I have seen the stress and adrenalin of sailboat racing, protests, arbitration and the prospect of going to “the room” sometimes brings out the worst in people. Most often, however, I think it brings out the best. In just about every form of involvement I’ve had with junior sailors, I see that the latter is the case. Following a protest, I often witness greater understanding of the rules and a deeper respect for the process amongst the competitors.

In August, I was aboard a mark boat for a Black Rock Yacht Club junior PHRF regatta on Long Island Sound. The racing was impressive and there is no doubt that the kids running these boats are capable of keeping pace with – and often outpacing – many seasoned adult race teams I’ve seen. That I witnessed spot-on layline calls, near flawless spinnaker sets and douses and an absence of yelling as these juniors sailed was not surprising to me at all.

As is often the case with good sailors, boats maneuvered in close proximity – and in most cases without incident. Following the third race of the day, however, I heard over the VHF that a protest was being lodged by one of the boats. I remember that the first thought that popped into my head was, “Man, I hope this doesn’t wreck the day’s great racing.” Later, I realized this was a silly notion.

I was asked to sit on the protest committee. Anyone who has been on a protest committee knows that it’s a serious thing – and that at least one competitor is likely to leave the room unhappy. When it comes to juniors, that prospect is harder to come to grips with. Nobody wants to disqualify or penalize a group of young sailors after they’ve worked so hard and sailed so well, but I was hopeful that at the very least the proceedings – and the outcome – would be a learning process.

The protest was fairly simple. According to the protesting boat that’d been sailing on starboard, the port tack vessel tacked too close and caused the starboard boat to alter course so much as to have to tack to avoid a collision. The protested boat asserted that the convergence was simply a lee bow tack, clear ahead and with plenty of room all around.

With all of the required questions to ensure the protest was indeed valid and that all the proper procedures had been followed were answered to satisfaction (hailing, acknowledgement, forms filed, etc.), we spoke to the skippers involved. Naturally, there was a difference of opinion regarding what one boat experienced versus the other, but during the proceedings, both protestor and protested were articulate, had a firm grasp of the Racing Rules of Sailing, and were kind and polite to one another. We found that (with the testimony of a witness) the starboard boat did have to take evasive action to avoid the possibility of a collision and we disqualified the port tack boat for tacking too close.

At the end of the protest, the competitors shook hands and thanked the committee for their time and confirmed that they understood and agreed with the decision. I recognized that this occasion was a testament to the way our sport teaches each new generation how to handle disputes, and further evidence of the fact that sailing in all of its complexities produces thoughtful and intelligent behavior and decision making. Losing with grace and poise is as (and in many cases more) important as winning with humility. It was clear that both the winner and the loser in this instance recognized these traits in one another.

The protest process is sometimes thought of as daunting or scary to competitors, and especially young sailors, many of whom have never had to file a form or state their case in front of a committee. The Pequot Yacht Club Junior Sailing Committee has taken much of the mystery and fear of the protest process away by holding open hearings (click here to read article). To allow all of the regatta’s competitors to observe the protest, they created an opportunity for young sailors to further understand why the process is so important to our sport and that it’s OK to unfurl the flag when you feel you’ve been wronged.

I hope that open protest hearings will be used at many more events, both junior and adult.  Gaining insight to the rules, viewing the perspective of your competitors in a given situation, learning from the experience of the committee and analyzing the results can only serve to help sailors evolve. If we had held an open protest hearing at BRYC during the PHRF regatta, the sailors would have seen a pretty basic protest, but more importantly they would have witnessed what it means to be a good competitor – and that’s where it all begins.

See you on the water!

Chris Gill