Racing Rules of Sailing - An Informal Introduction
by Jay Harrell
March 2002

With any kind of game you want to play, you first need to know the rules and sail boat racing is no different. So you grab a copy of the latest rule book, and discover it's 139 pages of small print about as interesting as reading the tax code, and about as easy to understand as well. Don't give up! It's really not that bad. Actually, there are only a few basic rules that you have to remember so that you can get started and go have a good time racing.

The fundamental rules are easy: help anyone in danger, avoid collisions even if you have the right of way, and voluntarily take a penalty when you break a rule.

On the water you need to remember five basic right-of-way rules:

1. On opposite tacks, port-tack boat must keep clear.

2. On the same tack, windward boat or boat clear astern (behind) must keep clear.

3. A boat that is tacking must keep clear of other boats.

4. An outside boat must give an overlapped inside boat room to round a mark. This does not apply at the starting line, and also not at the windward mark if the two boats are on opposite tacks.

5. A right of way boat must give other boats a reasonable chance to get out of the way. In sailing, you aren't allowed to “force” a foul like you can in other sports.

A boat has right of way when another boat must keep clear. The phrase “keep clear” is pretty important. It means that the right of way boat can sail her course without taking action to avoid you, and in the case of overlapped boats, the leeward boat can turn in either direction without hitting the windward boat. This point actually gets very complicated, but that’s enough for now.

Of course, there aren't 139 pages of rules for nothing, but you can get started with just these five and manage to have fun while learning the rest as you go.

So what happens when someone breaks a rule? First and foremost, racing sailboats is “self policing”. There aren't any umpires on the course and you are expected to follow the rules and admit your fault and take your penalty when you run afoul of someone else, even if they don't complain. The standard penalty for breaking a rule is called a “720” turn. That is, two complete 360 degree turns including two tacks and two gybes. If you touch a mark, the penalty is only one 360 with one tack and one gybe. That's it. Just get out of everyone elses way, do two turns and be on your way. If you see someone else break a rule, you hail the word “protest” and fly a red flag. If they do a 720, then the incident is considered closed, otherwise the race committee will hold a “protest hearing” to decide the case.

Now that you know the basic rules, there is one more important topic – the start. The standard starting sequence now used worldwide is a five minute countdown with a specific series of flags and sounds. About a minute or so before the start sequence, the race committee will typically blow a horn several times to indicate that it's time to start paying attention. The next signal will be the raising of the “class flag” along with a single horn. The race committee will tell you what this flag looks like at the skippers meeting before the race or in the “sailing instructions” for more formal races. The class flag indicates the exact start of the five minute countdown. When there are exactly four minutes left in the countdown, the race committee will raise the “prep flag” along with a horn blast. The prep flag is a square blue flag with a white square in the middle. When there is exactly one minute left, the committee will lower the prep flag with another single horn blast. At zero, they will lower the class flag and blow the horn again. If you are over the start line early, you have to sail back and cross the line again.

Time left before startSignal Flag and sound
5 minutes leftWarning Class flag raised, one horn
4 minutes leftPreparatory Prep flag raised, one horn
1 minute leftOne-minute Prep flag lowered, one long horn
StartStart Class flag lowered, one horn

And that's it – all you need to know to go have fun racing sailboats. So come on out and join the fun; it's a great way to spend a windy afternoon on the water.

References: Sailing World Feb 2002, the US Sailing Rules Summary Card, and the Racing Rules of Sailing as published by US Sailing.

[Editor's Note: Jay has agreed to provide the Rudder with a series of articles on the Racing Rules of Sailing. If you have specific topics you would like discussed in the articles contact him at ]