Lately, there's been some talk about removing rule 16.2 in team racing, and some people say, “If it's a good idea to remove this rule from team racing, and it's already more or less deleted for match racing, why have it for fleet racing?”
I think there are several good reasons for keeping rule 16.2 in the rulebook.
Before we get into those reasons, let's see what we're talking about. Rule 16 reads, in its entirety:
16 CHANGING COURSE
16.1 When a right-of-way boat changes course, she shall give the other boat room to keep clear.
16.2 In addition, when after the starting signal a port-tack boat is keeping clear by sailing to pass astern of a starboard-tack boat, the starboard-tack boat shall not change course if as a result the port-tack boat would immediately need to change course to continue keeping clear.
Rule 16.1 is very straightforward. It protects keep-clear boats from attacks from which they cannot escape. By comparison, rule 16.2 is a bit complicated. It addresses one situation only: a port-tack boat is trying to pass behind a starboard-tack boat, and, loosely put, the rule prohibits dial-downs (or when sailing down wind, dial-ups) when the boats are close. Dial-downs are aggressive maneuvers, and close dial-downs are, essentially, vicious attacks. In match racing, where viciousness is a virtue, that's OK. Arguably the same goes for team racing, which is becoming more and more like match racing. But I think most sailors would agree that vicious attacks have no place in fleet racing, which is all about getting around the race course fast and safely, and having fun doing it.
Thus the primary reason for keeping rule 16.2 is that it preserves a game we like. There's a nice balance to the fleet-racing rules – on the one hand, racing is a competition and we want to give boats who have right of way or who arrive at marks ahead of other boats the power to defend their positions; on the other hand, we don't want the sport to turn into a sequence of confrontations that risk boats and crews. That's what distinguishes fleet racing from team racing and, more dramatically, match racing.
The second reason for keeping rule 16.2 is safety. Dial-downs are almost uniquely dangerous, especially in high-performance boats. On a beat, as soon as a port-tack boat bears off to duck, she accelerates. If the starboard-tack boat bears off at the same time, the closing speed between the two boats can be several times what it was before the bear-off/dial-down – and now, instead of intersecting obliquely, they are coming almost directly at each other. It's not too strong to say that in planing boats there will be serious damage or somebody will get badly hurt if there's contact. The same phenomenon occurs off wind – the port -tack needs to reach up to pass astern and if the other boat reaches up also, the closing speeds increase – though this increase is nowhere near as dramatic as upwind.
But, I hear you asking, doesn't rule 16.1 remove that danger? After all, if there's a real danger of the boats hitting each other, then surely the starboard-tack boat broke rule 16.1? I don't think rule 16.1 does solve the problem. While that rule says the starboard-tack boat can't hit the port-tack boat or cause her to behave in an unseamanlike manner, it still allows aggressive behavior right up to the point of hitting her or forcing her to do something unseamanlike. Rule 16.2 puts a little cushion or buffer in there.
To look at an analogy, why have lines on roads, separating the cars going one way from those going the other? Why not simply prohibit cars from hitting the oncoming traffic or driving them off the road, but let them wander around in the oncoming lanes as long as they obey that law? I think most of us would not want to drive in such a society. Rule 16.2 is, basically, the double line separating lanes of opposing traffic.
The third reason for rule 16.2 is basic fairness. Dialing down does not speed the starboard-tack boat toward her goal of finishing the race, and it does not protect her from a boat taking her wind or pinning her out. By ducking, the port-tack boat is temporarily conceding her position in the race to the other boat, and for the other boat to attack her seems like hitting one's opponent when he's down. When you hold a door open and let a stranger pass through it, you don't expect him to kick you as he goes by.
The final reason is that in some complex situations the port-tack boat needs to plan ahead, and last-second dial-downs prevent her from doing so. To see this, suppose there were no rule 16.2 and consider a boat P in a crowded fleet, near the top of the first windward leg. She's threading her way through the fleet in an effort to get to the starboard-tack layline. There's a boat S1 coming toward her, but P sees that if she ducks S1 she'll still be able to cross ahead of S2, the starboard-tack boat behind and to windward of S1. After that she can continue to thread her way through the fleet and tack above the layline. So she bears off to duck.
Now what happens if, after P has made her plans and has borne off to duck S1, S1 dials down at her? P has already eased her sheets; if she tacks now she'll slow down directly in front of S1, and besides, she has formed her plan and wants to stick to it if possible. So she responds immediately by digging deeper.
Finally P makes it past S1. She hasn't had to do anything unseamanlike, so S1 didn't break rule 16.1. But now, as P trims in to cross the other boats she discovers that her carefully laid plan to thread her way through the fleet is now in ruins. She's in danger of fouling S2, and even if she manages to duck that boat, there's still S3, S4, and so on – each of whom might dial down on her if she tries to duck them. This is unfair and potentially dangerous; and it's what rule 16.2 prevents.
Of course, we want a starboard-tack boat to be able to defend her position. For example, if S1is on the layline and doesn't want P to lee-bow her, she can bear off before P gets to her; now if P tacks, S can luff back up to her previous line in clear air. And, if for some reason S wants to prevent P from ducking her (maybe they're contending for first place in the series), she is allowed to bear off a little earlier, forcing P to tack instead of ducking. As long as she does so early enough so P doesn't have to respond immediately, that doesn't break any rules.
One argument I hear sometimes is that rule 16.2 protests are rarely if ever made. But that may be because, essentially, rule 16.2 is working as intended. Sailors interpret the rule as saying “late dial-downs are illegal,” and so dial-downs don't occur much. I think most sailors are happy with that. Without rule 16.2, dial-downs might become common – look at what happens in match racing.
Match and team racers are playing a different game, much more confrontational and without large numbers of boats to deal with. If the match and team racers want to delete rule 16.2, good on 'em. But leave us fleet racers with a saner and less confrontational sport, give us that safety buffer, and let us make our plans to weave our way through the fleet on port tack. Keep rule 16.2 in the rulebook.