Demystifying Sailing Protests Through Open Protest Hearings

By Tim Clark, Co-Chair, Pequot Yacht Club Junior Sailing Committee

Protest HearingsFor racing sailors young and old, inexperienced or experienced, a protest hearing can mean fear, anxiety apprehension, anger and humiliation. And that’s assuming the decision went your way! For the “losers,” the feelings are even worse. For these reasons and more, most of us avoid protest situations at all costs.

Many protests are filed as a result of infractions at mark roundings, and an open protest hearing is an opportunity for all involved to increase their knowledge of the rules. © Spectrum Photo/Fran Grenon

Participating in the protest process need not be a negative experience. The goal for all involved should be to have it be a positive and educational experience. It is an important way for us to demonstrate our love of the sport of sailing and our respect for our fellow competitors.

At our recent Invitational Regatta, hosted by Pequot Yacht Club in Southport, CT in four classes (C420, Laser Radial, Pixel and Feva) for intermediate sailors age 11-15, an effort was made to open up and demystify the protest process for young sailors by holding open protest hearings. We invited sailors into the hearings as observers to witness all aspects, including the normally private committee deliberations. What follows is our roadmap for making it happen, and some dos and don’ts to keep in mind if you are going to make it succeed.

Recruiting the Committee

Effective open protest hearings begin with selecting the right committee. Pequot is fortunate in that we count among our membership sailors with strong racing backgrounds, strong knowledge of the rules and a high comfort zone for communication.

For our protest committee, we were fortunate to recruit David Dellenbaugh (tactician and starting helmsman on America3, the successful 1992 America’s Cup defender, as well as three-time U.S. Match Racing Champion), David Storrs (currently the #1 ranked match racer in the U.S. based on the ISAF Open Rankings), and Max Simmonds (Pequot’s C420 coach and a member of the Boston College Sailing Team) to be on the strong committee needed to make open protest hearings work.

Not lost on us was the need for a strong chair. For open hearings we would need someone not just strong on the rules and strong on communication, but also comfortable as an educator. Dave Perry (past Rules Advisor for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team and several America’s Cup teams, and four-time U.S. Match Racing Champion) fit the bill perfectly.

Other Preparations

We determined that the ideal space for open protest hearings would be a large room that could be configured as a classroom, with the protest committee positioned up front with a magnetic board (to display boats) visible to all to diagram protest situations. Ample seating was necessary to accommodate an audience. Such a space needed to be “away from the action” and relatively quiet so that everyone could more easily focus on what would be going on in the room.

With the committee members recruited and the space prepared, we awaited protests (there were six) and, once the sailors were back on shore and boats almost put away, we announced that open protest hearings were about to begin and all were cordially welcome to attend.

The Protest Hearings

Dave Perry opened the proceeding by welcoming everyone and outlining how the proceedings would work. (The US Sailing Judges Manual provides valuable guidance.) He explained the rules about utilizing a formal protest committee hearing versus an arbitration meeting:

  • Although protest hearings would be open, arbitration hearings would remain closed as the very nature of arbitration lends itself to an informal and confidential process.
  • The committee would conduct fully open protest hearings, meaning that all in attendance would be listening in not just on the witness presentations, but the deliberations by the protest committee members as well.
  • If a sailor was to be a witness in a protest, he or she could not be present in the hearing room until/unless he or she was called.
  • Once anyone was in the room for any part of the hearing, he or she had to stay in until the end of the hearing. This is done to prevent communications with witnesses, who were not present.
  • Sailors needed to be respectful and not be talking or texting during the hearings.

Was It a Success? Yes!

Six protests were heard in front of many of our young sailors. In spite of the open setting, the hearings went off without a hitch. And the issues were sufficiently complex that, upon conclusion, important lessons were learned not just by the protesters, witnesses and the audience, but by our rules-savvy protest committee members as well.

And…the ultimate litmus test….many sailors remained in the audience, attending the last of the hearings while the dinner and dance had begun!

Dave Perry on Open Protest Committee Hearings

On the benefits of open protest committee hearings: “First, it removes a lot of the mystery and anxiety about the protest process without being in it. A lot of people don’t protest…they don’t know what goes on behind that closed door and they don’t want to find out. Second, there are very few protests, because there are a lot of skills and techniques you need to have in a protest that people don’t feel they have. By being able to watch them, you’ll get better at it. Third, in almost every protest, somebody learns something about the rules. By opening up the process, you expose that many more sailors to that learning experience.”

On a protest committee’s preparations in advance: “Appendix M in the rulebook is the road map for how to run a protest hearing. It lays out exactly who speaks when, who asks questions, etc. I try to follow it closely.”

When to conduct open protest hearings: “…when your committee is strong (in rules knowledge) and the case is academic (boat vs. boat).”

When not to conduct open protest hearings: “…if there is any personal aspect to the protest…or if one or two of the protest committee members aren’t strong (on their knowledge of the rules) and could be intimidated by having an audience.”

Important to remember: “A sailor should not feel ashamed about protesting…but you need to be prepared. Learn the rules. Above all, show respect for your competitors.”

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