This incident didn’t go to a hearing having been settled on the water. It illustrates some common misunderstandings about the Rules.
3 boats, W(indward), L(eeward) and M(iddle) are overlapped on a port reach to a mark to be rounded to port. M first obtained a windward overlap on L from astern then a leeward overlap on W from astern and quite close. Everything happened well before the mark and its zone.
What are the rights of each boat; what their responsibilities?
And why so much confusion among experienced sailors?
Leeward boat L has right of way and M to windward must keep clear (RRS11). If L luffs (she didn’t) she can only do so while M is able to respond (having done everything to respond thus far). This (RRS16.1) replaces the ‘mast abeam’ rule, which no longer exists.
M only keeps clear if L can ‘wiggle’ without colliding. When M's boom came within an inch of L’s shroud she clearly wasn’t keeping clear, whether they collided or not. The crucial wording (Definitions) is “the leeward boat [must be able to] change course in either direction without immediately making contact”
Because M got her leeward overlap from astern of W she mustn’t sail above a proper course (RRS17), which is (Definitions again) the course she would sail to finish ASAP in the absence of W. While the principle is broadly the same, this supplants the old ‘Overtaking boat’ rule with the rather more black and white definitions, Clear Astern and Clear Ahead; Overlapped.
If L luffs or M’s course would take her too close to L she must luff even if this is to a course above the mark. Because L is blocking M’s direct route to the mark M, by jinking clear of L, is still sailing to finish ASAP.
W has the simpler job, she has only to keep clear. The old rule preventing her from bearing down on M has been removed, W can gybe, tap dance, bear away or sink providing she keeps clear of M. That onus is stronger than we think. Suppose M luffs too high? W must still keep clear; if she doesn’t both boats infringe. This is part of a wider principle; the rules try to avert collisions even if the boat causing the bump is breaking a rule.
Common misunderstandings:- Overtaking boat must [do anything]. There’s no such term. Windward boat can’t bear down. Replaced with ‘must keep clear’ ‘But we didn’t collide’ (a common cry from youngsters when penalised). Simply by being too close, one boat must have infringed. L (or M) must have been above her proper course because I (sailing W) was aiming above the mark. Sometimes true but usually not. Where W has to aim isn’t anywhere in the rule. Only where L might reasonably sail to finish ASAP is. Case law settles reasonable doubt in favour of L.
And finally: “But I was sailing straight at a mark!” – a common claim by the luffing, leeward boat – is very rarely a proper course. The point they would aim at ‘to finish ASAP were the windward boat not there’ would be to where she would start her mark rounding. For a leeward mark that’s typically half a boat length below the mark.
If the windward boat uses those same words, more than likely she infringed by being too close to (i.e. not keeping clear of) the leeward boat.
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