Playing by the rules
By Dave Perry

The 2005-2008 edition of the Racing Rules of Sailing went into effect on January 1, 2005. Rules expert Dave Perry helps you navigate the rulebook and previews the significant changes in the 2005-2008 rules.

Watch a crowded windward mark in a large fleet of boats. As the boats converge from different directions and angles, it looks like it will be a chaotic collision-fest to the non-sailor. But with the smoothness of a Broadway dance number, the boats intertwine within inches of each other with no contact (usually!), then exit the mark in an orderly line and head for the next mark. This is the beauty and ingenuity of the rules of the sport, called The Racing Rules of Sailing.

The Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) are cleverly crafted and written in clear plain English to promote the widest possible knowledge and understanding of the rules. Everyone who races, whether skipper or crew, newcomer or seasoned veteran, should make an effort to learn the rules. Quite simply, it makes the game better and safer for all participants. Sailors who do not know the rules can ruin the game for others; sailors who know the rules can best position themselves to gain a tactical advantage when boats come together.

I have spent much of my life studying the rules. I am fortunate that my father was a real student of the rules. Growing up, he would quiz me on rules situations at the dinner table, which I enjoyed. But you don't need a lifetime to gain a working knowledge of the racing rules. Any sailor can learn to navigate the rulebook and apply the rules to most situations you'll encounter on the racecourse. This article will get you started.

Step one: read the rulebook

This common pre-start rules situation illustrates how the right-of-way rules (Part 2, Section A) work with the limitation rules (Part 2, Section B). It also demonstrates the importance of knowing the terms in Definitions at the back of the rulebook.

Illustration by Brad Dellenbaugh, from Understanding the Racing Rules of Sailing.

Position 1: L and W are on the same tack and not overlapped; therefore L is required to keep clear of W under rule 12 (Section A, On the Same Tack, Not Overlapped). Throughout the incident both boats are required to avoid contact with each other under rule 14 (Section B, Avoiding Contact).
Position 2: L and W are now overlapped; therefore W is required to keep clear of L under rule 11 (Section A, On the Same Tack, Overlapped). However, L has just acquired the right of way, so she must initially give W room to keep clear of her under rule 15 (Section B, Acquiring Right of Way).
From Position 2 to 3: L is the right-of-way boat and W is keeping clear under rule 11. However, L is changing course, so she must give W room to keep clear of her under rule 16.1 (Section B, Changing Course). Furthermore, because L became overlapped to leeward of W from clear astern, L must not sail above her proper course while the boats remain overlapped under rule 17.1 (Section B, On the Same Tack; Proper Course). However, there is no "proper course" (defined in Definitions) before the starting signal; therefore L can sail up to head to wind before the starting signal.

The first step to knowing the rules is to read the rulebook! The Racing Rules of Sailing is automatically sent to US SAILING members who register as a racer. Many clubs and organizations have copies they will lend, give or sell. The complete rulebook is also included in my book Understanding the Racing Rules of Sailing, which is a thorough explanation of the rules and their nuances with extensive quotes from the authoritative interpretations found in the US SAILING Appeals and ISAF (International Sailing Federation) Cases. The rulebook, Understanding the Racing Rules of Sailing, and the US SAILING Appeals and ISAF Cases are all available from US SAILING (see Resources).

When reading the rulebook, understand that it has a clear structure. The rules are divided into seven parts, each with a distinct subject. At the back of the book there is a glossary of terms, entitled Definitions. When these specifically defined terms are used in a rule, the term appears in italics. This further ensures that all who use the rules will interpret them in the same way.

The rulebook also includes about 15 appendices that either apply to a specific type of racing (e.g., match racing, team racing, radio-controlled boat racing, etc.) or provide rules or useful advice on matters such as writing sailing instructions, hearing protests, lodging appeals, etc.

When boats meet

The complete rulebook is long, and sailors should be familiar with all the rules it contains. But the rules that apply to situations when boats come together are covered in one short section: Part 2, which is only five pages long! Make it a goal to read through Part 2 before your next race. Don't try to memorize every rule. It is much easier to remember and understand the rules if you understand their structure and the structure of Part 2 itself.

The structure of the rules is simple. When two boats are approaching each other, the rules give one boat the "right of way" and the other boat the obligation to "keep clear" of the right-of-way boat. The right-of-way boat has the right to sail the course she is on without a need to avoid the keep-clear boat.

For example, when a port-tack boat (P) is crossing ahead of a starboard-tack boat (S), S is the "right-of-way" boat and P is the "keep-clear" boat. If S does not need to take any action to avoid hitting P, then P has kept clear; if S has to change course to avoid hitting P, then P has not kept clear and has broken a rule (rule 10, On Opposite Tacks).

There are essentially four right-of-way rules, and they are in Section A of Part 2. They are premised on the fact that there are basically four different relationships the boats can be in. If you think in terms of these relationships, it will be easy to know which boat has the right of way. The boats can be either: (1) on opposite tacks; (2) on the same tack and overlapped; (3) on the same tack and not overlapped; or (4) changing tacks.

