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Racing Rules of Sailing: Definitions

Definitions are what catch most racers out in the protest room. Mike delves into the rule book and picks out some key terms to understand.

By Mike

I am no stranger to the protest room. Though some may see protesting as the “dirty” side of racing, I strongly disagree. When I lodge a protest, it’s never through spite or getting one over on an opponent in a crazy nuanced rule, it’s about upholding the fairness that governs our sport. Particularly when there is an international juror present at a regatta, I see it as an educational opportunity. The opportunity is either for me to garner the opinion of the expert jury member, or to help share the knowledge of a certain rule with a fellow competitor. In these circumstances, once the facts of the situation have been explained to a jury member who has formed a mutual understanding by all parties and the foul was a genuine innocent mistake, I will often withdraw the protest in arbitration so neither party is penalised, and we all come away a little wiser.

What I have learned from my time on both sides of the protest desk is that many competitors fall foul of racing rules, not because of a lack of understanding of an exact rule, but actually because of a misinterpretation a definition within the text of a rule.

In this blog, I’ll go through some of the words and phrases as defined by the Racing Rules of Sailing, and highlight where many misinterpret when on the race course. All of the definitions used are from RSS 2021-2024 and the interpretations given are based on my own opinion and experience.

Clear Astern and Clear Ahead; Overlap

“One boat is clear astern of another when her hull and equipment in normal position are behind a line abeam from the aftermost point of the other boat’s hull and equipment in normal position. The other boat is clear ahead. They overlap when neither is clear astern. However, they also overlap when a boat between them overlaps both. These terms always apply to boats on the same tack. They apply to boats on opposite tacks only when rule 18 applies between them or when both boats are sailing more than ninety degrees from the true wind.”

Imagine an endless line running abeam of your transom. A yacht is clear astern of you until such time that they cross this imaginary line. Only once this line is crossed is a yacht overlapped. Where yachts get into a pickle is the aspect of the line, so when a yacht changes course position of the overlapping line changes. If we look at the example below, in case A, red has acquired an overlap with blue. Also, yellow has an overlap with red, which automatically gives them overlapping rights over blue. In figure B, Blue has turned to starboard, changing the aspect with red, in doing so, breaking the overlap with both red and yellow.

Keep Clear

“A boat keeps clear of a right-of-way boat

(a) if the right-of-way boat can sail her course with no need to take avoiding action and,

(b) when the boats are overlapped, if the right-of-way boat can also change course in both directions without immediately making contact.”

Not crashing into one another is pretty clear, but the 2nd part of the definition needs attention. You can be found not to be keeping clear of a boat, even when not in contact with them because the 2nd part of the definition. Section b includes the provision for the “right of way boat” to move in any direction without causing immediate contact. A classic case of infringing this would be if a leeward boat were to bear away without warning, and the windward boats holds its course, because of how most boats pivot, the stern of the leeward boat could hit the windward boat. Therefore the windward boat must always keep appropriate space between the two yachts to account for movements.

A few decades ago, the windward boat would have been given the right for “room and opportunity” to react, but addition of section b and the removal the “room and opportunity” rule completely changes this scenario.

Leeward and Windward

“A boat’s leeward side is the side that is or, when she is head to wind, was away from the wind. However, when sailing by the lee or directly downwind, her leeward side is the side on which her mainsail lies. The other side is her windward side. When two boats on the same tack overlap, the one on the leeward side of the other is the leeward boat. The other is the windward boat.”

Most racers have a good grasp on what boats are windward and leeward. However, the difficulty comes when running by the lee (bearing off beyond dead downwind) as the wind may be coming across the deck that your sail is on. So in any case, to avoid doubt, the definition states that the “leeward side is the side on which her mainsail lies.” so even if the wind is coming across the deck that your sail is on, that is still the leeward side.


“An object that a boat could not pass without changing course substantially, if she were sailing directly towards it and one of her hull lengths from it. An object that can be safely passed on only one side and an object, area or line so designated by the sailing instructions are also obstructions. However, a boat racing is not an obstruction to other boats unless they are required to keep clear of her or, if rule 22 applies, avoid her. A vessel under way, including a boat racing, is never a continuing obstruction.”

Here it’s the phrase “without changing course substantially” that causes issues in the protest room. Clearly, if a vessel is going to have to make provisions to avoid the obstruction, this could be via a different route which would not infringe boats around them, BUT there is no mention of “proper course” (we’ll come on to that next), therefore the avoiding boat has liberty to decide the appropriate course of action. Do note, I’ve heard on the rumour mill this definition is due to change in the 2025-2029 rules, and it will go further to define continual obstructions, and incorporate “proper course”. You have been warned!

Proper Course

“A course a boat would choose in order to sail the course and finish as soon as possible in the absence of the other boats referred to in the rule using the term. A boat has no proper course before her starting signal.”

My favourite of the definitions! I recently spent a depressingly inordinate amount of time discussing this definition in a protest room. The key here is the phrase “in the absence of other boat”. In essence, what would be the fastest way to get around the race course if no one else was on it. So it’s only the absence of other vessels, not if conditions were binary. Therefore, proper course could include altering course to take advantage of weather factors like favourable pressure on one side of the course, or wind bends and even tidal and current streams. In short, it’s where you keep your VMG the highest to complete the course in the shortest amount of time. Where this can get confusing is when racing in a fleet of various types of yachts. For instance, sailing downwind, an asymmetric spinnaker yacht’s proper course is a lot higher than a yacht sailing a symmetrical. In this case, every yacht in the scenario needs to understand which yachts are by the rule supposed to be maintaining a proper course.


“The space a boat needs in the existing conditions, including space to comply with her obligations under the rules of Part 2 and rule 31, while manoeuvring promptly in a seamanlike way.”

Much like “keep clear” the definition gives provision for not only room as to where a yacht is now, but also where it will be and the actions needed to change course in a seamanlike way. And where I’ve seen yachts fall fowl of this definition is by having too much of a focus on the phrase “seamanlike way” yet forgetting what precedes this; “manoeuvring promptly”.

For example, it could be reasonable for a yacht rounding on the outside of another to presume – if conditions are unchanged – that the yacht on the inside will do a similar rounding to the one done before. However, under pressure, the inside yacht could take a wide, possibly far more conservative and overly defensive, wide rounding. Although it could be seen as “seamanlike” they could find they fall foul of the word “promptly”.

Remember, protest committees and umpires exist to promote fair racing. If you ever want clarity on a rule situation, most national and international jury members are more than happy to sit down and have an open discussion with out heading into a full protest. If there are any rules or scenarios  you’d like us to feature in our blog, please email [email protected]