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Fun is fundamentally the best part of sailboat racing

2011 February 9

It was the final stages of the Inter-Galactic Chinese Checkers Championships (IGCCC) and, to my regret, I was in the tank. She Who Must Be Obeyed was so far ahead that it would take a miracle (i.e., the cat scattering the marbles) for me to even finish close. 

Even worse, I knew why I was losing. I was distracted. I'd been thinking about simplicity, and that's a far more complex subject than it seems.

The Intergalactic Championships are something that we have waged for the nearly two decades of our most recent relationship (SWMBO and I were high school sweethearts who went different ways before reconnecting) and, unlike most such events of this exalted magnitude, it actually takes place several times a week. The IGCCC is our way of relaxing after a long day. At dusk, we meet by our front window overlooking the water and, on a table between us, is the checkers/battlefield plus a couple of stiffish drinks and some munchies. It is, if I may say, a most civilized routine.

It began during a time of what I might call "stress" in our relationship. We were seriously mad at each other. Sorting through the detritus in the garage one day, we came across a battered Chinese checkers board and she challenged me to a game. Having forgotten how to play, I lost badly but came back in the second game. Soon it became our evening pastime where, over Chinese checkers and drinks, we started talking-really talking-to each other once again and we sorted out our differences. 

It saved us because Chinese checkers is both a simple and an enjoyable game. Unlike chess or backgammon, it can be completely explained in five sentences. Unlike Monopoly, it isn't an adversarial game: You aren't trying to make your opponent go bankrupt. No, Chinese checkers is just about getting across the board faster than your opponent. Simple. 

Don't you wish sailboat racing could be this simple and fun?

I'd been thinking about simplicity since I first heard about a Fundamental Rule 2 regatta. Now, I've been racing sailboats for a billion years but I had to stop and think. Fundamental Rule 2. Hmmm. What the heck is that one? 

For those of you who aren't denizens of the protest room, Fundamental Rule 2 is also called "Fair Sailing." It goes like this: "A boat and her owner shall compete in compliance with recognized principles of sportsmanship and fair play."

No wonder I didn't recognize it. It's the sailing equivalent of the lecture your mother gave you on your first day of school. 

"Play nice with the other kids." 

"No hitting or shouting."

"Share your Crayons."

So what would constitute a Fundamental Rule 2 regatta?  I had to find out, and I tracked down Sam Chapin, a Laser fanatic who sails on Lake Eustis in central Florida. Chapin said their First Annual Fundamental Rule 2 Regatta was a great success and, like Chinese Checkers, he was able to explain the rules in just a few sentences.

"Youth and women start first, and the others later. No roll tacks.  No roll jibes. First one to the mark rounds first. No shouting. No yelling.  The first near the finish wait for the others so we all finish together. We help each other get the boats out. Then pizza, Greek salad, spinach pie, ice cream and cake."

He noted that the winners received "valuable trophies" that in the photograph on his website seem to be paper plates colorfully embellished using felt tip markers. The name of the regatta was also abbreviated on the "trophies" from Fundamental Rule 2 Regatta to "Fun Regatta," which says it all.

I loved it!

Have you ever considered the Racing Rules as supplied by the International Sailing Federation? When I dug out my battered copy to look up Fundamental Rule 2, I discovered that it's 149 pages long, not including the appeal decisions and interpretations. Before you start racing, you're expected to understand the majority of those 149 pages.

With that in mind, it's no surprise that there are more than a few websites and newsletters around that are devoted to discussing the minutiae of the racing rules: either how to use them as a club against your competitors or how to protect yourself from those who do.

Sailing isn't alone in this rules craze. Baseball, a simple game summed up in the movie "Bull Durham" as "Throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball," has 136 pages of rules.  All these rules for things that should be simple give an entirely new meaning to the word, "overruled." 

With all the chest-beating and wailing going on about why fewer people are racing sailboats, well, I think Sam Chapin has discovered the antidote. 

Have Fun. Play Nice.

Wouldn't you prefer a really enjoyable day on the water, sailing as fast as you can but not worrying about overlaps or mast abeam? Isn't there something satisfying about everyone finishing close together? And shouldn't racing be more about sharing pizza and stories after the race as about forcing a competitor into a foul? Isn't a decorated paper plate just as valuable a trophy as yet another silver pickle dish that tarnishes in about 10 minutes?

I used to sail in a class that was originally about fun, but soon a few hotshots that had to win at all costs started taking the joy out of an afternoon of racing around the bay. And those at the bottom of the fleet, who didn't want to engage in tactics more suitable to the America's Cup or the Olympics, started dropping out. 

One of the ways that the fleet officers calmed things down was to stage a few regattas that paired the high-point boats of the season with the low-point boats. The high-point skippers couldn't finish until their partner boats finished. Once again, no yelling was allowed and the result was that the better skippers had to help the slower boats get around the course as fast as possible. 

It quickly became apparent that winning wasn't about using the rules, but about sailing as fast as possible. The previously slower boats learned about sail trim and I would like to think that the formerly win-oriented skippers learned a little patience. Either way, it was fun for everyone and made for great lies at the bar later.

As I was losing the Inter-Galactic Chinese Checkers Championships, it occurred to me that a good rule for Sam Chapin's Fundamental Rule 2 Regatta might be that whoever finishes first has to buy the beer.

And then I realized that adding rules is the essence of the problem.  Best to just keep it simple. After all, too many rules take the fun right out of things. I'm just not sure about the spinach pie.