Do race boats have a moral right of way on the water? Ben Meakins explains the similarities and differences between Racing Rules and Colregs, and outlines what course of action to take when your boat encounters a racing fleet

Racing fleets can be intimidating, especially during busy regattas like Cowes Week or the Round the Island Race, where you’ll find more boats racing than nearly any regatta on earth. Coming across a fleet of uber-serious racing boats in a cruiser can make you feel like the proverbial salmon trying to swim up a waterfall.

It can often seem that racers, with the loudest shouting, have moral right of way. But what’s the truth?

First of all, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS, or Colregs) apply to all vessels at sea. But trying to apply them to a sail racing fleet would lead to endless courtroom and protest meetings – which is where the Racing Rules of Sailing come in. In situations that occur between boats that are racing, the Racing Rules handle the situation simply and easily and help the competitors to be clear in their minds of their rights.

That’s all well and good, and both Colregs and Racing Rules work well for their own purposes: but what happens when the two meet? In the introduction to ‘Part 2 – when boats meet’ of his popular book Paul Elvstrom Explains The Racing Rules Of Sailing, Elvstrom notes:

‘Remember that if you are racing and meet another boat racing, these Racing Rules apply. It does not matter if the boats are in different races. If you are not sure that the other boat is racing, then the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea apply, which all normal shipping has to recognise. These regulations always take precedence if there is any doubt. The Colregs regarding Traffic Separation Schemes also always apply when racing under the racing rules.

‘Take note that the Colregs could be enforced in a race held between sunset and sunrise if so stated in the Sailing Instructions [some race organisers revert to Colregs after dusk]. In order to settle any damage claims, the result of a boat racing protest is normally binding on two boats racing. If one or both boats are not racing then liability depends on the IRPCS.’

The similarities between colregs and racing rules

There is a fair amount of overlap in the rules – and on the face of it, the two systems seem the same: after all, the Racing Rules started out based upon the Colregs. The similarities are as follows.

In both Colregs and Racing Rules, boats on port tack must give way to boats on starboard tack – pretty clear-cut.

Port-starboard rule

Boats to windward must keep clear of boats to leeward – but be aware that this may be affected by the relative speed and position of the vessels (see overtaking).

Windward-leeward rule

The differences between colregs and racing rules

Overtaking boat
While the Racing Rules haven’t included the ‘overtaking boat keeps clear’ rule for years, it’s often heard from rusty racers who did a spot of dinghy racing in their youth. It is a rule in the Colregs, where a boat overtaking must keep clear of the boat she is passing. The rule defines overtaking as: ‘A vessel is deemed to be overtaking when coming up with another vessel from a direction more than 22.5° abaft her beam.’

Confusion can arise where a boat is overtaking – and must, under the Colregs, keep clear, regardless of which tack or gybe the vessels are on. However, under the Racing Rules, this rule does not apply.

Overtaking boat: colregs vs racing rules of sailing – Boat A, on port, and boat C, on starboard, are overtaking boat B

The diagram above shows the confusion: The red boat, B, is running downwind on port gybe. The green boat, C, is on starboard gybe and overtaking boat B. Under the Colregs, boat C must keep clear of boat B, despite being on starboard. Under the Racing Rules, where there is no overtaking rule, boat C has right of way as she is on starboard gybe. Boat A is also sailing faster than B, but is on port gybe. Under the Colregs she must give way to boat B as she is overtaking. However, under the Racing Rules, boat B is now windward boat, and must be prepared to keep clear (although boat A must sail her proper course, and not luff boat B as she obtained her overlap from astern).

Windward-leeward luffing
Both Racing Rules and Colregs state that windward must give way to leeward. The Racing Rules state that you must give someone time to keep clear, but as long as you didn’t obtain your overlap from astern you are able to force the windward boat to change course. Thus, under the Racing Rules, boat B in the diagram can force boat A to keep clear (as long as A is
given room to do so).

Under the Colregs, rule 17 states: ‘Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course and speed’.

Windward-leeward luffing: racing rules vs colregs: There are some differences in the leeward boat’s responsibilities between racing rules and Colregs

In this case, boat A must again keep clear, but boat B must hold her course and not luff her.

Mark roundings – mark room
Another area where there is potential conflict between the two systems is in the matter of room. The Racing Rules say that: ‘this rule applies between boats when they are required to leave a mark on the same side… when the first boat reaches the zone, if boats are overlapped, the outside boat at that moment shall thereafter give the inside boat mark-room.’

Mark roundings: colregs vs racing rules

In the diagram above, two boats are sailing downwind on port gybe, overlapped. Under the Racing Rules, boat B is entitled to mark-room, or in other words to alter course to pass the mark to port.

Under the Colregs, there is no such rule – and, assuming that they are both travelling at the same speed, boat B is not entitled to any room to round the mark.

While this is no problem between boats racing under the Racing Rules, it can cause issues between a fleet of boats running down to a race mark in tidal waters like the Solent, and a cruising boat coming up from leeward (illustration below).

Under the Colregs, the red boat, to leeward, has right of way – but under the Racing Rules he must give the boats inside him room if within three boat-lengths of the mark

In this situation (above), under the Colregs, the racing fleet should keep clear of the cruising boat, as they are to windward – and by planning ahead and keeping a good lookout, they could duck the transom of the offending cruising boat.

However, you’ll often find that they may be reluctant to do so, and that discretion might be the best part of valour on the part of the cruising boat, which might like to keep clear. That’s down to you, but it’s worth knowing the reasons that a fleet might be heading where it is and why they might be reluctant to do the right thing.

Identifying race boats

Out-and-out racing boats are easy to spot: carbon or Kevlar sails, full crews hiking and optimised grand prix race boats stand out from the average cruising boat like a sore thumb. But others, such as cruiser-racers or cruising boats taking part in passage racing or evening ‘beer-can’ races, can be harder to spot. If you’re unsure, look for
the following:

No ensign
Ensigns aren’t worn while racing
Class flag
Most fleets will display a class flag – usually a numeral pennant – on the backstay
Races such as the Round the Island Race often have a requirement for a sponsor’s decals to be worn on the bow

What to do when you meet a racing fleet

The rules and differences explained above are all very well – but what happens in practice? Most racing fleets are fairly easy to spot, with lots of boats grouped together – and they’re also easy to avoid. While the Colregs will apply to any encounter with racers and cruisers, it’s worth having some courtesy, and that applies to both sides.

Racers have a bad reputation for screaming and shouting and for pushing their luck – and when you’re in a tight race, even a minute alteration of course for an obstacle, whether sandbank or cruising boat, can lose a race. Most racers are courteous, but if possible, it’s worth avoiding race courses – especially the large charter fleets that are most commonly encountered in the Solent, which can be somewhat terrifying to sail through – and if you are sailing through a course, make your intentions clear as early as possible to avoid confusion.

You can expect most racing boats to do the right thing. A bit of knowledge of where the rules diverge should help everyone
to get along on the water!