Racing Rules of Sailing - Penalties and Protests
by Jay Harrell
September 2002

Now that you know most of the rules, you certainly plan on always following them when you go racing. But what happens when you forget or just mess up and break a rule? Fortunately, the rules give you a fairly easy out. All you need to do is immediately sail clear of other boats and do a "720 degree turns penalty". This is usually called a "720" and consists of two complete 360 degrees turns in the same direction with two tacks and two gybes.

There are two important points to note about the "720". First, you are required to do your turns right away. You can't wait until it's convenient or the wind is better - you have to do it right then. Second, you are required to include two tacks and two gybes and you have to turn at least 720 degrees around. If, for example, you break a rule at the gybe mark on a triangle course, the gybe that you would have made anyway at the gybe mark does not count as one of two in your penalty turn. You have to make two complete turns and then go back to racing, which might take even some more turning.

And of course there are some exceptions. First, if you break a rule and significantly damage another boat, you are required to retire from the race. Likewise, if you break a rule and as a result gain significantly in the race, you are not allowed to take a "720" penalty and must retire from the race. And finally, if you touch a mark while rounding, the penalty is just one turn (one tack and gybe), instead of two.

It is also very important to note that the rules require you to take a penalty even if no one else notices that you broke a rule or protests you. Because there are no umpires on the race course, competitors are expected to voluntarily follow the rules and take their penalties when they don't. The rules also allow and even expect anybody to protest any breach of the rules that they witness, even if they were not involved.

Now what if you see someone else break a rule or someone fouls you? First you must hail the word "Protest" and except on small boats you need to fly a red flag. The other boat should go ahead and do a 720 and if they do, then the matter is resolved. Of course, it's possible or even likely for there to be some disagreement as to who if anyone actually broke any rules. If the protested boat does not think they broke a rule and does not do a 720, then a Protest Hearing will be held on shore after the day's races.

Once back on shore, the protesting party writes down information about the incident and gives this paper to the race committee. The race committee will first notify the protested boat and then gather a few experienced racers to hear both sides of the story and issue a decision. If the committee decides that a boat broke a rule they will disqualify them from the particular race, or may issue a alternative penalty if the sailing instructions allow.

Unless you are racing in the Americas Cup, a protest hearing need not be a formal, stuffy, painful process. The hearing can be open to all racers to observe and should be an educational experience for everyone involved. The rules of sailing can be complicated and subtle and open discussion of disagreements should be encouraged so that everybody can understand the rules better. Do not avoid filing a protest just because it is too much trouble. If rules are broken on the race course, then a protest hearing is the way to sort it all out so that it is less likely to happen again.