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[This page first appeared on the Cinque Ports Model Yacht Club site.]

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:

  • Are they on starboard or port?
  • Are they overlapped?
  • If overlapped, which boat is windward and which leeward?

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:

  • Call any unresolved incident and make a note of its details.
  • Make a note of the details of any protest.

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.

Before the start Before the start:

#1: Monitors the starboard end of the start line.
#2: Monitors the forward middle of the start line.
#3: Monitors the port end of the start line.
#4: Monitors the rear of the starting area.
#5: Roving monitor, focusing on any incident.

Observer #5, the "chief" observer, makes notes to back up the calls made and incidents observed by the four "direct" observers, providing a second witness as far as possible.

On the first beat After the start and up to the first windward mark:

#1: Monitors the starboard side of the fleet.
#2: Monitors the front central portion of the fleet.
#3: Monitors the port side of the fleet.
#4: Monitors the rear central portion of the fleet.
#5: Roving monitor, focusing on any incident.

Observer #5 makes notes to back up the calls made and incidents observed by the first four observers, providing a second witness as far as possible.

The rest of the heat

From the first windward mark and for the duration of the heat:

The current positions of the boats in the heat are, given four observers, separated into quarters (rounded up). For example, there may be 10 boats in the heat. The first quarter would comprise boats in positions 1, 2, & 3. The second quarter would comprise boats in positions 3, 4, and 5. The third quarter would comprise boats 6, 7, & 8. The last quarter would comprise boats 8, 9, & 10. Some overlap of the quarters thus occurs, and this is felt to be an essential feature of the separation.

#1: Monitors the leading quarter of boats.
#2: Monitors the second quarter of boats behind the leaders.
#3: Monitors the third quarter of boats.
#4: Monitors the last quarter.
#5: Roving monitor for any incident.

Observer #5 makes notes to back up the calls made and incidents observed by the first four observers, providing a second witness as far as possible.


"Knowing what you see"

Who is windward?  Who is on port?

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 competition.


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:

  • Listen for and note any hail of "Protest!", along with the details of the incident.
  • Judge whether a penalty turn included one tack and one gybe, that is, a complete 360.
  • Note, but NOT call, if a boat failed to pass a mark on its required side.

For each boat being observed, the observer must always know:

  • Is it on starboard or on port?
  • If a mark is approaching, is it clear ahead at the four-length zone of any following boat?
  • If a mark is approaching, is it clear astern at the four-length zone of any boat ahead?


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:

  • Which is the windward boat, and which the leeward?
  • Was the overlap clearly established outside the four-length zone?

For any overlap subsequently broken:

  • Did a line across the transom of the boat ahead clearly exclude all of the boat astern?
  • Was the overlap clearly broken outside the four-length zone?



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:

  • At what point did it pass head to wind?
  • Having passed head to wind, has it kept clear of other boats in the vicinity?
  • Has it reached a close-hauled course (that is, is the hull's course at a close-hauled angle to the wind, regardless of whether or not the sails are in fact set or sheeted to a close-hauled position)?
  • Has it caused any boat to sail above close-hauled?
  • If it is tacking in the vicinity of another boat that is also tacking, which boat is on which boat's port side?
  • Has it tacked outside the four length zone?

When the boat being observed gybes or changes course, it is important for the observer to know:

  • Has it given other boats in the vicinity room and opportunity to keep clear?
  • Has it caused any boat to sail above close-hauled?
  • If gybing, was it within two lengths of an overlapped leeward boat?
  • If changing course in the vicinity of a mark or obstruction, is the change of course towards or away from the mark?
  • If changing course, was the change of course apparently deliberately made to make it difficult or impossible for another boat to keep clear?

Overlapped in time?

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:

  • Is the overlap being established from astern and within two boat lengths?
  • Is the overlap being established to windward or to leeward?
  • Which is the boat being overlapped, and which is the boat establishing the overlap?

For any overlap in place:

  • Was the overlap originally established from astern and within two boat lengths?
  • Was the overlap originally established to leeward?
  • During the overlap, did the boats separate by more than two boat lengths at any time?
  • Are the overlapped boats still within two boat lengths of each other?
  • Has either boat gybed during the overlap?
  • Can either boat change her course without immediately making contact?

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:

  • Listen for any call for room or for denial of room.
  • Listen for any reply to a call for room.
  • Listen for any hail of "Starboard!" or "Out of control!"

Judgements must be made of potential or actual incidents and responses to incidents:

  • Judge whether a hail for room was given in good time.
  • Judge whether sufficient time was given for a reply to a hail before any change of course was made.
  • If contact occurred in any incident, judge whether one or both boats attempted to avoid contact.
  • Judge whether a starboard boat held her course while a port tack boat crossed her, or whether the boat changed course so as to make it difficult or impossible for the port tack boat to keep clear.
  • Judge whether a boat deliberately interfered with another boat making a penalty turn.
  • Judge whether a boat making a penalty turn had got well clear of other boats before starting her turn.
  • Judge and note whether a boat declaring it will take a penalty turn then does so as soon as possible.
  • Judge whether any contact with a mark or boat was part of an incident with another boat, or a separate incident.
  • Judge and note whether any incident conferred a significant advantage upon a boat.
  • Judge and note whether it seemed that the wrong boat took a penalty.
  • Judge and note whether any hail of "Protest!" was made at the first reasonable opportunity after an incident.
  • Judge and note whether any hail of "Protest!" was correctly given -- twice, each time giving the hailing boat's number, and the hailed boat's number.
  • Judge and note whether any skipper has offered advice to another skipper who is racing.
  • Judge and note if a boat is launched between the preparatory and start signals.

Judgements must be made of technicalities:

  • Judge whether a boat is racing, is approaching the line to start, has started, or has finished.
  • Judge whether, for an approaching mark, a boat can fetch the mark, is close-hauled or on a close reach, or will have to tack to pass the mark.



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.

Who has 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:

  • Does it have right of way, does it have right to room but not right of way, or must it keep clear?
  • Has it gained right of way by the action of another boat?

For any boat changing course or gybing:

  • Has it gained right of way, or has it lost right of way?

 For any overlap about to occur or in place:

  • Does the inside boat have right of way, or just entitlement to room?
  • Does either boat have a "proper course"?

Surely Green is clear ahead...?  No?

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