Friday, March 02, 2007

Racing Rules Question

Some of the Racing Rules of Sailing are very clear, logical, black and white...
  • A port-tack boat shall keep clear of a starboard tack boat.
  • A windward boat shall keep clear of a leeward boat.
  • A boat clear astern shall keep clear of a boat clear ahead.
This is a good thing. We need to know when we have broken a rule and who should take a penalty if there is a collision. The writers of the rules have worked diligently over the years to make everything as clear as possible. To that end they have even defined some of the terms in the rules so there will be no confusion.
  • A boat starts when after her starting signal any part of her hull, crew or equipment first crosses the starting line ...
  • 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 boat's hull and equipment in normal position.
  • A boat's leeward side is the side that is or, when she is head to wind, was away from the wind.
All very logical. So mechanical and straightforward in fact that if you were writing a computer program to simulate a sailing race it would be very easy to program these rules into the computer. It's all binary. You are either on starboard or port. You have started or not. You are clear astern or overlapped. Once the facts are established there is no wiggle room for competitors or protest committee.

But wait. Is it that simple? How about some of these concepts in the rules?
  • Room: The space a boat needs in the existing conditions while manoeuvring promptly in a seamanlike way.
  • Proper Course: A course a boat would sail to finish as soon as possible in the absence of other boats referred to in the rule using the term.
  • Initially -- as in "When a boat acquires right of way, she shall initially give the other boat room to keep clear."
How can you program concepts such as "promptly", "initially" and "seamanlike" into a computer - let alone such a subjective concept as "proper course"? Surely these things are open to human interpretation and argument? Well, if you were the programmer for a sailing simulator you would have to give it a shot. Maybe to keep things simple you would program "initially" as two seconds, say. Or interpret "proper course" downwind as the straight line to the next mark.

So my question for today is: Would sailboat racing be a better game if the Racing Rules were so clear and logical and black-and-white that they could be programmed into a computer? Would it be better if none of the rules had vague fuzzy undefined terms like "seamanlike" and "promptly"? Or would it change the game in such a fundamental way that we would lose more in fairness than we gained in clarity?


EVK4 said...

off topic: Have you noticed that you're listed in Quantum's Destination One Design news? I wonder if I wrote a post about how much I love my North Sails if that would show up in their feed?

Aren't Lasers required to buy their sails from Vanguard?

On topic: yes.

Pat said...

In a sailing simulator, the program can let you push buttons to determine the precise distance to the mark, how far people are from having an overalp, relative speeds, and wind velocities throughout the course. Real sailors, unlike binary phantasms, are far more analog than digital and can only approximate these capabilities. So, the RRS and the underlying Colregs are tailored to the capabilities and perceptual limitations of the flesh-and-blood sailors.

The RRS also reflect the inherent conservatism of mariners, who long worked and lived at Neptune's sufferance in a harsh environment where untested experimentation could have disastrous results. Nontheless, the sailing community is small enough that ideas for rules changes can be transmitted very quickly to the sailors who decide on rules changes.

Tillerman said...

Edward - Yes, that Quantum site has been picking up articles from various bloggers including me.

Laser class rules require that sails must be provided by the manufacturer, and Vanguard in North America supply North sails. But the European Laser manufacturer obtains their sails from Hyde and some N.A. sailors prefer them and buy those, even though the specs are supposed to be the same.

Tim said...

Actually I think that all the rules have blurred edges, even the straight foward ones. The reason being is that racing is a very complex sport and A boats manover the applicable rules change and the transistion is the where they blur at the edges.
To my mind this is part of the fun and skill of racing, deterining where the edges lie and if you can take advantage of them or risk infringing them.
Pat is also right in that we are all different and our responces vary. It's not so much that we are 'analogue' rather than 'digital' (Analogue is always more true than digital but digital is always more diffinitive) but more that it is very hard to create an algorithem that truly mimics our behaviour.

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