THE PROTEST BOX.

There she sits, on the shingled wall, adjacent to the the main entry door to the Club.   “There but for the grace of God, go I,” you think, when you see someone sliding a protest form into the teeny slot at the top of the box.  Why is it that the mere thought of filing a protest can strike fear into the hearts of otherwise fearless sailors?  Because of some incidents at our Club this summer, I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately.

Many people seem to think that filing a protest is a bad thing, and the general perception seems to be that if you protest another boat, either you’re not a “good friend,” or you’re “too competitive,” or the rest of the fleet thinks that you should have been able to solve your disagreement without going to all the way to the dreaded Protest Room. But I would argue that if there is a difference of opinion about a certain incident on the race course, or the interpretation of a racing rule, a formal protest is the best way to try and settle things fairly, and for everyone to learn from the situation. Think about it: in the Protest Room, you have a capable mediator, and a socially acceptable way to describe what can sometimes be an emotionally heated difference of opinion. You can talk it through. And it sure beats having the parties involved going around for the rest of the season with hard feelings, which, unfortunately, happens all too often.  Without a formal resolution, and closure, both skippers can feel as though they were treated unfairly by the other.  It’s just not good for the morale of the fleet.

But let’s take a step back, to when the incident on the race course actually occurs.  There you are, emotions running high, because you find yourself in an untenable situation with another boat (I like to call it the “Oh, shit!” moment), and, of course, it has to be someone’s “fault.” In my experience, it’s often been the case that people find themselves in these kinds of predicaments because there hasn’t been any communication between the boats in advance of their coming together. Especially at the start, and at mark roundings, I think that an early conversation regarding things like an inside overlap at the zone, or giving room to keep clear, can go a long way toward helping boats to avoid getting into these difficult positions. Sometimes, though, there are people who just don’t know the rules very well, and in those cases, a conversation won’t be of much help.

If you find yourself having a disagreement with another boat, and you decide to file a protest, you need to think very quickly, because the rules say that you have to inform the other boat at the earliest possibility.  You can’t think about it and then tell them later. And in preparation for presenting your case once ashore, you immediately need to look around and understand the placement of the boats during the alleged rules infraction, where the wind is coming from, and your position on the course (at the start, near a mark, etc.), so that you can describe it as accurately as possible to the Protest Committee. The Protest Committee members will examine the situation in small segments, referring to the rules for each individual “freeze frame” step of the way, carefully establishing who had right of way at each critical moment.   As you can imagine, a lot of rules learning happens in the Protest Room, which is another reason why filing a protest shouldn’t be seen in such a negative light.

In the January, 2015 issue of David Dellenbaugh’s Speed & Smarts newsletter, there is an excellent section about protests. I particularly liked his advice about having a “protesting philosophy,” which refers to having a strategy for protesting already in mind, prior to racing.  It sounds simplistic, but in the hectic, heat of the moment, when it’s difficult to make a quick decision as to whether to protest another boat, having guidelines in mind for situations where you feel that a protest is warranted, can be very helpful. Some people choose never to protest, while others may protest only if there is contact with damage, or if there was unsportsmanlike behavior. Interestingly, Dellenbaugh notes that “Most sailors are more likely to forgive (i.e. not protest) a less-experienced sailor who made a mistake than a veteran racer who should have known better.” The point is that you will have thought about this before the season or regatta begins, and will have a framework to guide you.

Taking that concept to the fleet level, I believe that developing a “protesting philosophy” for your fleet can be a really effective tool in ensuring fair racing and good sportsmanship. It can help encourage individual sailors to better learn the racing rules, to feel more comfortable in talking about incidents that arise on the race course, and to remember to take their penalty turns when they’ve made a mistake. Racing with friends is a whole lot of fun, but sometimes, when disagreements arise, it can be difficult not to see the filing of a protest as a betrayal of friendship. That, in turn, can negatively affect morale. Setting the tone for sportsmanlike behavior, and finding ways to talk about confusing situations on the race course, are a couple of simple things that Fleet Captains can do to encourage the fleet’s perception that filing a protest is nothing personal, and, in fact, is a positive way to settle differences and learn from each other’s mistakes.  This will go a long way in helping everyone in the fleet feel that the racing is fair and equitable.

Since there are no referees in our sport, it’s up to the individual sailor to take a penalty if he or she has broken a rule. And it’s up to the individual sailor to speak up when he or she believes that another boat has broken a rule.  Sometimes that can involve filing a protest.  And that’s not a bad thing.

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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