It's been a while since I've posted on the racing rules, so here is another installment. Taking a penalty may not be a topic near to anybody's heart, but I believe it needs to be addressed. Note that this write-up is for fleet racing - match racing and team racing penalties are different.
So, you’ve broken a rule on the racecourse – now what? It happens even to the best of us from time to time. We make a miscalculation, sail into an untenable position, or simply get an unlucky wind shift – and commit a foul. When that happens to you, what should you do?
The answer lies in the preamble to the rules, titled SPORTSMANSHIP AND THE RULES, which states (in part) “A fundamental principle of sportsmanship is that when competitors break a rule they will promptly take a penalty, which may be to retire”. Quite simply, if you break a rule, you must take a penalty. That is so even if no other boat protests. Sportsmanship requires you to call foul on yourself when nobody else does.
Note that this applies even if no other boat was disadvantaged. The saying “no harm, no foul” does not apply to sailboat racing. If you break a rule, you must take a penalty – regardless of whether or not it affected the positions of any other boats.The Standard Penalty
Sailing instructions may change the penalties, but if they don’t then rules 44.1 “Taking a Penalty” and 44.2 “One-Turn and Two-Turns Penalties” detail what you need to do. Rule 44.1 states (in part) “A boat may take a Two-Turns Penalty when she may have broken one or more rules of Part 2 in an incident while racing. She may take a One-Turn Penalty when she may have broken rule 31”. Part 2 of the rules is the section that covers rules for when boats meet. Therefore, if you foul another boat while racing, the standard penalty is two-turns. Rule 31 prohibits touching a mark, so if you hit a mark while racing, the standard penalty is one-turn.When to Take a Penalty
Rule 44.2 begins with “After getting well clear of other boats as soon after the incident as possible…”. This is a very important and often overlooked clause. You cannot choose when to take a penalty. You must take it as soon as you are able, not when it becomes convenient. If you happen to be surrounded by other boats at the time of the incident, you must immediately “get well clear”. If that means you have to stop your boat and let everybody else pass you, then that is what you must do. You can’t sail along waiting for other boats to tack, gybe, or otherwise clear away.How to Take a Penalty
Rule 44.2 continues with “…a boat takes a One-Turn or Two-Turns Penalty by promptly making the required number of turns in the same direction, each turn including one tack and one gybe”. A penalty turn need not be a full 360 degrees, but it must be enough to include a tack and a gybe (in either order). When two turns are taken, they must be in the same direction. You cannot tack, tack back, and gybe twice. The sequence must be tack-gybe-tack-gybe or gybe-tack-gybe-tack. The turns must be done “promptly”, which means without delay.
You might wonder how it is possible to take a penalty turn that is less than 360 degrees. Here is a diagram illustrating one. The boat below touches a windward mark while passing it on the required side and then takes a penalty turn.
At position 1, the boat touches the mark, breaking rule 31. She immediately gets well clear by sailing to position 3. She then takes a turn consisting of a tack (position 4) and a gybe (position 8) in the same direction. Although she continues to turn until position 9 (a 270 degree turn), her penalty was actually completed at position 8 (after turning only 225 degrees).Penalties at the Start and Finish
Note that if you foul a boat (or touch a mark) between the preparatory signal and the starting signal, you don’t have to wait to take your penalty. You can - and indeed you must - do your turn(s) right away.
If you foul a boat (or touch a mark) while finishing, you can take your penalty and then cross the finish line again. Rule 44.2 states (in part) “When a boat takes the penalty at or near the finishing line, she shall sail completely to the course side of the line before finishing”. Therefore, you must complete the penalty first, and then cross the line in the correct direction. You cannot simply take the penalty on the finish line. It is permissible to take a turn (or turns) around the finish pin, but you must complete your tack(s) and gybe(s) before crossing the finish line for the last time.One Penalty per Incident
What if you foul multiple boats at the same time, or if you touch a mark while breaking a rule of part 2? Look again at rule 44.1. It says “when she may have broken one or more rules
of Part 2 in an incident…”. Also, rule 44.1(a) says “when a boat may have broken a rule of Part 2 and rule 31 in the same incident she need not take the penalty for breaking rule 31”. In these situations, you only have to take a single two-turns penalty.Keeping Clear While Taking a Penalty
Rule 22.2 states “A boat taking a penalty shall keep clear of one that is not”. Note that this rule is in Part 2, Section D, and the Section D preamble says “When rule 22 or 23 applies between two boats, Section A rules do not”. Therefore, a boat taking a penalty must keep clear of all the other boats, regardless of the other right-of-way rules. That is why it is vital that you must first “get well clear”. If you foul another boat while taking a penalty turn, you’ll have to take a penalty for that too (it’s a separate incident).
