in the shortest amount of time. Before the starting signal, there is no proper course. Especially downwind, different types of boats may have different “proper courses” that will get them around the course the fastest.
Room – The space a boat needs in the existing conditions to maneuver in a seamanlike way.
With an understanding of these basic terms, the first eight rules of When Boats Meet should be pretty straight forward.
Section A - Right of Way Rules
10 Opposite Tacks - When on different tacks, port-tack boats must keep clear of starboard-tack boats.
The most basic rule of all, when you are the starboard tack boat, the port tack boats must stay out of your way. If they get in your way and cause you to change your course, then they have fouled you.
11 Same Tack, Overlapped – When on the same tack and overlapped, windward boats must keep clear of leeward boats.
If you are on the same tack as another boat, then the one closest to the wind has to stay out of the way of the one or one furthest from the wind. The idea here is that the boat that has the clear air has the most control and maneuverability, so the onus is on her to keep clear of the other boat.
This not only applies when boats are on the same leg, but on different legs as well. If you are going up the first leg to the windward mark on starboard, and another boat is coming down the course under spinnaker on starboard, the wind is hitting them first, making them the windward boat and obligating them to keep clear of you, the leeward boat.
12 Same Tack, Not Overlapped – When on the same tack and not overlapped, the boat clear astern must keep clear of the boat clear ahead.
Another pretty basic concept, which is that if two boats are on the same tack, the one coming up from behind cannot just run into the boat ahead. They have to go around. Of course, if a starboard boat comes up behind a port boat, the port-tack boat has to get out of the way, because they are on different tacks.
13 Tacking – When you tack, until you are close hauled you must keep clear of the other boats.
When you tack around other boats, you cannot just put the helm over and hope everyone else gets out of your way. From the time you pass head-to-wind until you are on your close hauled course, you have NO RIGHTS, and better not cause anyone to change their course.
Section B – General Limitations to the Right of Way Boat
14 Avoid Contact – You must avoid contact with other boats, but a right of way boat shall not be penalized under this rule unless the contact causes damage.
Even if you are the right of way boat and the other boat is supposed to keep clear, when it becomes evident that they are not going to keep clear, you must take immediate action to avoid a collision. If you fail to do so and the collision cause damage to either of the boats or crew, you will be penalized.
15 Acquiring Right of Way – When you do something to give you the right of way, you must initially give the other boat room to keep clear.
If you make a maneuver that gives you right of way such as becoming overlapped to leeward, or tacking over to starboard in front of a port-tack boat, you cannot do it so quickly that the boats that are now obligated to keep clear are unable to do so.
16 Changing Course – When you change course, you must give the keep clear boat room to keep clear.
This applies if you are the boat ahead, the leeward boat, or a starboard tack boat. In addition, when you are going upwind and are on starboard tack, this rule specifically prohibits “hunting” of the port tack boat. For example, if the port tack boat was going to pass behind you, but with a few boat lengths to go you changed your course to point right at him, causing him to have to immediately tack, than you would be penalized.
17 Same Tack, Proper Course – After the starting gun, if you get overlap from clear astern within two of your boat lengths, you cannot sail above your proper course. Downwind, if there is a boat within two lengths that is either clear ahead or to windward of you and you are steering a course to leeward of her, they cannot sail below their proper course.
This means that you are limited as to the course you can sail as the leeward boat when you establish overlap this way. You have no “luffing rights” and cannot take the windward boat any higher than is you proper course. It also means that a windward boat cannot “block” you on a downwind course. Of course, your not racing until the starting gun goes off, so if you want to luff someone up before the start (perhaps to send them over the line early) you are free to do so. But as soon as the gun goes off, back to proper course.