World Match Racing Tour.

ISAF Special Event

The Art of Match Race Umpiring

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04.12.2010 - 03:14:04 (GMT)
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Who’s right? Who’s wrong? On-water umpires play a crucial role the excitement of match racing. Photo - Subzero Images, WMRT.

Any sport that has rules needs officials to enforce those rules, whether its golf, football, basketball or sailing. And as sports become more competitive and interactive with their participants and spectators, the quality, consistency and speed of the official rulings needs to be at a very high level.

Everyone has seen how this process works in basketball, football and tennis, where the playing surfaces have nice easy lines to follow, but what about a complex water sport like sailing? How is it similar, and how is it different?

Firstly, match race officials are umpires, not referees: on right-of-way rules, they give rulings only when asked by either team. So, part of the game for the sailors is “selling” their case to the umpires with convincing maneuvers – and gestures.

Secondly, umpire power is absolute: even if they make the wrong call, the mistake cannot be undone.

Thirdly, the situations can be complex, with right of way changing by the second as a dueling pair throw their boats at each other. The two umpires assigned to the match then do something extraordinary: they become the sailors. Just like actors being “in character” off the stage, each umpire becomes the skipper of one boat and begins a first-person narration of what he is doing and why in relation to the rules. Only with this method can the pace of observation and interpretation be fast enough to follow the maneuvers and ascertain who’s right and who’s wrong.

Fourthly, if a penalty does get assessed in any given incident, the offending team’s blue or yellow flag is flown, and the penalty can be exonerated either by drawing a penalty on the other team in another incident, or by taking a penalty turn. If the turn is taken whilst sailing on an upwind leg, it is a gybe; if it is taken on a downwind leg, it is a tack.

These features have transformed the otherwise onerous process of arguing who’s right and who’s wrong in a protest hearing held later ashore, which is still the procedure in most other sailing, to being an exciting, dynamic and integral part of the game .

Article provided by Dobbs Davis