After the burning of the socks ceremony on Sunday, the major part of our sailing club meeting was given over to a seminar on "Rule 42" given by myself and the club's protest chairman, a former Olympic contender in the Flying Dutchman class. Rule 42, for those readers who are not racing sailors, is the racing rule that defines the legal and illegal ways in which sailors can propel their boats. To vastly oversimplify: using wind and water to make the boat move OK; using unnatural body movements to squirt your boat forwards not OK.
The problem is that the rule is somewhat complicated and quite difficult to interpret. And, partly for that reason, it can be a very emotional issue among sailors. The situation at this lake-based club where I have sailed the last few summers is a case in point. There is a group of old members who think that some of the newer members are breaking rule 42 on a regular basis. The new guys for the most part think that they are just sailing their boats athletically but legally; nowhere does it say you have to sit like a statue in the boat (even though watching some of the older sailors you might think so). Compound this with the fact that most members of this club don't really understand the rule, and hardly anybody in the club knows what you are supposed to do if you see somebody breaking this rule. Two myths (both untrue) that are believed by a bunch of members are that one sailor cannot protest another for illegal propulsion; and that race committees are empowered to arbitrarily disqualify competitors who they think are breaking the rule. The whole thing has been rumbling on for years with various petty resentments and grumblings but nothing really out in the open.
Things came to a head at the club championship last year when the principal race officer (also the club commodore that year) saw what he believed were rule 42 violations by the two leading competitors (blatant and persistent body pumping), even warned the whole fleet about it between races, but then failed to follow through with a protest of the competitors concerned when the cheating did not stop.
Ah yes. The C word. Cheating. That's another reason that Rule 42 is such a contentious topic. For some reason that I only partly understand, if I crash into your boat in a port-starboard incident you will think that I am merely guilty of stupidity and incompetence and we will have a good laugh about it over a beer afterwards; but if some new member does a roll tack that you think is "too good" you will think he is a cheat and you will mutter to other members that he is a cheat and he will spend the next five years wondering why everyone in the club is shunning him. That's one reason that there are so few rule 42 protests by competitors. Nobody wants to call a fellow sailing club member a deliberate cheat to his face. (Even if you think he is).
Anyway, last year's commodore was so incensed about what happened at the club championship that he asked us to run a session to educate the members on the propulsion rule at one of our winter meetings.
So we gave our lecture on Rule 42. We explained each section of the rule -- the basic rule, the specifically prohibited actions, and the exceptions. We talked through the document on Rule 42 Interpretations published by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF). And we showed a video produced by ISAF which has sailors deliberately demonstrating various kinds of legal and illegal propulsion. The video has green and red lights to show situations where there is no rule breach or a clear rule breach respectively. And it has a yellow light to show more borderline situation where there is a "probable rule breach".
The video created a lot of healthy discussion among the members. Surprisingly there was very little disagreement between the sailors as to which of the demonstrated actions were legal or illegal. And there was even general agreement that one or two of the things rated by ISAF as "clear rule breaches" were things that nobody would complain about in regular club racing.
At the end of the afternoon I led a discussion on the general theme of, "So if we see somebody breaking the rule what are we going to do about it?" This was partly to educate the membership on the rights of sailors and race committees to protest violations of the rule and how best to go about that. But, more importantly, I wanted to get the members to agree that the best thing to do first is to talk to the sailor concerned about what they are seeing and to ask them to stop it. Sometimes that means a quiet word after sailing; sometimes it means a shout on the water, "Hey - quit that rocking and rolling". In my experience, nine times out of ten this is enough to resolve the situation.
I thought the session went well. I hope everyone understands the rule better and that we have cleared the air on how we are going to deal with any member who is pushing things too far.
Only time will tell.