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Rules for thee but not for me doesn’t work on the water

2023 July 1

Five adult sailing students were making their way back to the dock after a couple of hours of drills on a J/24 and two instructors and I were following in a tiny chase boat. We were heading into the “jaws,” a series of jagged breakwalls at the harbor entrance that create a maze through which non-motorized sailing vessels must tack or jibe to navigate. Like many harbor entrances, the traffic pattern here looks like sand in an hourglass. Boats converge and slow down to pass each other or travel through close alongside. It is usually a cordial and uneventful passage, especially between sailors.

The J/24 was on starboard tack, sailing close-hauled at about 3 knots. Our little Whaler followed close, so instructors and students could debrief a good practice. Suddenly, it became clear that a large cruising sailboat, sails furled and under power at 7 knots, had no plans to slow or turn and was seconds away from a crushing amidships collision with our student’s boat. Despite shouts, the cruiser didn’t respond, so our students were forced to take rapid, evasive action. The helmsperson slammed-tacked before the crew could release the jib or shift their weight, so they heeled over hard and spun toward our little power boat out of control. We took evasive action too.

Unfazed, the cruiser’s skipper watched the chaos but motored on, apparently unaware that he had broken nearly every principle rule of the road: starboard over port, sail over power, overtaken over overtaking, too fast for conditions and in a no wake zone. I’m sure he committed offenses I have not listed here.

When our students were back on track, we chased down the cruiser to clear the air and to seek assurances that it wouldn’t happen again. Firmly but politely, we listed a few of the applicable rules and said that it was his job to give room. He replied that he knew the rules—“All of the rules,”  according to him—but that there was “just too much traffic in the channel” and that he “didn’t feel compelled to slow down or turn.” He would neither take responsibility nor apologize and waved us off as if we were a burden. We returned to the dock to check in with the affected students, then filed a toothless complaint with the local U.S. Coast Guard station.

Is this where we are in this nation of laws?

One of the defining characteristics of sailing is that most of its participants subscribe to a pact of self-imposed kindness and collective responsibility that belies conventional social contracts. For example, while racing rules may seem complex, they are at their core about ensuring the safety of all participants, helping those in need and allowing every player to play their best game. Indeed, the first racing rule compels us to “give all possible help to any person or vessel in danger.” 

Furthermore, in 44 of 50 states, boaters of all types and of a certain age are required to take training and agree to follow safe boating guidelines. While the curricula differ by state, the key concept is the same: some boats have right of way and others do not and the boats that do not must give way to the boats with rights. Oh, and don’t collide. It’s as commonsensical as driving on the correct side of the road and not hitting oncoming cars.

These are the frameworks that make it possible to sail, and in some cases, live. Our crew will always remember hearing the call for help, agreeing to divert to join a search, and then saving the life of a young man who had fallen off another boat in big seas. The rescued sailor is now a husband and father. Communities are built as a consequence of the sailor’s pact.

It dawns on me that I am becoming one of those old salts who pines for old times, when we could depend on basic courtesy and compassion for one another and apologize and forgive after mistakes. The irony is that the remorseless cruiser driver has 10 to 15 years on me and a bigger boat which I expect has him thinking that he deserves some special rights in the jaws. He doesn’t have a boater’s safety card, but boy, does he need one.

And therein lies the choice: Either we agree to rules of kindness and mutually assured safety, or we can wait for insurers and regulators to do it for us. I don’t expect the latter will improve the sailing, but the former will.