Yacht Racing for Dummies – What Happened Next – Part 1

Who has right of way?

Two duelling yachts – Windward Leeward fight out as they ’round the mark’.

Okay, let me start by saying how much I love this image. It says so much about why we sail boats, and moreover in this case, why we race them. The passion, the energy, the skill, the fear, the emotion, the power of nature are all on display here.

I decided to write this blog when I spend 20 minutes discussing the whys and wherefores with a friend. And whether you are an aficionado of boats and racing, or a complete novice in your understanding of the sport of Yacht Racing; looking at images like this is a fascinating insight for both camps.

Two Dueling UYachts

Setting the Scene

My Description

Breaking down our discussion. We were looking at what had just happened, what was happening now, and what would happen next. All this within the context of yachting, good seamanship and the Racing Rules of Sailing.

There are 3 yachts in the picture (if you look carefully) but we shall only concern ourselves with the two in the foreground. Yacht 19, which is the ‘Windward’ Yacht on the left (the one which the wind will hit first) and 11 the ‘Leeward’ (pronounced “Loo’ard”) boat on the right. To make sure yachts don’t crash into each other, there are a set of rules – sometimes called the ‘Rules of the road”. These basic (well in theory at least) set of instructions are then turned into a racing set to allow for the sport to be competitive and fun. These are known as the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) and change every 4 years in sync with the Olympics.

The Rules

To stop boats from crashing every time they round a ‘mark’ (it’s the white inflatable in our image, but can be boats themselves, other fixed buoys in the water, sometimes ever just a dot on your chart) the inside yacht, if it has it’s nose in front, must be given room to move around before normal rules kick back in.

So in this image, 19 almost certainly has its nose overlapping the back of 11 on the approach to the turn, so had to be allowed around.  But here’s the thing, once around, as the ‘Windward Yacht’ she now has to keep clear of 11.  As she came from behind (in every likelihood), 19 is free to sail anywhere she likes.

When a Leeward yacht overtakes, they must stick to their ‘proper course’ (always debated but defined as the way you would go to be the fastest if there was no one else around).  So now, 11 has probably already broken a rule and 19 could or already has hailed “protest!”.

The Verdict

Phew!  What  a lot of rules!  But to break it down, 11 was given room to get around the ‘mark’, but once she is there, is obliged to do much more than she is to keep out of the way!  19 can’t deliberately nudge into her, he has probably already established that 11 is “in the way”.  PROTEST!

Do you agree with my interpretation?  Are you a novice and learnt something new? Tell us here!

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Showing 12 comments
  • Joe Mosbrook

    That's a good overview. It's hard to tell in this picture how far ahead of the mark they both are. Assuming their sterns have both past the mark, the windward boat needs to head up in hurry. If not, the leeward boats need to fall off.

  • Dv Cox

    A novice, but standard "rules of the road" for sailboats, is the windward boat has 'right of way".

  • Neilson Pip

    cant see the 3rd boat but I imagine the crew are all looking the 'other way' – so as to not get drawn into a long protest meeting as witnesses when they could be in the pub enjoying an end to what looks like a breezy day on the water.
    19 as WW boat does have to keep clear – but from the picture it appears that they have rounded the mark already and are now on their way down hill – not sure why both have dropped their head sails before hoisting kites as it looks like crew are getting ready to hoist spinnys?
    That still doesn't exonerate 19 from keeping clear and as they are now clear of the mark 11 has no need to give more room (if she had to going into the mark) and can luff 19 if she wishes – as you say that 19 has come from behind – be different if 11 had come from behind! But it looks as if they have been 'overlapped' for sometime so again 19 has no rights.
    Booms are very square and 19 could well be running by the lee and about to gybe – putting her on port and and in an even worse position.
    if 19 has any steerage she should luff up sort herself out – complete her penalty turns if 11 has been forced to take avoiding action and hailed protest – hoist her kite and get all over the back of 11 in the hope she can catch up!

  • Tim Smith

    Well weve all been there out of control and in the wrong I belive the corect answer is

  • Tim Smith


  • Neilson Pip

    Often heard you shouting this on Cowes high street Chopper!!

  • Drake Sailing Suppers

    Yes… been there…dDo we get the protest flag up?

  • Drake Academy Sailing

    It's hard to persuade a jury of anything else when this rule is at stake.

  • Drake Academy Sailing

    Would you shift if you were leeward!? She looks like she gave sea room around the mark, now it's time for W to respond.

  • Sail Checker - No.1 Independent Yacht Charter Comparison Site

    Yes Pip, The perfect explanation I think. I'd add that even if 11 came from behind, your going to struggle in the protest room on "proper course" grounds. Off the wind she can pretty much choose her course (saving the ridiculous) and justify it!

  • Luca Manu

    I think you are making lots of assumptions which are not so obvious from the photo; in order to analyse the situation we need to know so many details that I can hardly know where to start:
    1) were the yachts engaged at two lengths distance when approaching the mark?
    2) did they leave the mark on the left or on the right?
    3) if (as it seem) they left it on the right, did they change course (gybe) after leaving the mark? (If they didn't, this wasn't a windward mark, rather a midway mark between two downwind legs).
    Without these information we can only speculate on what the photo means, without any certainty on the applicable rules.

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  • […] as yachts zig-zag up wind, they will cross.  And an I explained in my last post that discussed Windward & Leeward fight out as they ’round the mark’ there are rules that govern this.  This rule is […]

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