Rule 4 of the Racing Rules of Sailing says, "The responsibility for a boat’s decision to participate in a race or to continue racing is hers alone."
I always thought that this was pretty straightforward but having read some recent discussions on the topic, I'm not so sure. How do you make the decision whether to race or not when wind and wave conditions are challenging, maybe at the borderline or beyond the point at which you are confident in your sailing abilities in those conditions? What criteria do you apply?
Do the actions of the race committee have any bearing on your decision to race? Do you assume that if they decided that the conditions are OK for racing, then it's OK for you to race? And how does the availability of safety boats affect your decision? If there are plenty of safety/ rescue boats around does that mean you are more likely to go out and race even if you think the conditions are well beyond your abilities and you might well get into trouble? And what about the decisions of your fellow competitors? If your closest competition in a series is going out to race, then are you more motivated to go out and race in winds that might be too heavy for you? Or perhaps if they don't race do you figure you can put some good scores on the board against them and so you decide to chance it?
Of course we all know that in a perfect world we would all rationally assess the current conditions, and weigh any forecast change in those conditions, and take an objective perspective of our own and our crew's experience and fitness and skill levels, and then make an intelligent, logical choice. But in the real world, our emotions and competitive juices and peer pressure all come into play.
If I think back as to how I have made this decision in the past, then I think I certainly have been guilty of making the assumption that if the race committee are prepared to run races, then it must be OK for me to go out and race. On some of those occasions I have certainly found myself racing my Laser in winds and/or waves that were beyond my ability to sail properly and, more importantly, stay upright for most of the time. But then, if you never go out and challenge yourself in conditions that are beyond your current ability then how will you ever learn to sail in those conditions? And I also confess that, on those days, I have been thinking that it's a lot safer to go out and sail in extreme conditions when there are lots of other Lasers and a safety boat or two around in case I really get into trouble, than it is to go and do it all on my own with nobody else around.
Having said that, I also have a certain pride in my own independence and self-sufficiency that I never want to deliberately be racing in situations where I am going to need the safety boat crew to help me perform a capsize recovery or, horror-of-horrors, tow me back to the shore because I am too tired or too incompetent to perform those tasks myself. I look on the safety boats as insurance in case something totally unexpected happens, like a breakage to the boat that makes it impossible to sail, or for that matter a breakage to me that makes me impossible to sail.
So the number of times I have actually had to rely on a safety boat to get me home safely in 30 years of Laser racing can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was the time at Wianno YC when my boom broke, and the time at Cedar Point YC when my gooseneck broke. I can't remember any other racing incidents that caused me to need a tow home (not counting the times when I have been happy to accept a tow when the wind dies at the end of the day.) I have broken a mast top section and broken a bottom section and somehow got myself home without assistance. I have broken my rudder and staggered home under my own power. I have cut my head open during a gybe and nearly chopped my finger off with the daggerboard, but still sailed back to the beach by myself. I guess that may be taking the philosophy of self-reliance a bit too far. But that's how I am. I hate to rely on the crash boats unless I really have to.
The times that I have chosen not to participate in racing are principally of two kinds. There have been many, many, (probably too many) occasions I confess when I have looked at the weather forecast or the weather at home on the morning of racing and have thought, "Nah. Too windy. Too cold. Too rainy. Who needs it?" But if I actually travel to the club then I almost always go out and start racing if the RC is running races. However I do apply Rule 4 quite frequently at the end of a day's racing. There have been numerous occasions after a long day of racing in windy conditions, perhaps including several capsizes (which always seem to sap my strength and confidence) that I have decided that enough is enough and headed for the beach. More often than not it's because I'm so tired that I start to feel that after one or two more capsizes I might actually be too bushed to right the boat on my own. And I'm damned if I'm going to ask the rescue boat to help me with that responsibility. That streak of pride and self-reliance thing again, I guess.
So there have been many occasions when I have looked at the wind and the water before leaving the shore and thought, "It looks crazy out there. I'm not sure I can handle this." But I have always gone out with the attitude, "Hey, I'll just try one race and come in if it gets too much for me." And on some of those days I have sailed all the races that day and come in with a big smile on my face. And on others I have skipped the last one or two races and still come in with a big smile on my face. After all, if you don't come back with a big smile on your face then why are you doing it?
So how about you? How do you apply Rule 4?