We've put together a few thoughts on observing, some of them inspired by suggestions from Nick Weall, chairman of the MYA Appeals Committee and a RYA National Judge.
Ideally, skippers regulate themselves. In the spirit of sportsmanship, if a skipper breaks a rule, he acknowledges the infringement and takes a penalty turn. All skippers subscribe to this ideal, since it is the entire basis on which fleet racing takes place. By taking part in a race, a skipper willingly and voluntarily subjects himself to RRS rule 2: Fair sailing and sportsmanship. (You didn't know that? Check out rule 3: Acceptance of the rules.)
In practice, we are reliably informed that most skippers are human, and it is characteristic of a human's self-image that his own behaviour is invariably thought to be right and done for very good reasons. Very few skippers deliberately break a rule, yet incidents take place and contacts with buoys and other boats are made. In most of these cases, a skipper genuinely feels that it is not his fault, and it is exactly what we mean by "human nature" to feel that it really was someone else's fault. There was a sudden change of wind, the other boat did not allow sufficient room, the incident was not governed by any known rule, and so on....
The presence of observers encourages a skipper to put aside his personal feelings and to see an incident in a more detached way. When this is insufficient encouragement for sportsmanlike behaviour, observers are required to provide impartial and non-subjective views of any incidents to the Protest Committee.
Principles of observing
A good observer "knows what he sees". Three main principles apply.
First, in order to know and understand what you are seeing, you should have an understanding of the RRS -- the Racing Rules of Sailing. It is not essential that you have an expert understanding, but you do need to be familiar with the basics. This basic familiarity allows you to implement the next principle.
Second, you need to anticipate and be aware of potential incidents. This means that you need to continuously track the boats under your observation, and always know their current situation (discussed in more detail below) from moment to moment:
Now you will not always be certain of what you see. For example, it can be difficult to say whether an overlap was established in time outside the zone, or whether a boat had in fact passed head to wind. The final principle is that of the "last known certain situation".
So, third, if the facts of a situation are unclear, you must go back in time to the point when the facts were certain, and report that. For example, if you are unsure whether an overlap was indeed established outside the zone, the last known certain situation was surely of no overlap, and so you determine, note, and report that the overlap was not in fact established outside the zone. Be careful: the issue here is NOT one of deciding whether or not a boat has infringed a rule beyond reasonable doubt, but of deciding whether a fact can be said to be certain.
As a result of making good observations and "knowing what you see", you will become clear in your own mind about whether a rule has been infringed, and about how any infringement could have been avoided. Now being clear in your own mind about these things is NOT strictly part of your job as an observer, but is to be welcomed as part of your development as a skipper.
The duty of an observer
The fundamental duty of the observer is to:
Your duty is limited to noting the facts. While it is NOT your duty at the time of an incident to determine guilt, to identify or advise on the relevant points of the RRS involved, or to suggest any action or remedy that the skippers should have taken or should now take, you would be a better observer (and a better skipper yourself) if you were clear in your own mind about these issues, and you may well be asked for your opinion afterwards by the Protest Committee if matters advance to that stage.
If the event is using DIRBOS, the observer must wait 10 seconds before making a call on any unresolved incident.
To make a call, an observer shall twice hail "Contact! <Sail number ##> contacted <sail number ##>", or "Contact! <Sail number ##> contacted the mark". A hail is a loud and forceful vocalisation.
Allocating regions for monitoring
For a 16-boat fleet, there are ideally five observers; four who divide and
directly monitor the fleet between them, and a "chief" observer who
roves over the whole fleet providing focus and back-up on particular incidents.
(If the fleet is larger, it is suggested that a direct observer is required for
every four boats or part thereof. For example, an 18-boat fleet would have five
direct observers, plus a sixth chief observer. If the fleet is smaller, fewer
observers could be employed on the same basis of an observer per four boats or
part of four.) Each observer draws, or is allocated, a numbered note pad. While
the pad is used for (you guessed it) making notes, the number on the note pad
identifies the portion of the fleet that the observer should monitor, as shown
in the diagrams.
