Wow, what a lovely night to be out Boston Harbor on a sailboat, doing something I love (racing) with a group of people (my crew) that I love! But I was so very, very sad to discover that one of the boats we race against either a) does not speak English as their native language or 2) are not familiar with the Racing Rules of Sailing, because when I hailed them and said in a calm, clear voice, "Leeward, please head up", they turn back looked at me, and shouted over and over "What's that mean? What's that mean?? What's that mean???"
Well, I've dropped out of five colleges and as an American barely have a grasp on the English language to start with, so if the issue involves translation from English to their native language, I can't offer any help. Good news is that I am pretty sure they have a crew member who is actually FROM England, so I bet she can assist. But, if the issue is a lack of understanding of the Racing Rules of Sailing and how they apply, I’m pretty sure I can lend a hand.
So, when it comes to the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS for short) even though the book is very long, the basic concept is quite simple; don't hit another boat! And unless you are about to pass a mark, the rules are pretty simple. A port tack boat has to keep clear of a starboard tack boat; a leeward boat has to keep clear of a windward boat; and a boat changing tack pretty much needs to keep clear of everyone! There is a section of the Rulebook called "When Boats Meet" that covers this, and Section A covers what is called “Right of Way”.
Tonight, when your boat was clear ahead of me, but I was going faster than you and caught up, at the moment when my bow passed your stern on the leeward side of your boat, I had to initially give you room to keep clear. This is Rule 15, and it is called "Acquiring Right of Way". It would not be very sporting of me (and expensive to boot) if as soon as I acquired the "Right of Way" that I could hit you and have the foul be on you.
So, even though the rules do not require it, when I became overlapped to leeward of you tonight, my bowgirl (hey, KK!) hailed "overlapped" to you, and a few seconds later as I started to change my course to head up I hailed "leeward, please head up" to you. Didn't scream it (ask my crew, I am NOT a screamer) just said it in a clear calm voice from about 10.9 meters away from you. The rulebook doesn't say I have to do this, but each of our boats is worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, so it seemed a good thing to do.
And here is the thing; because the race had not yet started (we were 38 seconds away from the start signal) as the starboard, leeward boat I am allowed to head up all the way to closed hauled, and even beyond, until I am pointed directly into wind. And as I do this, you need to "keep clear" of me. Of course, as soon as the race starts I am constrained and must then sail my proper course (wow, that would take much longer to explain, perhaps another time), because I had established my overlap from clear astern within two of my hull lengths (this is Rule 17), but we were not there yet.
So perhaps you were yelling "What's that mean?" because you are not familiar with the concept of keeping clear. Well, in the RRS they actually define that term, albeit in English, which may not be your strongest language. It means that the right of way boat (that would be me) gets to sail my course without taking avoiding action, AND that I should be able to change my course without immediately making contact with the keep clear boat (that would be you).
At that moment, I could do neither.
So, when you kinda freaked out and put your helm over hard, I needed to turn away from you to keep YOU from hitting ME. That has a lot to do with the way a sailboat actually works. See, when you turn the wheel to go one way or the other, the boat actually pivots around what they call the "beam” of the boat. That is the wide part in the middle, near the mast. And while the pointy end (it's called the bow) may turn away from the other boat (again, me), the end where you were standing (it's the wide section near the wheel and is called the stern) turns TOWARDS me. Crazy, isn't it?? So perhaps when you were shouting over and over again "What's it mean" it was the whole physics of the thing that was flummoxing you.
Now, as clear as all this is, believe it or not it was actually more complicated, because while I was the leeward, right of way boat to you, there was another boat approaching me who was about to become the leeward right of way boat in relation to me! Yes, there are other boats out on the race course besides the two of us; hard to believe, I know! Very soon I was going to need to take avoiding action to keep clear of them. Of course, because I wasn't looking at some other boat shouting "What's that mean?" over and over again, I had seen this coming and anticipated this, hence the reason I had asked nicely for YOU to head up.
Now, if I was a complete idiot I suppose what I would have done was use a rule (it is 60.1 in the RRS) to "Protest" you. I could have hailed "Protest" and pulled that little tab on the green pouch lashed to my backstay that has a red flag tucked into it. But while I am a bit of an idiot (ask any of my ex-girlfriends, they will tell you) I am not a TOTAL idiot. The more time I spend concentrating on you and NOT on racing my own boat, the more likely I am to lose the race to some OTHER boat, and I really hate losing races. And while I am sure you would feel a serious ego boost if I spent all that time on the water watching and focusing on you, my real focus is on going fast and winning. So I didn't pull that flag. Instead, what I did was bide my time, waiting for the right opportunity when I could find a lane, pass you, put the hammer down (figuratively, not literally) and win the race.
Which is what I did.
So, while I may never be able to truly help you understand "What's that mean?" I will offer you some unsolicited advice (oh goody, you say). Instead of looking backwards, yelling at a right of way boat behind you over and over and over again, look forwards, up the course, for that extra puff of wind, that little lift, the 20 degree wind shift that tells you to use the runner and not the reacher on that leg where we passed you to win the race, and I bet you will one day find out exactly "What That Means".
On my boat, it means victory!! See you next Wednesday…
Owner, S/V Superstition