Monday, June 22, 2009


Is cheating common in sailboat racing? Are some coaches teaching kids to cheat? Do you have to cheat to win these days?

I am prompted to ask myself these questions as a result of some of the comments and debate swirling around in response to my post calling to Ban Mommy Boats NOW. My intent in raising the subject of the activities of coach boats on the race course was to draw attention to something that I find annoying and that gives some sailors what I think is an unfair advantage over others. But, as long as the coaching only happens before or after races it is within the Racing Rules of Sailing, and I would not describe such coaching as "cheating". However, as often happens, the discussion veered off into describing other actions that could be defined as cheating: illegal propulsion, not taking penalties after infringing rules... and even of coaches teaching such behaviors.

I don't like to hear such stuff. I don't want to believe it's true. I think that sometimes we are much too ready to accuse fellow sailors of cheating. Am I living in a dream world by thinking like this?

First of all let's define what cheating is... and what it is not. In the context of sailboat racing I would define cheating as deliberately breaking a rule in order to gain some kind of advantage, or accidentally infringing a rule and then deliberately not choosing to take the appropriate penalty. There has to be some element of malicious intent.

What so often happens when racing is that different sailors see or remember the facts of what happened in a particular situation differently; o
r the sailors have different understandings of the relevant rules or how to interpret them. In such circumstances it is ridiculous and unsportsmanlike to accuse a fellow sailor of "cheating".

Let me give you a couple of examples...

When I wrote my review of the Advanced Laser Boat Handling DVD a few weeks back, an anonymous commenter immediately pounced on the video clip from the DVD of a light air gybe...

It’s interesting that the clip you chose to show (the light air jibe) shows the sailor violating the rules of propulsion, by coming out of the jibe faster than going in. I have several other training DVD’s and they all seem to train and advocate the same thing. (One even says to do this carefully so as not to alert the refs.) What gives?
Shock horror! Coaches are teaching illegal propulsion! Deliberate cheating!

Not so fast. Thanks to the power of the sailing blogging community, fellow blogger and International Judge, Jos Spijkerman soon responded...

I'm at the Delta Lloyd Regatta and just showed this Video to the current ISAF rules 42 specialist, Sofia Truchanowicz. She informed me that the gybe is within the current interpretation of rule 42 and this manoeuvre is legal.
A great example of how different sailors interpret a particular action differently. Many of us might see gybes on the racecourse like the ones one in the clip and be quick to think we are seeing an example of "cheating". Not so, according to the ISAF expert.

Or what about the incident I described in No Go? A starboard tacker responds to a hail of "Tack or cross?" with an answer of "Go!" and then protests the port tacker for trying to cross ahead of him. Absolutely shameless behavior! Definite cheating!

Actually not so. Read the full story and you will see that it's actually a comedy of errors by both sailors. Stupid maybe. Laughable certainly. Not cheating.

So let's agree that lack of knowledge of the rules, not knowing how to interpret the rules, honest mistakes, different perceptions of the facts of an incident, poor boat-handling etc. etc. are not "cheating".

But still the question remains. Is there much cheating at sailing regattas these days? Does Tillerman need to get his head out of the boat and see what's happening all around him?

Perhaps. Maybe I am too ready to give the benefit of the doubt to my fellow sailors. Here is how I try to deal with rules incidents as they occur on the racecourse...

If I see you infringe a rule I will tell you... once, and only once. If it's a typical boat-to-boat rules incident I will simply hail "Protest" possibly with your sail number if there's any doubt which boat I am protesting. If it's what looks like a blatant illegal propulsion issue I will simply tell you to tone it down. Then I will forget about it and move on with my race. I won't get angry. I won't scream and shout. I will not get into a slanging match with you about the incident. I'm here to sail my race and enjoy myself. If I'm spending time arguing with you about the rules I'm not concentrating on my own race.

And here's the dirty little secret I don't actually want you to know: if you don't do your turns I won't actually file a protest against you after the race. Life's too short to spend my evening in the protest room instead of the bar. If you know you infringed a rule, do your turns. If you don't, then you are a cheat, and you have lost my respect for ever. If we have a genuine difference of opinion about the facts or a different understanding of the rules, then we may have a polite discussion after racing about the incident. As a result one of us may decide to retire from that race. Or maybe not. I hope that at least we can shake hands and part as friends and that neither of us will be tempted to use the C-word.

So am I letting cheaters get away with it by not following through on protests? Am I living in a dream world in not wanting to believe that cheating is going on all around me on the race course? Is cheating in sailing as common as some people claim? Do some coaches really teach cheating?


No longer a patsy said...

Your dirty secret makes you no better than the cheater, possibly worse. Hailing protest knowing you will not follow through you violates rule 2, though it would be hard to prove this in a hearing. Personally I got tired of people not taking penalties on blatant fouls. After a couple open and shut hearings, people realized I would follow through, so now when my flag comes out they do their turns.

Tillerman said...

Oh geeze. It didn't take long did it?

I write a post saying we are too ready to accuse others of cheating and only a few minutes later I am accused of being "no better than the cheater, possibly worse."

EscapeVelocity said...

I don't compete at a terribly high level, but my experience has been that a) most of the fouls are in the back of the fleet, and b) there are only a few people out there who routinely foul others and then don't do turns, and everyone knows who they are (and whether they're doing it out of orneriness or senility).