"Knowing what you see"
In diagram "C", are the boats overlapped? Do you know whether Green is windward of Purple? Do you know who is on port and who is on starboard? Would the answers change if the wind was blowing across the port or starboard quarter (ie from right to left, or from top to bottom of the display) instead of from directly behind? Would any answers change if the boats were within the four-length zone of an approaching mark? Which of the first three questions make no sense?
The following requirements of what an observer should know are split into
three categories: essential, important, and desirable. We suggest
that "essential" observing skills are needed for club events,
"important" skills come into play at open and regional events,
and "desirable" skills are needed for national and international
In order to reliably observe at all, you must know about starboard and port, not only on the beat or reach but also on the run; what constitutes an overlap; windward and leeward, not only when overlapped on the beat or reach, but also on the run; what a penalty turn involves; and the course that all boats must sail. (We assume that you know when a boat is close-hauled, on a close reach, reaching or on a broad reach, and running.)
It is essential for the observer to be able to make the following determinations:
For each boat being observed, the observer must always know:
In diagrams E and F, are the boats overlapped? Who is windward and who is leeward? Who is on port and who is on starboard? Would any answer change if the black arrow was a mark that Purple was approaching and Green had just passed?
For every overlap in place:
For any overlap subsequently broken:
At the next level of observing, it becomes important to know how an overlap was established (from astern? within two lengths? to leeward?) and whether any significant change took place during the overlap (did the distance between the boats increase to over two lengths at any time? did the windward boat gybe?). It also becomes important to be able to make a large variety of judgements about an incident or potential incident, and about how the skippers reacted, as detailed below.
When the boat being observed tacks, it is important for the observer to know:
When the boat being observed gybes or changes course, it is important for the observer to know:
In diagram "D", has Green established an overlap? Is it established outside the zone? Within two boat lengths of Purple? Is Green steering a course to leeward or windward of Purple?
For any overlap about to occur, it is important to know:
For any overlap in place:
The observer should anticipate forthcoming obstructions -- the bank, another boat on starboard, a boat in irons, a boat out of control, two or more boats entangled -- and forthcoming potential incidents -- a leeward boat pointing up, an overlap before an approaching mark, an approaching mark itself. In these developing situations, it is important for the observer to:
Judgements must be made of potential or actual incidents and responses to incidents:
Judgements must be made of technicalities:
At the highest levels, an observer should be able to match what he sees with his knowledge of the rules, so that he always knows, in addition to which boat has right of way, which boat is entitled to room even though it does not have right of way, and what boats have the burden of keeping to a proper course.
In diagram "B", can Green sail Purple off the mark? Is she obliged to round the mark and assume her proper course as soon as possible? Is she obliged to round the mark as soon as possible even though she is not burdened with having a proper course? What would the situation have to be to allow a different answer to these questions?
It is useful for the observer to know for each boat:
For any boat changing course or gybing:
For any overlap about to occur or in place:
The observer should always know when an overlap is technically in place or
technically broken, regardless of the apparent "actual" situation. The
diagram "A" shows two boats that are, by definition, overlapped. It is
almost certain that Green will in due course cross Purple with no likelihood of
contact (Green is reaching, after all, while Purple is close-hauled) and will
pass the mark comfortably ahead. Can Purple legitimately protest Green for not
giving her room at the mark? And now what if a sudden gust of wind blew Green
onto the mark and Purple did indeed hit Green subsequently? How would the
overlap have to have been established to allow a different answer to these
questions? Which of these questions would have a different answer if the mark
was to be rounded clockwise (ie kept to starboard)?
Observing improves your racing
All of the above issues that an observer "should mentally determine and always know" are, of course, exactly the issues that any good skipper needs to know while racing. Observing is thus excellent practice for a skipper to sharpen his tactical awareness and skill. Seek opportunities to observe! Volunteer with enthusiasm!
©2022 Lester Gilbert