Racing rules of sailing

Racing rules of sailing

The rule of the road in yacht tracing made simple for the beginner

Out on the sea there is no rule compelling a ship to sail in any particular way upon the sea, nor to observe any particular course so long as there is no other ship anywhere in the vicinity.

But when there comes another ship, then it behoves the ship to observe certain rules of the road. These rules are international and universal. They are called the "Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea". In Britain they are embodied in the Merchant Shipping Act.

Now all ships and yachts wherever they are cruising are bound by the Merchant Shipping Act. But yachts in a race are not bound by it.

They are bound by another code of rules, a different code of rules. They are bound by the Royal Yachting Association Rules, and it is with these R.Y.A. Rules this chapter upon the rule of the road in yacht racing is concerned.

Difference between Royal Yachting Association rules and the Merchant Shipping Act

The rules by which in racing all yachts are bound differ considerably in principle from the Merchant Shipping Act. They differ in a lesser degree in detail.

This is rather curious, for one might suppose it would be the other way about. I will explain what I mean.

The rule of the road only applies then when there is "risk of collision." When there is "no risk of collision " there are no rules. But the Merchant Shipping Act very rightly sees risk of collision when the other approaching vessel is very far away, and ships are even several miles apart.

It does not allow a ship to contemplate or take any risk. That is its principle; to prevent the slightest risk of collision.

Now the R.Y.A. rules undoubtedly contemplate quite a different state of affairs. They must obviously do so. They contemplate all of us racing, competing one against another, taking close shaves, very close shaves. We must go close, or else it would not be a race at all. It would not be sport or fun. In fact our idea and definition of risk of collision is something much closer very much closer than anything contemplated by the Merchant Shipping Act.

Here then is obviously a very grave difference of principle between the Merchant Shipping Act and the R.Y.A. rules.

In most respects the details ofthe Merchant Shipping Act and the R.Y.A. rules are practically the same.

The principles of the rules should be understood

Now let me try to explain the rule of the road of the R.Y.A. I don't believe anybody can remember all the rules. I don't think it is necessary to try. As a fact the experts who framed the R.Y.A. rules did not intend them to be committed to memory.

The way to understand the rules is to absorb the broad principles. Remember them. Do not bother your head too much about anything else. When one is sailing a yacht race one is in the devil's own hurry, and it is no time to worry about the minute details of the rules, but one must never forget the main principles. I will therefore tell you the broad principles.


The first to remember, and the most important, is the overtaking rule. It is very short and simple: The overtaking yacht must keep out of the way of the overtaken yacht.

Now this rule like all the others only applies when there is risk of collision, and if there is no risk of collision we need not bother with it. If there is no risk of collision we need not bother about any rules of the road.

So let us first understand what the R.Y.A, means by this phrase "Risk of Collision". Suppose both yachts at the same time put their helms hard over so that each turned a complete circle. If they turned towards one another in this way so that the circles they make would intersect so that if they were navigated like that they would foul-that is the R.Y.A.'s definition of the range of risk of collision.

Any helmsman can picture this range pretty well with his eye. If the yachts are outside this range there is no risk, and rules cease to apply. If they are inside it the rule of the road must he observed.

If there is the smallest doubt risk must be deemed to exist and the rules applied. Now for our first rule, the overtaking rule.

What is an overtaking yacht?

There are three things essential to the position of an overtaking yacht.

1. She must be sailing the same or nearly the same course as the other.
2. She must have been clear astern.
3. She must have approached the other yacht from clear astern while within this zone or range of risk of collision.

I have used the expression "clear astern". I will explain that. It means when the bows or bowsprit of the boat astern is behind a line drawn square across the boom end or counter of the yacht ahead. Then one yacht is "clear astern" the other yacht is "clear ahead".

So you see exactly what is meant by an overtaking yacht. She is not, as in the Merchant Shipping Act, any vessel more than two point abaft the beam and perhaps a mile off.

No, under R.Y.A. rules she is a yacht inside this risk zone I have described, sailing in the same or nearly the same direction as the yacht ahead, and coming up upon her from behind; from clear astern.
It is the common sense idea of an overtaking yacht when both vessels are sailing in the same direction.

Now it is the duty of this overtaking vessel to keep out of the way.
She must keep out of the way until she has "drawn clear".

How can she draw clear ? She may do so in three ways:

Firstly, we picture her astern; next coming up and overlapping, that is as we say getting an overlap, this word overlap means whilst heading in the same direction the yachts are not clear, and then we picture her passing and drawing clear ahead when the overlap ceases.

That is the first way the overtaking yacht can draw clear. All this time she must keep out of the way. Directly she has drawn clear ahead in the manner she becomes the overtaken yacht, then the boot is on the other leg.

Secondly: the overtaking yacht may open out wide abreast right outside the zone or circle. Then the rules in regard to her cease to operate.

Thirdly: she may fall astern and the same thing happens. So much then for the overtaking boat; all the time she ranks as such she must keep out of the way. Now a word about the overtaken boat.

The R.Y.A. rules here differ in one detail from the Merchant Shipping Act, because they allow this overtaken vessel to actually deviate from her course by luffing, to prevent, or obstruct as it were, the overtaking yacht when the latter overtakes her upon the windward side. This is certainly a peculiar rule, but it is a very well-known one in racing. I say it is peculiar because it does appear to allow the overtaken yacht to make a collision. It seems to allow her, you might even say, invites her, to put her helm down and run into the other yacht !

But this is not in racing a dangerous proceeding, because you see when lufhng is allowed the yachts are sailing along the same way and the overlapping vessel has been clear astern, and she was obviously seen coming close up on the other's weather, and as she thus came up, she knew all along the boat ahead was going to luff her at
any moment. This being the case the overtaking boat is very cautious about coining up on the leading boat's weather side.

The overtaking boat is allowed by R.Y.A. rules a free passage on the lee side of the other, and the overtaken vessel must not bear away to hinder her. When the overtaking yacht chooses the leeward side
the overtaken yacht must disregard her. She must sail fairly "full and by", if close-hauled. She must point honestly for her mark if the wind is free.

That is my explanation of the principle of the overtaking rule. It is as I have said the most important of all rules. After you have grasped it all the rest will seem exceedingly simple.

There are two other rules of importance which however have nothing to do with overtaking. They are quite different. They apply when yachts are not overtaking or being overtaken.

They are called the Meeting, Crossing and Converging Clauses.