If they are on opposite tacks, the starboard-tack boat has the right of way (rule 10). If they are on the same tack, they will either be overlapped, in which case the leeward boat has the right of way (rule 11, On the Same Tack, Overlapped); or one will be clearly in front of the other, in which case the boat in front has the right of way (rule 12, On the Same Tack, Not Overlapped). If one of the boats is tacking, it must keep clear of one that is not (rule 13, While Tacking).

The rules also place "limitations" on what boats can do, and these often apply to the right-of-way boats as well as to keep-clear boats. An example is rule 14, Avoiding Contact. Rule 14 tells all boats to avoid contact with others if reasonably possible; and it tells right-of-way boats that if they don't avoid contact and there is damage, they can be penalized along with the keep-clear boat. So if S collides with P despite being able to avoid doing so and there is some damage, P will be penalized for breaking rule 10 and S will be penalized for breaking rule 14. There are just four limitation rules and they are in Section B (General Limitations) of Part 2.

When boats are about to round or pass marks or obstructions, there need to be special rules so the boats will round or pass in a fair and orderly way. These are in Section C (At Marks and Obstructions) of Part 2. There are some situations where a rule in Section C might give different rights and obligations than those in Sections A and B. When this occurs, the Section C rules take precedence as long as the boats are rounding or passing the mark or obstruction.

Applying the rules

When applying the rules to a situation, my advice is to ask the three questions below, in this order. Clearly there are situations that will require the application of other rules; but this model will resolve a large majority of situations.

(1) What was the relationship between the two boats, which will determine which boat had the right of way (Part 2, Section A); did the keep-clear boat keep clear?

(2) Did either boat have any limits on it imposed by a rule in Section B; and if so, did it comply?

(3) Where were the boats on the racecourse? For instance, if they were about to round or pass a mark or obstruction, then look in Section C to see what rules may apply.

Remember that different rules can apply as a situation develops on the water, as you'll see in the diagram.

Applying the rules to situations, either actual or hypothetical, will help you gain confidence in your rules knowledge. To expand your knowledge further, attend rules seminars run by clubs and class associations. Ask judges at regattas about rules situations that may arise. To understand procedural rules for running races and hearing protests, volunteer to help run races and sit in on protests. Your rules knowledge will rapidly expand-which will make you not only a better racer but also more qualified to run races and hear protests, all to the benefit of the sport.

Significant rule changes for 2005-2008*

Here is a quick overview of the significant changes in the 2005-2008 edition of The Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS), from the 2001-2004 RRS. These brief summaries are not intended to be actual representations of the rules, nor is this a complete list of all the changes in the 2005-2008 RRS.
Preamble to Part 2 (When Boats Meet): The preamble now clarifies that when a racing boat meets a boat having no intention of racing, the racing boat is required to comply with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCAS) or government right-of-way rules, or risk disqualification. However, only the race or protest committee can protest the racing boat.
Rule 16.2 (Changing Course): This rule now applies only when a port-tack boat (P) is keeping clear by passing astern of a starboard-tack boat (S). If P is crossing ahead of S (upwind or downwind), S may change course and make P immediately change course to continue keeping clear, provided P can do so in a seamanlike way.
Rule 19.1 (Room to Tack at an Obstruction): Now, a boat that hails for room to tack when it does not need to make a substantial course change to safely avoid the obstruction breaks rule 19.1. The boat being hailed must still respond to the hail, but she now has a rule she can protest under when she thinks the hail was unfounded.
Rule 31.2 (Touching a Mark) & Rule 44.2 (Penalties for Breaking Rules of Part 2): Once a boat that has touched a mark has done one turn that includes a tack and a gybe (in either order), it may continue in the race; i.e., it does not need to do a complete 360-degree turn. The same is true with the second turn of a boat doing two penalty turns for breaking a Part 2 rule; it no longer needs to do a complete 720-degree turn.
Rule 40.2 (Personal Buoyancy; Harness): As of January 1, 2006, trapeze and hiking harnesses must have a device that allows competitors to quickly release themselves from the boat at any time while in use.
Rule 42 (Propulsion): "Sculling" has been redefined as any repeated "forceful" movement of the helm, regardless of its effect. Furthermore, any repeated helm movement that propels the boat forward is also sculling. Sculling is now permitted when a boat is above close-hauled and has little steerageway and is trying to turn back down to close-hauled.
Rule 61.1(a)(3) (Protest Requirements): In an incident in which it is obvious to the boats involved that there was damage or injury, the boats involved do not need to say "Protest" or fly a protest flag to protest; they simply have to inform the other of their intent to protest within the time limit for lodging a protest.
Rule 62.1(a) (Redress): The actions of the organizing authority can now be the subject of a redress request.
Appendix F (Appeals Procedures): All appeals of protest committee decisions in the U.S. are now to be sent directly to US SAILING, which in turn will forward them to the appropriate association appeals committee.
*Excerpted from Understanding the Racing Rules of Sailing Through 2008 by Dave Perry, available from US SAILING (

Reprinted with permission from US SAILING, the Newsletter, a publication for the members of US SAILING.


To order copies of the rulebook, Dave Perry's Understanding the Racing Rules of Sailing, and other books on rules, visit