On the flip side, however, a boat may not go out of her way to disadvantage a boat taking a penalty. Rule 24.2 states “Except when sailing her proper course, a boat shall not interfere with a boat taking a penalty…”.Alternate Penalties
It is fairly common for sailing instructions to specify alternate penalties. They may, for example, provide for a scoring penalty per rule 44.3, invoke Appendix T Section A, or otherwise change the number of penalty turns required. Therefore, it is very important to read the SI’s before racing.
Appendix T Section A (rule T1) is worth mentioning, because it is becoming fairly common. When in effect, rule T1 changes the penalty for breaking a rule of part 2. If the incident occurs within the zone around a mark other than a starting mark, then the penalty is still two-turns. Otherwise, the penalty is reduced to one-turn. The penalty for touching a mark is still one-turn.When Turns aren’t Enough
There are some circumstances when turns aren’t a sufficient penalty. Rule 44.1(b) states “if the boat caused injury or serious damage or, despite taking a penalty, gained a significant advantage in the race or series by her breach her penalty shall be to retire”. If, as a result of you breaking a rule, anybody gets hurt, or if either boat sustains serious damage, then you must retire. Turns won’t do.
If you break a rule and gain a significant advantage even after having taken a one-turn or two-turns penalty, then you must retire. Such situations are rare, but possible. For example, if a boat breaks rule 20, doesn’t give another boat room to tack to avoid a shoal, does two turns and sails away while the other boat is aground, then she has gained a significant advantage. She must retire.Penalties when not Racing
Note that rule 44 applies only when a boat is racing - that is, the time between her preparatory signal, and when she finishes and clears the line and finish marks. What if you touch a mark, or foul another boat before, after, or in between races? For the most part, there is no penalty. Rule 31 only applies while racing. The preamble to Part 2 states (in part) “a boat not racing shall not be penalized for breaking one of these rules, except rule 24.1”. The only time you can be penalized for breaking a Part 2 rule when not racing, is if you interfere with a boat that is racing (rule 24.1). Unfortunately, the two-turns penalty does not apply to this situation. The only penalty is disqualification from the race nearest in time per rule 64.1.Exoneration
There are a couple of ways that a boat may be exonerated for breaking a rule, in which case she need not take any penalty at all. One is governed by rule 64.1(a) which states “when as a consequence of breaking a rule a boat has compelled another boat to break a rule, the other boat shall be exonerated”. To be exonerated for breaking a rule, a boat must have been “compelled” (i.e. forced) to do so. If a boat could reasonably avoided breaking a rule but didn’t, she is not exonerated. Also, the other boat must be breaking a rule herself. A common example involves three boats overlapped on the same tack. If the windward boat (W) prevents the middle boat (M) from keeping clear of the leeward boat (L), then both M and W break rule 11. W is penalized, but M is exonerated under rule 64.1(a).
Rule 21 specifies the other scenario under which a boat is exonerated for breaking rules. It states:
“When a boat is sailing within the room or mark-room to which she is entitled under a rule of Section C, she shall be exonerated if, in an incident with a boat required to give her that room or mark-room,
(a) she breaks a rule of Section A, rule 15 or rule 16, or
(b) she is compelled to break rule 31.”
Note that in order to be exonerated, a boat must be entitled to mark-room, and must be sailing within that mark-room. If she sails outside the mark-room that another boat must give her, then she is not exonerated for breaking the above rules.Conclusion
If you think you have broken a rule on the racecourse, then take your penalty (even if nobody protests). Take it right away (even if you have to drop behind). Get well clear and do your turn(s) promptly before continuing to sail the course. It may cost you the race, but you’ll earn the respect of your competitors – which is far more valuable.
I hope that helps,
US Sailing Certified Judge
Chair, SAYRA Appeals Committee