Racing Rules Guide


If you aren't already familiar with the Racing Rules of Sailing, this document should help you get to grips with them. But be aware: in trying to make this easier to follow, we are paraphrasing some of the rules, and sometimes this means we're not quite accurate in the finer points. If in doubt, or if you move on to racing outside our fairly informal club environment, you will need to dig into the rules proper.

The actual rules - the Racing Rules of Sailing, or RRS - are maintained by World Sailing, the international organisation that controls competitive sailing. You can find them online at World Sailing, and you can download a copy for your own use. We can't put a copy on our website, for copyright reasons, but it will be useful if you can get yourself a copy. We shall be referring to them here by number as, for instance RRS 10, to mean rule 10, the 'port and starboard' rule.

Because the rules cover racing at all levels, right up to world class, they include a lot of information that we don't have to be concerned with here. No need to worry about formal organisation of racing, or about racing in different types of craft (windsurfing, kitesurfing, radio-controlled craft) or different race formats (match and team racing). We shall concentrate on the 'rules of the road' and matters directly related to them.

You may feel at first that it's all a bit complicated. But please don't blame the rules: what's actually complicated is the variety of different situations you can come across, and the rules provide a set of principles that you can use to cut through the complexity. Until you are more confident of your understanding, the simple rule is: if in doubt, keep clear. It won't make that much difference to your results.

Let's get started

If you start trying to read the RRS, the first thing you see is a lot of pictures of signalling flags; but hardly any of them are needed at HLSTC, so we'll leave them until later, when we'll cover the few that we do use.

Next you get the Basic Principles and Part 1 Fundamental Rules. You don't need to learn them by heart, but do try to act in the spirit that they are clearly setting out- safety, good sportsmanship and honesty.

Don't try to understand the Definitions in isolation at this stage: they are important, but we'll come back to them as appropriate in the relevant context.

The most important area for us is Part 2 When boats meet. We'll start off with the simpler situations and work through to the more complicated cases.

Around the course

First we'll consider how it all works when you are simply out in the open, on the way from one mark to the next, but well away from either mark or any other complication. You do however have other boats to look out for.

Generally the rules in this section set out the possible relationships between two boats, near to each other, and spell out the obligations on each of them. In any particular situation, one of the boats, which we'll refer to as the Give-Way boat (GW), has the responsibility for keeping clear; and the other, the Stand-On (SO) boat, is entitled to sail its chosen course, without having to alter course to avoid the GW boat. (Definitions - Keep Clear). At the same time, the SO boat is subject to some limitations, which we'll come to later: it can't just plough into the GW boat. So now for the specific cases.

Port and Starboard

The most important rule here is RRS 10. This says that a boat on port tack must keep clear of a boat on starboard tack. This rule will most often be relevant when boats are crossing each other's paths, but it also applies if they are, for instance, side-by-side on a run, or if one is overtaking the other.

The Definitions spell out which tack you are on: you are on starboard tack if the wind is on your starboard side; if the wind is behind you, and your boom is out to port, you are also on starboard. Otherwise you are on port.

Same tack, not overlapped

This is covered by RRS 12, together with Definitions - Clear Astern and Clear Ahead; Overlap. If two boats are on the same tack, and one of them is Clear ahead, and the other one Clear astern, the boat astern must keep clear of the boat ahead.

Clear astern means that all parts of the boat astern are behind a line across the stern of the boat ahead. If neither boat is clear astern, the boats are overlapped (see next).

Leeward and Windward

RRS 11, together with Definitions - Leeward and Windward, covers the case where boats are overlapped and on the same tack. (This most often applies where the boats are on the same leg of the course, but it may also be that the boats are on significantly different courses, and happen to be overlapped at a point where they cross.) The boat defined as the windward boat must keep clear of the leeward boat, and in this case keeping clear includes giving enough room for the leeward boat to change course in either direction without making contact (Definitions - Keep Clear).

Which is the windward boat? Your windward side is the one that the wind is on; the other is your leeward side; if the wind is behind you, your leeward side is the side where your boom is. You are the windward boat if the other boat is on your leeward side (almost always the side where your boom is).


There is no rule that refers to overtaking as such. Instead we have to use combinations of the rules above. There are several possible cases:

- - Overtaking on different tacks.

This may arise when boats are on or near a dead run, and have reasons for choosing different tacks, or it may be that they are on different courses which happen to meet at the point of overtaking. In either case the port-starboard rule applies throughout the manoeuvre. If the overtaken boat is on port tack, it may even have to alter course to get out of the way.

- - Overtaking on the same tack

The overtaking boat has to keep clear (RRS12) until it becomes overlapped; up to that point, the boat ahead can do as it pleases. Once an overlap is established, two different cases arise, depending on which side the overtaking boat chooses to pass.

- - - Overtaking on same tack, to windward

If the overtaking boat chooses to go to windward of the other, it does so as the GW boat (RRS11), and the SO is permitted to head up, even as far as head-to-wind, to protect its wind, or for other tactical reasons.

