Monday, December 10, 2012

"Shall" and "Will" in Sailing Instructions

As even a casual glance at the Racing Rules of Sailing will show, the word “shall” appears often.  That’s not a common word, at least in the American idiom, but a lot of readers don’t think much about it, assuming that “shall” is simply a synonym of “will”, preferred for some arcane reason by the rules writers. 

One consequence of this interpretation is that when race committee chairmen write sailing instructions, they sometimes simply put “shall” everywhere they normally would have written “will”.  This usually doesn’t cause any serious harm, but it’s wrong, and I want to set the record straight.

As used in the world of contracts and specifications, and in our rules, “shall” is compulsory and “will” is generally either promissory or factual, depending on the context.  Here's an example of a hypothetical specification written by the US Government regarding work to be done by ABC Contractors:

The project will begin 1 January 2015.  Before that date a final schedule of meetings will be provided to ABC in conformance with paragraph of the Contract.  ABC shall attend those meetings or pay a fine as specified in paragraph of the Contract.  Additionally, ABC shall notify the Government in writing at least 10 days in advance if they will not be able to attend a meeting.

The first “will” is a statement of fact.  The second is a promise by the Government.  In contrast, the “shalls” are demands made by the Government upon the contractor. The last clause shows one other use of “will”, in conditional clauses – the non-attendance is neither mandatory nor factual, just conjectural, but in the future.  Such constructions rarely if ever come up in sailing instructions, so we will ignore this usage.

Note that the second “will” binds the Government whereas the “shalls” bind the contractor, ABC.  Obviously, it’s critical to know which party is issuing the specification when choosing whether to use “shall” or “will”.   

How does this apply to sailing instructions?  Well, sailing instructions are rules issued by race committees (see rule 90.2(a)), so it’s appropriate to use “will” to describe anything that is factual or under the control of the race committee and “shall” for anything that’s under the control of the competitor (but is being limited by the SIs).  Here’s an example:


18.1  A Safety Checkout Board with tags identifying the competitors will be placed near the Official Notice Board no later than two hours before the first race each day.  Each competitor shall, before going on the water each day, remove her tag from the Safety Checkout Board and shall keep it on her person until she returns to shore.  She shall return her tag to the Safety Checkout Board as soon as reasonably possible after she returns ashore.  Failures to obey this instruction may result in disqualification from the first race of the day, without a hearing, but shall not be grounds for a protest by a competitor.  This changes rules 60.1, 63.1 and A5.

What does this instruction say?  First, it promises competitors that the Safety Checkout Board with all tags will be placed in a certain place before a certain time each day.   Failure by the race committee to make this happen could result in a claim for redress, if it were to affect a competitor’s score through no fault of the competitor.  The rest of the SI uses “shall”, which means the competitor must obey or risk a penalty.   

The final sentence carefully uses the word “may” in referring to a race committee action, rather than “will” which would be a promise.  Suppose the sentence about penalties had said, "Failures to obey this instruction will result in disqualification ...".  In that case if, say, a competitor didn’t return her tag promptly one day because the string holding the tag broke and she lost it, and the race committee took pity on her and didn’t penalize her, they would have been breaking their own rule.  That, in turn, might be grounds for redress for the rest of the fleet.  “May” gives the race committee discretion on how to administer the rule.

So, in writing SIs, remember:  “Will” makes a factual statement or commits the race committee to an action (if they don’t do it, a competitor could obtain redress for the omission), while “shall” commands the competitor to take an action (if she doesn’t comply she can be disqualified, unless some other penalty applies).