Racing Rules of Sailing - Keeping Clear
by Jay Harrell
August 2002

Right-of-way seems like a pretty obvious phrase: when you have the right-of-way, then other boats must get out of your way. Unfortunately, it's not so easy. The terms "Keep Clear" and "Room" come up over and over again in any discussion of racing rules. So what does it mean to "keep clear" or "give room"?

Simply put, "Keep Clear" means that the right-of-way boat can sail her course with no need to take avoiding action and when two boats are side by side that the right-of-way boat can change course without immediately hitting the keep-clear boat. In other words, if you are the keep-clear boat, you can't get so close that the right-of-way boat has to go around you or can't move without hitting you.

"Room" means enough space to maneuver promptly and cleanly (seamanlike). You aren't giving an inside boat room at a mark if they can't turn or gybe without hitting you or coming too close. On the other hand, if that inside boat does not have right-of-way, they are required to turn quickly and not take up more space than necessary.

That is easy enough until you read rule 16.1 that says, "When a right-of-way boat changes course, she shall give the other boat room to keep clear." So you can't just turn and run over someone. Even if you have the right-of-way, you have to give the other boat a reasonable chance to get out of the way.

That's where is gets sticky. Some times a keep-clear boat will sail very close to a right-of-way boat and then claim that they aren't being given room to keep clear. In fact, they already fouled the right-of-way boat when they got so close in the first place. Likewise, if a keep-clear boat does not respond immediately when a right-of-way boat changes course, but instead waits until the boats are so close that the right-of-way boat has to turn away, then they have fouled the other boat. "Room to keep clear" refers to the space and time available when the right-of-way boat first changes course, not the space left after they have sailed towards you for a while.

The bottom line? Rule 16 does not shift the right-of-way between two boats and it does not give the keep-clear boat the right to hinder a right-of-way boat by sailing too close. It merely gives the burdened boat a reasonable chance to get out of the way. If you are so close that it is not possible for the right-of-way boat to give you room to keep clear, you have probably already fouled them and should do your 720 turns. Likewise, if a right-of-way boat has to first turn away from you in order to give you enough room to turn away from them, then you have forced them to take "avoiding action" and have already fouled them. "Room to keep clear" does not protect you.

And like all good sailing rules, there is one important exception. When a port and starboard boat are crossing each other and are not on a collision course, the starboard (right-of-way) boat is not allowed to turn towards the port boat if the port boat would have to immediately turn to continue keeping clear. In other words, "room to keep clear" is just a little bit bigger when it involves a port and starboard boat crossing paths. The port boat still has to stay out of the way, they just get a little extra time to do it.