Racing Against the Rules

Report Text:

I was sailing close hauled on starboard tack at about 3.5 knots, heading a little south of east when I saw two large, apparently identical sailing yachts several hundred metres away to port. They were close hauled on port tack and appeared to be racing. The leading yacht was to port of the second one, tracking about 100 yards from it. It was obvious that a close quarters situation was likely to develop so I considered whether I should move out of their way. As a sailing yacht, mine has many qualities, but speed and windward ability are not included, so, in view of our relative speeds, I decided that my best course of action as stand on vessel was to hold my course and speed. As the leading yacht approached, it bore away in good time to pass close astern of me. I fully expected the second vessel to do the same, but it held its course. Mine is a slow boat and I am used to racing yachts passing me by very close, so I stood on until it became clear that it had no intention of taking any avoiding action and that, without action on my part, a collision was inevitable.

At this point, my options were very limited. I was helming and the only other person on board was disabled and would not have been able to handle the genoa sheets and there was no time to transfer the helm, which is our usual practice when tacking. A turn to starboard would have therefore have left me in irons or hove to with no control and quite possibly still in the path of the other yacht. As a result, I turned more than 90° to port, as sharply as I could, and passed the other yacht starboard to starboard less than 20m away. I would estimate the other yacht’s speed as in excess of 15 knots. There was no reaction from the helm or anyone else on board, but I heard loud boos from the first yacht that had already gone past. Had I not made the turn, I am certain that we would have collided and, given the relative speeds and sizes of our vessels, mine would have been sunk with almost certain injury to my passenger and myself and quite probably the loss of one or both of our lives.

Anyone who sails regularly has had to take take avoiding action or endure abuse from yachts who seem to believe that the fact that they are racing exempts them from the colregs or principles of good seamanship, and I would normally regard such incidents as no more than a story to tell over a pint, but this was such flagrant and dangerous behaviour from a yacht that must have a professional skipper that it calls into question his or her fitness to be in command.

CHIRP Comment:

The Maritime Advisory Board is well aware racing is taken very seriously by many individuals and makes the following observations: 

  • An early appreciation of and reaction to the overall situation is important and may permit the avoidance of conflicts with racers. There is no suggestion this reporter did not appreciate or consider action in good time.
  • Racing does not relieve boats from their obligation to comply with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea or the ordinary practice of seamen.
  • However the words of Rule 17 – Action by Stand-on Vessel, should be borne in mind:

(a)(i) Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way the other shall keep her course and speed.

(ii) The latter vessel may however take action to avoid collision by her maneuver alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.

(b) When, from any cause, the vessel required to keep her course and speed finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision.

Being the stand-on vessel does not confer an absolute right of way!