Unlike sports such as cricket or rugby, sailing races do not normally have umpires on the race course, instead any disagreements over rules are settled in the protest room..
A protest is a claim that another boat has broken a rule; the claim is decided in a ‘hearing’ in which all the boats involved explain what they believe took place.
The protest process is an important part of ensuring that racing is fair for all competitors. If you think another boat broke a rule you should protest; if you are protested, don’t take it personally, discovering how you may have broken a rule will help you become a better sailor.
On the water - If you believe another boat has broken a rule then you need to hail ‘Protest’ at the time of the incident, or if the other boat has sailed out of earshot you need to inform them at the first reasonable opportunity. Additionally, if your boat is 6m in length or over you need to display a red flag. It’s worth trying to remember, or if you can, note down the incident and the sail numbers of boats nearby which might serve as witnesses.
Once you come ashore, check the sailing instructions to see if there are any special procedures for lodging a protest. Unless the sailing instructions say something different, the following procedure will apply.
You must submit your protest in writing, either on a protest form or on plain paper but an email or even a text message is usually acceptable.
The sailing instructions may specify a time limit; if they don’t, the time limit is two hours after the race finishes. Your protest must be received, by the race office, before that time.
At a minimum, the written protest must include a description of the incident. This can be very brief provided it shows that a rule may have been broken (e.g. “a boat hit a mark”). If you are short of time, this is all you have to submit before the time limit, don’t miss the deadline trying to provide more information.
You must identify in writing the other boat(s) involved; you don’t have to do this before the time limit, but it must be done before the hearing.
You will also need to identify where and when the incident happened, but this does not have to be done before the hearing.
It is helpful to provide any other information requested on the protest form.
Once the protest has been submitted you will be informed of the time and place of the hearing using the procedure described in the sailing instructions; often this will be done by a notice on the official noticeboard. You need to ensure you arrive on time for the hearing, as it can start without you if you don’t show up on time.
A witness is someone that observed the incident and may be able to provide a description of what happened. They could be another boat that is racing, a member of the race committee, or a passer-by on the bank (although it helps if they have sailing knowledge!). Generally calling a crew member as a witness has limited benefit. It is your responsibility to ensure that the witness(es) you want to call come to the hearing, as the hearing may continue without them if they are not ready.
Remember sailing is a self-policing sport. If you think you have broken a rule, you should immediately take a penalty. Unless the sailing instructions say otherwise, the penalty is usually two turns.
If you hear a hail of ‘protest’ against you and you are not sure if you have broken a rule you can protect yourself by immediately taking a penalty. If you think the other boat broke a rule you should immediately hail ‘protest’.
If, however, you get ashore and find out you are being protested, don’t panic – it’s quite a simple process. You need to follow a few key steps:
Remember also that it’s quite possible for a protest committee to decide no rule has been broken, so just being in a protest, doesn’t guarantee someone will be disqualified. Equally, in some circumstances, particularly if there has been a collision, it’s possible that both boats may have broken a rule and will be penalised.
The protest hearing usually takes place in a separate room away from the general club area, and follows a formal process, but rest assured that the protest committee (‘PC’) will help you through the process, especially if it is your first hearing.
The following are the key steps to the process:
If you believe that the PC’s procedure was wrong, or that they made an error applying the rules, or you have new evidence that was not available during the hearing, you may ask the PC to re-open the hearing. You must do this in writing, giving your reasons within 24 hours of hearing the decision (except on the last day of a series when it must be within 30 minutes).
If you are still unhappy with the result of the hearing you can lodge an appeal to the RYA, following the appeals process. Note that appeals will not change the ‘facts found’ but will only review that the process has been followed correctly, and that the protest committee has come to the correct conclusions based on those facts.