- - - Overtaking on same tack, to leeward

If the overtaking boat chooses to go to leeward of the other, the overtaker now becomes the SO boat (RRS11); but while the overlap continues, the SO boat must not sail on a higher heading than its Proper Course (RRS 17). Proper course means the course you would choose to get to the next mark as quickly as possible, if the other boat were not there (Definitions - Proper Course).


You will usually put in quite a few tacks on the way to the windward mark. But take care: RRS 13 says that a boat that is tacking must keep clear of other boats. (You are tacking from the moment that you go through head-to-wind until you have reached your new close-hauled course.) It follows from this that you must not tack if there is another boat so close behind that you will obstruct it while you are tacking. Remember: if the following boat has to change course to avoid you, you have not kept clear.

Once you have reached your new close-hauled course, you go back onto the normal rules above.


Limitations - Avoiding contact

You should always try to avoid contact with other boats if possible. But if you are the SO boat, you are entitled (RRS 14) to assume that the GW boat will keep clear as required, until it is quite obvious it is not doing so. You do not have to take avoiding action before then. You do take action when it is clearly necessary, and if a contact still occurs, you are not at fault, unless damage or injury results.

Limitations - Exercising your Right of Way

When you first become the SO boat on any particular occasion, you have to give the GW boat room to keep clear, unless it was the GW boat's own actions that led to your becoming SO boat. (RRS 15)

If you are the SO boat, and you decide to change course in such a direction that the GW boat will need to take positive action to stay clear, you must move gradually and smoothly, to give reasonable time and opportunity for it to do so. (RRS 16)


There are several rules dealing with obstructions, but for the moment we'll deal with just one. Suppose you are beating to windward, with other boats nearby, and you are getting closer to a shoreline. Clearly you are going to need to tack soon, but RRS 13 might give you a problem. So we have an exception. RRS 20 says you can hail the boat to windward of you for 'room to tack'. You must only do this if you are close to the obstruction, and need to tack soon. The hailed boat must immediately respond, either by tacking away, or by calling 'you tack', and giving you room to keep clear. And immediately after the response you must tack to avoid the obstruction.

If the hailed boat has other boats above it, it may be necessary for the hail to be passed up the line, with each boat responding as appropriate, and the responses passed back down, until you are cleared to tack. So you need to time your initial hail to allow for any likely delay in response.

Remember, having called for room, you must tack when given room; it would be unsportsmanlike (RRS 2) to stay on the same course if the wind shifts in your favour when the other boat has tacked away.

Mark rounding

Note this section does not apply to starting marks.

Mark rounding is the most complicated situation you are likely to meet, because of the number of boats converging on the same point, especially early in the race. The authorities have made some changes over the last few update cycles to make the rules fairer and simpler, but some of these are still not well known. RRS 18 now covers the various aspects of mark rounding. There is an important concept: the zone, which is an imaginary circle of three boat-lengths radius, and centred on the mark. Special rules apply when you enter the zone.

- - Mark rounding - Opposite tacks at windward marks

If two boats approach a mark on opposite tacks, and it is a windward mark, or in any case one of the boats (but only one) will need to tack to follow its proper course, then initially RRS 18.1 says that the rest of RRS 18 does not apply, and the normal port-starboard rule applies (RRS 10), as also does the one about keeping clear while tacking (RRS 13). ('Windward mark: take the mark away.')

But there is a sting in the tail: at a port-rounding mark - the normal case for a windward mark - if the boat that needs to tack (let's call it boat A) does so within the zone, and the other one (boat B) has been on starboard since entering the zone, the boats are now approaching on the same tack, and RRS 18.3 applies: boat A effectively has to continue to keep clear: it must not force boat B to sail above close-hauled to avoid it; and if boat B becomes overlapped inside boat A, boat A must give it room to round the mark.

- - Mark rounding - All other cases - mark room

If two or more boats are approaching a mark in other situations, then RRS 18 applies, together with Definitions - Clear Astern and Clear Ahead; Overlap. (Note: this includes boats on the same tack at a windward mark.)

If one boat is clear ahead of another when the first boat enters the zone, thereafter the boat clear astern must keep clear of the boat clear ahead until the mark has been rounded.

If there is an overlap between boats when the first of them enters the zone, then the one on the inside (nearer the mark if both pass on the correct side) must be given Mark Room (Definitions - Mark Room). This doesn't mean a full right of way, unless the boat already had that in any case. What it does mean is enough room to pass the mark safely and at a reasonable distance in the prevailing conditions, and including room to gybe if appropriate. Note if there are several boats overlapped, the outermost has to give adequate room for all the boats inside.

The crucial point is that the right to mark room (or not) is determined as the first boat enters the zone: if an overlap is subsequently broken, or a new overlap is established, the rights are not altered; boats affected have to continue giving mark room.

And if the boats are travelling at different speeds, and there is reasonable doubt as to whether an overlap has been made or broken when the first one reaches the zone, the state immediately beforehand is presumed to continue (RRS 18.2(e)).

The start

We start races according to the '5-4-1-0' schedule given in RRS 26, except that for the preparatory signal (four minutes before the start) we use only the P flag.

