Should Sailing Throw Away the Rule Book? 6

Is sailing too complicatedSailing is too complicated. We need to simplify it. Right?

One of the best sailors in the world is saying we should rewrite the rulebook and replace archaic nautical terms with language that is easier to understand.

Russell Coutts said the following in an interview about changing the rules for the America’s Cup recently.

It’s too complicated. We have a rulebook that is like this (holding up his fingers to show a thickness of about an inch). Frankly, I think people have got better things to do than sit at home at night and read the rulebook. Once upon a time, I used to read the rulebook quite a lot – now it bores me to tears to sit down and read a book of sailing instructions before a regatta. We’ve tried to simplify it. We’ve got all these archaic terms, all the nautical terms and all the yacht club BS and we need to get away from that if we are going to encourage more people to participate in the sport.

It makes sense on the surface, but is there a real need to change the rules, or does sailing just need to get better at communication?

Yes sailing has rules and jargon, but all sports have rules and jargon. Formula One racing has two rulebooks – one of sporting regulations which is 37 pages and one of technical regulations which is 63 pages.

Rugby has only 22 rules, but rule 20, which relates to a scrum has 12 parts and some of those parts have 9 sub-parts. Russell Coutts, a New Zealander who by his nationality should understand Rugby, should try explaining the difference between a ruck, a maul and a scrum to people who don’t follow the game.

Here’s an example from the official rules

A maul begins when a player carrying the ball is held by one or more opponents, and one or more of the ball carrier’s team mates bind on the ball carrier. A maul therefore consists, when it begins, of at least three players, all on their feet; the ball carrier and one player from each team. All the players involved must be caught in or bound to the maul and must be on their feet and moving towards a goal line. Open play has ended.

But Rugby is an old fashioned game, what about the sports that excite the facebook generation? Well skateboarding includes terms like Nollie, Fakie and Indy and snowboarding features phrases like caballarial, crossbone method air and Elgeurial.

An Elgeurial(BFM) is an invert where the halfpipe wall is approached fakie, the rear hand is planted, a 360 degree backside rotation is made, and the rider lands going forward.

So that’s simple isn’t it.

You can’t really imagine Tiger Woods coming out and saying ‘let’s get rid of all this golf club BS, we need new terms for caddie, tee and eagle. Bunker is too hard to explain, so let’s dumb it down to sand-trap.’

Coutts’ argument is echoed by broadcasters trying to make Olympic sailing more accessible for a TV audience. Some think that having an event where the first person across the line is not always the winner is too hard to explain, yet hugely popular events like the Tour de France don’t seem to have a problem with it.

There are many events in the Olympics where this happens – shooting, decathlon, diving, gymnastics and most field events in the stadium.

While it’s great that sailing is finally thinking about the people watching and not just the people competing, it would be a great shame to dumb the sport down while other relatively complicated activities help their audience understand. Poker has managed to educate millions of people about blinds, flops and rivers

The idea that sailing needs to be simplified is a lazy alternative to making the effort to teach the rules to a new audience.

It could be argued, that having a distinct terminology, that celebrates proud nautical heritage of most countries’ history is a great thing for the sport and that having invested the time to understand the rules, a fan is more likely to be a long-term supporter. If a spectator doesn’t have to learn the rules, then they can switch their attention away from the sport more easily when the event is over.

One of the reasons that Russell Coutts is such a great sailor is that he spent the time to read the rulebook. The best athletes of all sports are the ones that know the rules better than the others. The best F1 teams are the ones that interpret the technical regulations most cleverly, the best rugby teams are the ones that understand the differences between the way northern and southern hemisphere referees interpret the rules.

Sailing should be proud of it’s terms. Rather than being ‘yacht club BS’ they permeate our everyday lives without us realising it. The phrases of business and teamwork borrow heavily from nautical tradition – phrases like; all hands on deck, as the crow flies, and perhaps the most used sailing phrase in recent times, bail out.

