Thursday, October 9, 2014

Robert A Smith Regatta & My First Protest Experience

This past weekend Tara and I crewed on Elixir in Portland Yacht Club's Robert A Smith Regatta.  We've been racing on Elixir for a couple years and have been steadily improving in our fleet.  Never have we experienced any major incidents but on day one we had an unfortunate collision with Nelly, a Martin 241, which resulted in a protest hearing, the first I've been through in my 4 years of racing sailboats.

The whole ordeal was a tremendously frustrating experience.  Here's what I recall occurred on the water, I was handling foredeck on Elixir:

As we were approaching our lay-line to the final leeward mark Nelly was to our starboard also on port yelling at us to make our jibe.  We didn't feel we were there yet so continued a bit further, there was plenty of water and no obstructions for Nelly to run into.  This isn't really relevant to the incident except that it setup a poor attitude towards Elixir on Nelly's part.

They jibed shortly after we did and, because they're so much lighter, were going a bit faster and were off our starboard bow as we approached the mark, there was a solid overlap.  After getting our spinnaker down I was cleaning things up on the foredeck and looked forward to see their port quarter nearly under our bow!  I yelled "oh f*ck" and Nelly's skipper, David, turned to see us, it's my belief this was the first he realized we were there.  No one on Elixir had noticed them there until this point either but my skipper immediately saw my concern and fell off to try to avoid them.  David reached out and pushed away on our bow but we grabbed their backstay with our anchor roller and caused it to come disconnected.  The Martins have essentially a single running backstay that's not necessary to keep the rig up so nothing catastrophic happened.  They continued racing and yelled at us to make a penalty turn which we did even though it wasn't clear that we were at fault for a few reasons:

  1. Proper course to finish was a beam reach (which we were on) and Nelly had to be close-hauled to have been able to come across our bow.
  2. They were close enough to us as we approached the mark that it would not have been prudent to head up so abruptly in front of us, at least not without hailing and getting a response.
  3. I've since learned this may not have applied since we'd passed the mark and were on our next course.  However, we were definitely still within three boat lengths of the mark and therefore (I thought) were under the mark-room rule.

We both finished and they had their backstay re-rigged very quickly thereafter, and continued racing the rest of the day.  I figured perhaps it simply ran free through the purchase blocks and they just had to re-thread it, didn't appear to be any damage to me.  They never flew a flag or hailed protest.

After completing three more races through the weekend and returning to the marina Sunday night my skipper got a call from the protest committee to ask if he was going to be present for the protest.  We had no idea there was any protest until this point and were quite shocked.  There is a rule that states you don't have to hail or fly a flag for a protest to be heard if severe damage is obvious to both boats, but it sure wasn't obvious to us.

The protest hearing did not go well.  Our skipper needed to get home and so couldn't go to PYC's clubhouse to be physically present, so we did it over speaker phone.  We were not prepared and became very emotionally charged, which didn't help.  Nelly's story was a long ways from what we observed and even conflicted with a drawing they submitted to file the protest (which, unfortunately, we did not see until later that night).  Needless to say we lost and were DSQ'd from that race for violating rule 12.  Nelly was awarded a re-dress to tie for first in their fleet (we were in different fleets).

A few things about this particularly bothered me that I think could be avoided:

  1. We had no idea there was a protest filed.  Part a-4 of RRS rule 61.1 states that no flag or hail is required if damage is obvious to both boats but it seems to me the rule should be modified so indication of a protest is less ambiguous.  To prevent this Elixir could have checked the protest board online after each day, which I plan to do going forward.
  2. Nelly's story was taken as truth while (presumably) ours was disregarded despite the conflict with their written testimony.  It's really tough to decide if you have two party's making conflicting statements but it seems to me there was evidence in our favor here.
  3. After losing the protest I went to the PYC clubhouse in hopes to chat with David and learn from the experience.  While there I discovered that people from other boats were present and made statements irrelevant to the case that was considered while we were not on the phone.  It seems very unfair for evidence to be submitted that all party's are not aware of, we had no ability to refute it.
  4. Nelly made the statement that he had been hailing us to change course for 32 seconds before the collision.  If this were true it's difficult to believe they were unable to avoid the collision and thus were in violation of RRS rule 14.  After the hearing I found ISAF case 26 which is a similar situation, because the stand-on boat did not act to avoid the collision they were also given a DSQ for the race despite the give-way boat not realizing they were there.
Anywho, bottom line is it's unfortunate the collision occurred regardless who was at fault.  It's fortunate that no one was hurt and I do hope that the damage to Nelly is not severe.  I do look forward to chatting with David one day and hope he, also, will be able to release any hard feelings against Elixir.

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