Ask Sail: Who has the right-of-way

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WHO HAS RIGHT-OF-WAY?

Q: I sail in Narragansett Bay, which is a relatively narrow body of water that has upwind boats generally going south and downwind boats generally going north. When sailboats are racing, the starboard tack boat has the right-of-way over the port tack boat, so I want to exclude the racing situation because racing sailboats generally know this rule pretty well.

It is the regular cruising boat situation that needs the clarification. It is my understanding from my reading of the right-of-way rules that in regular sailing, if a boat is going upwind and is going to cross the path of a downwind boat, the boat closer to the wind has the right of way, regardless of the tack of either boat.

Last summer, I was heading upwind on port tack, crossing the path of a boat going downwind on a starboard tack, with the boat going downwind boat coming in from my port side. I was prepared to tack, but not before I had to, and I did not want both of us to alter course toward the same spot, so I held my course on the port tack. When the boat going downwind got closer than he wanted to be, he did alter course. However, much yelling and screaming could be heard from the foredeck of the boat heading downwind.

In old editions of the rules of the road, it is clearly stated that even in non-racing situations, the boat heading upwind has the right-of-way over a boat heading downwind, regardless of the tack of either boat.

I wondered if you could clarify the situation. Also, is it always good to call for right-of-way? That is pretty easy with two upwind boats on opposite tacks. I just always yell, “Starboard,” and that usually works if you yell loud enough. However, I’m not clear what to yell in an upwind-downwind crossing situation. (I can tell you what the boat heading downwind yelled in the situation described in the above, but you do not want to print it.) Perhaps you can suggest the correct protocol.

— Clifford Lewis, Portsmouth, RI

DON CASEY REPLIES

You need to throw away your old rules and perform a mea culpa for the incident you describe. Today’s rules do not consider upwind or downwind. There are just three sailboat-to-sailboat rules:

1. When on the same tack, the leeward boat has the right-of-way.

2. When on opposite tacks, the starboard tack boat has the right-of-way.

3. When overtaking, the overtaken boat has the right-of-way.

The rules require the stand-on vessel to maintain course and speed, but they also obligate both boats to avoid collision. These only come into conflict when the give-way vessel fails to make a course change early and clearly. In my experience, a bit of early flexibility in my own selected course can keep me mostly clear of close encounters. As for calling for right-of-way, outside of racing, yelling seems incompatible with sailing.

SCREEN IS BACK TO BLACK

Q: I just added a small depthsounder to my tender for checking out shoaling conditions in our harbor. Unfortunately, I got the sounder from a website that imports inexpensive marine gear, and while all is fine when it’s overcast, as soon as it’s sunny and I put on my polarized sunglasses the screen turns black. Is there not a standard for polarization? My polarized glasses work fine with all the other LCD gear aboard the “mother ship.”

— Don Hall, Kingsville, TX 

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