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Home / Sailing / Sail Training / Start Racing - A beginners guide / Basic Racing Rules
Home / Sailing / Sail Training / Start Racing - A beginners guide / Basic Racing Rules

Basic Racing Rules

It can take a life-time of study and experience to fully understand all of the rules. Which makes it daunting for new people to the sport - but it also means that only a small handful of people actually know them all anyway! To make it more confusing, the rules are updated every 4 years (just after the Olympics), in order to close any loop-holes or to make the racing safer and better for everyone.

What do you need to learn before you start?

There are a few rules that you really must know before you take the first step into racing. Knowing these first points is a little like learning enough of the Highway Code so that you are safe on a bicycle - the rest of the Highway Code is there for when you take your car driving test, but for bicycle riders much of it is down to your common-sense, once you know the basics. The first rules that you need to know for racing are shown on this page, with a pointer at the bottom to the full set if you need to know more.

First Rules to Learn

There are three rules you must know before going afloat near a race. Knowing these is a little like knowing that cars drive on the left in the UK �" if you don't know that, you are a danger to yourself as well as to other people. So these are the first three rules to learn:

  1. Port and Starboard
  2. Windward / Leeward
  3. Water to round a mark
  4. Port tack keeps clear of starboard tack

Port and starboard

Port tack (1132) is when the wind is on the left side of the boat: this is typically when the helm is on the left of the boat. Many people when starting to race write "STARBOARD" in big letters on the right side of the boom, and "PORT" on the left side. If the helm can see "starboard" (1128) while sailing, then you are on starboard tack and have right of way. Do you need to shout? No, but it is a good idea. A clear call of "STARBOARD" does help to tell other people that you are there. If you are on starboard tack and have shouted clearly, then you can expect the boat on port tack to avoid you - the usual method is for the port tack boat to bear away and to pass behind the starboard tack boat. Do NOT be surprised when the port tack boat misses your rudder by a foot or so, and many boats will shoot across your transom judging the gap to within 2 or 3 inches.

Windward boat keeps clear of leeward boat

The windward boat is the one that is nearer to the wind than the leeward boat. If you are the helm of the windward boat (898 - the one who has to keep clear), you will most likely be sitting in your boat so you can see the leeward boat (as long as it's not blanketed by your sails). The helm of the leeward boat (926) would need to twist around to see the windward boat. Remember: Windward / leeward applies both to two boats on the same leg of the course and also to two boats on different legs of the course: one on the beat and the other on a reach or run. The Port / Starboard rule has priority, but if you are both on the same tack then windward / leeward applies. This means that the boat on the reach or run has to keep clear of the boat on the beat.

Water to round a mark - outside boat keeps clear of inside boat at a mark

The tricky bit of boat racing is at the marks. This is where boats converge from many different angles to all try to be in one place at the same time, and it is also where many places can be gained or lost, so a good rounding is very important. The simple rule is: if you are on the inside, then the boat on the outside has to keep clear. So the inside boat watches the buoy and sails around it as close as they can, while the outside boat watches the inside one, and sails around close to them. This should mean that you only need worry about what is happening on just one side of your boat. There are many other rules involved in going around marks, so it's well worth looking them up and reading further details.

These three rules are NOT an exhaustive list - there are many more to learn. But these three should get you out onto the water and around the course safely

Do your turns

What happens if you do something wrong? Rather than ruin your whole days sailing, to correct an error (as long as there has been no damage) you need to perform a "720". That is: you sail in two complete circles, and then you can carry on with the race. If you hit the mark while going round it, then you have to perform a "360". That is you sail one complete circle. These "turns" should be done away from the other boats who are still racing, as you have no rights while you are doing your turns.

Fundamental Rules

There are also a list of "Fundamental Rules". These apply at all times and are designed to help ensure that the racing is as safe and as fair as possible for all competitors. For example:

  • A boat or competitor shall give all possible help to any person or vessel in danger.
  • A boat and her owner shall compete in compliance with recognized principles of sportsmanship and fair play.
  • A boat shall avoid contact with another boat if reasonably possible.

Further Reading

You might find that buying a rules book is the easiest way of learning them, as these tend to have good descriptions and explanations of when the different rules apply.

The rules referred to above are:

  • Rule 10: When boats are on opposite tacks, a port-tack boat shall keep clear of a starboard-tack boat.
  • Rule 11: When boats are on the same tack and overlapped, a windward boat shall keep clear of a leeward boat.
  • Rule 18: When boats are overlapped the outside boat shall give the inside boat room to round or pass the mark or obstruction.

In Rule 18, room is room for the inside boat to round or pass between an outside boat and a mark or obstruction, including room to tack or gybe when either is a normal part of the manoeuvre.

Clear Astern and Clear Ahead: Overlap One boat is clear astern of another when her hull and equipment in normal position are behind a line abeam from the aftermost point of the other boat's hull and equipment in normal position. The other boat is clear ahead. They overlap when neither is clear astern. However, they also overlap when a boat between them overlaps both. These terms do not apply to boats on opposite tacks unless rule 18 applies.

Keep Clear One boat keeps clear of another if the other can sail her course with no need to take avoiding action and, when the boats are overlapped on the same tack, if the leeward boat can change course in both directions without immediately making contact with the windward boat.

Leeward and Windward A boat's leeward side is the side that is or, when she is head to wind, was away from the wind. However, when sailing by the lee or directly downwind, her leeward side is the side on which her mainsail lies. The other side is her windward side. When two boats on the same tack overlap, the one on the leeward side of the other is the leeward boat. The other is the windward boat.

Room The space a boat needs in the existing conditions while manoeuvring promptly in a seamanlike way.

Tack, Starboard or Port A boat is on the tack, starboard or port, corresponding to her windward side.

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