Sailing should remind audiences, both new and old that when they use phrases like; above board, by and large, carry on, high and dry or overhaul, they are nautical phrases. Why would we give up these terms and replace them with what some marketing or broadcasting person thinks would work better?

What do you think? Is sailing too complicated? Should it be dumbed down?

  • Jim O’Toole

    Categorically not..Take our discipline of match racing….a dumbed down version would end up being a point to point race around some cans. No psychology, no manipulation, no stealing the other guy’s air, or his space, no advantage from understanding and utilising the rules to gain an advantage

    This cosmetic and increasingly puerile obession with making things simple for the notional “facebook” generation is getting tiresome and is an over simplistic but admittedly convenient label. It gives the impression of 12 year olds playing on their computer, ready to be attracted to the world of sailing. The busiest Facebook afficionadios I know are all 40+ and use it as a means of managing friendships in a busy life, not selecting new sporting passions.

    Facebook is ONE social media network among many all of serve different purposes. As rights holders, we need to create a complex multi faceted media platform to reflect a complicted sport with a sophisticated and multi dimensional audience. And guess what, they like the complication because the smart guys get it and use it to their advantage…It were meant to be that easy, everybody would be doing it

    Given the success Russell Coutts has enjoyed by being one of those very smart guys, this is a little surprising.

    Your initial comment sums it up…….don’t change it, communicate it better.

    Jim O’Toole

  • Scott Maddock

    Definitely not – I find Baseball and Cricket tedious and boring with silly rules which help to slow down the action. That doesn’t prevent both games being obsessively popular in their home markets. It’s not the rules, it’s participation and presentation we need to fix.

  • Hector

    I agree that sailing has a problem with its rules. Forget the media and non sailors, most competitors in any given sailing regatta don’t know the rules well enough to make correct, rules-based, decisions in all circumstances. I have been racing at International level for over 20 years and can’t be sure that my own understanding of the rules is always correct – and I do try. We change our rules every 3 years, which is crazy, stuff changes which has been fine for 100 years – like 2 boat lengths at a mark becoming 3 WTF?. I buy the new rules book every 3 years and study it, I suspect that most people don’t and they shouldn’t have to. The meanings of the rules change subtlety in ways which will affect the outcome of protests, which is why protests are such a lottery. A cynic may point to the rules books authored by members of the rules making committee as being indicative of vested interest. I couldn’t possibly comment. Let’s freeze the rules for 10 years and tell the rules buffs to go get a life.

  • Bill Gladstone

    It is not too complicated: Start behind the line, sail around the course, finish. Obey the 4 right of way rules (yes, there are only 4), the 4 limiting rules, and mark room. For newer racers that is enough. Only as you get into more involved/ higher level racing does it get complicated (Appendix H – how to weigh wet clothing!). Any sport played at a high level – football, baseball, golf – has an extensive rule book. That does not prevent a pick-up game in the back yard. And the sailing rules are not an obstacle to participation (or viewer understanding). Our focus on the rules as an obstacle to participation (or viewer understanding) distracts us from finding the real obstacle(s), whatever they may be…

  • Tom Arthur

    I am not interested in what the media or audiences cannot understand, I sail because I enjoy the sport for my personal satisfaction. The rules have evolved over the sports history because of problems that have arisen and needed answers. The revision every few years in my view, are generally an improvement in fine tuning them still further.
    In a yacht race there are many scenarios that arise which can be used by a rules expert to enhance their position, and this to me is part of the enjoyment of sailing. It would be a shame to eliminate that facet of skill from our sport by “dumbing down” the rules. As both a dinghy sailor and radio controlled yacht sailor I have seen the results of sailing to “dumbed down” rules in my locality by a section of radio controlled sailors in our club who only want to sail by very few rules. It causes nothing but contention and arguments, so that doesn’t work either

  • Captmarty

    The laws of the sea will never die, its just when some bright sparks want to race at breakneck speeds in close company that rules were invented. Write your own, isn’t that what the AC is famous for?