I do wish race committees would keep track of how many times boats have sailed the course, and not rely on competitors to protest someone who sailed a W2 instead of a W3. It's hard enough to keep track of how many times I've been around.

yarg said...

I have never thought of exploiting any confusion over how many laps I have sailed....but now that EscapeVelocity mentions about a Rosie Ruiz cheat? In the middle of the last downwind leg, foul another boat, start spinning, and come out of the spin going upwind with the lead pack. What is this sport coming to?

ChicagoSailor said...

Cheating has always been a problem in sports, and always will be, given human nature. People like winning and it seems one doesn't have to rub very hard to remove the veneer of civilization. I agree that it is sometimes right to correct a situation by having a conversation. Nonetheless, because we are a self-policing sport, it is important to lodge protests and follow through on them. The decision on whether or not there was actually an infraction of the rules is (usually) best left up to the committee hearing both sides of the protest.

Anonymous said...

I recently served on R/C for a college intersectional and I feared the worst. However I stated clearly at the skippers' meeting that I would initiate my own RRS42 protests and entertain those submitted by competitors (I was also to serve on P/C).
I made clear that it was to be a weekend of yacht racing, not yacht propulsion, and that if the competitors' coaches had taught them otherwise they had done the competitors a disservice.
Letting (young) sailors know what is expected of them is the fair and proper thing to do. Happily there were no RRS42 violations and everyone had a great time.

Orang Puti said...

A lot of the protests that I see on the water in our area are generally a result of ignorance of the rules, not necessarily flouting them to gain some advantage by cheating. New sailors are constantly joining the Sunday racing fleet, and the more experienced ones, in some situations, take advantage of this. New sailors can be and are often intimidated by the more experienced sailors, or in some instances, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
At the end of the day, we want these newer sailors, both young and old, to continue to race. Too often, I have seen some of these sailors no longer race on a Sunday because they don't appreciate being yelled at by someone else, or because they didn't do their turns, or got caught in a situation where they didn't understand they were in the wrong. We constantly try to reinforce in our newer sailors on training days that they must do their penalty turns, and the risks of not doing so in a race.
More than once (and I'm with Tillerman on this one) I have had a a friendly discussion with another equally as competitive sailor (as I am) after a race and we have sorted out our differences without heading off to the Protest Room. I prefer it that way, but I'm also not shy to use them if I know I'm right and the other party(s) are unrepentant.
So I believe that education is the best way to combat this, with regular Rules nights that are interesting and fun.
Unfortunately, as Chicago Sailor says, cheating is a part of human nature, and the will to win by any means sometimes clouds ones perspective and judgment. Just ask Marion Jones.

Anonymous said...

~ I would prefer even to fail with honor than to win by cheating ~ Sophocles

Pat said...

Sometimes a friendly bit of post-race education or "you owe me one" is enough. And, a competitor isn't required to protest.

And, there could be any number of reasons not to protest or follow through. I once made a bit of a stink about a regatta that (not on purpose, just a problem with logistics or not thinking plans through) made it nearly impossible for some competitors to file a protest.

But, if we're NEVER willing to forgo the post-race social to follow-through on a protest -- even of a blatant foul by someone who should know better -- then we're not supporting system and we're letting the cheaters prosper and encouraging them to trash the sport.

And, even if an obvious, blatant, malicious cheater doesn't hurt you all that much, how might the cheater affect the sport? What would newcomers or potential sailors think of a fleet or sport that keeps allowing the cheaters to repeatedly get away with flouting the rules? If people see the sport as one where some people are allowed to cheat (but maybe not others), will they want to join the sport? (Well, maybe yes -- if they're cheaters themselves and looking for a cheater-friendly sport.)

I wonder if it's the cheating itself that bothers me as much as the idea of having to associate and socialize with blatant or malicious cheaters.

B.J. Porter said...

I was surprised, well no, appalled really, to see cheating at the OPTI GREEN FLEET level.

Yes, cheating - not ignorance of the rules but flagrant and knowing dismissal of them.

In one incident a girl was sculling in a lull, clearly and obviously sculling. Other sailors called out to her "Hey, you can't scull".

Her reply? "I'm not sculling, I just can't make up my mind which way I want to sail" as she continued to do it.

That's one incident I am aware of because my son happened to be nearby and was one of the kids telling her not to scull.

I saw some others that were pretty marginal on the water, e.g. port tack boats refusing to give way when hailed...pretty basic stuff a kid racing SHOULD know, yet they ignore the hails. Not as flagrant and you could make a case for ignorance in a fleet of excitable 9 & 10 year olds...but that's not what it looked like when my kid on starboard ends up ducking to avoid a collision.

These kids are generally discouraged from protesting in Green Fleet - yet you have sailors on the water with a mentality like that? Do you think this kid is going to sail Corinthian in Blue Fleet next year?

I found it upsetting to watch, and wondered at where the failure comes from - parents teaching values and sportsmanship, coaches, or something else that values winning over competing fairly.

Frankly I think it's a symptom of a larger societal & cultural problem.

Carol Anne said...

As I type this, I am in sight of a ballpark that is filled to capacity with a crowd that has come out, despite stormy weather, to watch one of the most famous current cheaters in major-league baseball.

What a circus. At least we can hope that sailing doesn't reward cheaters this way.

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