During the five-minute period before the start, you are basically subject to the normal right-of-way rules, but there are some differences: there is no right to mark room at a starting mark (RRS Section C preamble); there is no proper course, so a leeward boat can luff up as far as it wishes; and if you back a sail, for tactical reasons, you must keep clear of other boats (RRS 22.3).

In the case of pursuit races, only the first class to start has the full 5-4-1-0 sequence. The interval between successive classes is too short to allow for the full sequence, and the start for one class should be treated as the preparatory signal for the following class. There is no one-minute warning as such. If you are in a later class, you should keep clear of boats in the class that is about to start (RRS 24.1 - you are not racing before your preparatory signal).

Definitions - Start tells you what you have to do to start. At some point after the start signal, you have to be completely on the pre-start side of the line, and then as your hull starts to cross the line in the direction of the first mark, you have started.

If you are already over the line at the time of the start signal, you have not started legally. The Race Officer will hail you (individual recall - RRS 29.1, but without the flags) and you have to return to the pre-start side to make a fresh start. If you continue without returning, you will not be placed but will be scored OCS - On Course Side. And while you are returning, you have to keep clear of other boats, even if you are on starboard (RRS 22.1).

In some circumstances, e.g. if many boats are OCS, a general recall may be made, and all boats must return (even if they individually are not at fault). The full RRS 29.2 procedure is not followed, but the Race Officer announces the arrangements for a fresh start.

The course

We define the course by means of a drawing displayed outside the clubhouse, together with a list of marks and the direction of rounding for each one. You have to pass each of the marks in sequence on the correct side (RRS 28), and repeat the sequence as many times as specified. If you make a mistake, by missing out a mark, or rounding in the wrong direction, you can backtrack and correct your error (see RRS 28 for details - understand the idea of 'unwinding'); otherwise you are likely to be scored DNF (Did Not Finish).

On your route from one mark to another, defining a given leg of the course, you must not touch either of them (RRS 31) with any part of your boat; but if on the way you happen to pass a different mark, it's of no concern to you, and you can go either side of it, or even run over it (RRS 28 and RRS 31). But watch out for boats that may be rounding it: normal rules apply.

If the shorten course flag is displayed, you continue to sail the same course as before, until you reach the finish line, and then you finish (RRS 32.2), unless informed that you need to sail another lap.


The introduction to RRS shows many flags with their defined meanings, which are necessary when broadcasting messages to boats over large areas of water. At HLSTC, most of our messages can be given at close range by sound signals or spoken announcements, so we only need a very few flags, as follows:

Flag E (blue above red) displayed five minutes before the start as the Warning signal; removed at the actual start.

Flag P (white rectangle on blue ground) displayed four minutes before the start as the Preparatory signal; removed one minute before the start.

Flag S (blue rectangle on white ground) displayed when the course has been shortened (RRS 32).

A plain red or orange flag is used to mark the start or finish line.

When things go wrong

First, be aware that everybody breaks a rule from time to time. It doesn't mean that we are 'bad people'. We probably made a misjudgement, or even made a slight error in boat handling. It's not the end of the world.

But when someone does break one of these rules, an interested party (RRS 60) can raise a protest against the offender (call 'protest' and make sure the offender hears it). If necessary a protest hearing is convened after the race, and if the protest is upheld, the offender is normally disqualified - receives a DSQ code in the results.

The protest hearing may on the other hand find that the protest was not correct, so no penalty is called for. Or it may find that the boat did indeed break the rule, but only as a result of another boat's breaking a rule. In this case the protested boat is exonerated (RRS 43), and suffers no penalty.

Alternatively, you can do what we usually do: if you break a rule, and you think that you are probably at fault, you can pre-empt the protest hearing by taking a voluntary penalty - sailing round in a circle- immediately after the incident (RRS 44). The penalty is one complete turn if all you have done is to touch a mark, or two turns for just about everything else. One incident only generates one penalty. What you have to do is: as soon as possible after the incident, get yourself clear of other boats, and do the necessary turns without a break, all in the same direction (your choice), before resuming your course. Each turn must include one gybe and one tack.

While you are doing the turns, you have to keep clear of other boats (RRS 22.2), but other boats must not unnecessarily interfere with you (RRS 24.2). To be safe, get clear of the main route before you start your turns.

You may hear these penalties referred to as 360-degree or 720-degree turns - that's what they used to be called - but this is no longer correct, as you may find that you have to go some way beyond a full circle before the final tack or gybe is completed.

Further study

When you get a bit more involved, you might want to get hold of one of the excellent explanatory books. They cost about twenty pounds, and Elvstrom and Willis are both good names to look for. The books include a copy of the rules, but, more importantly, they give a lot of examples showing what each of the rules means in practice. Make sure you get an up-to-date version: the rules are updated every four years, and the books are revised in line. The current rules cover years 2021 to 2024.

Another source of information is the RRS Case Book. This is also on the World Sailing site, along with the rules.

It covers many tricky cases ruled on by the experts, and illustrates how the rules work together in difficult situations.

Another way of improving your knowledge is to take the rules quiz at
See how quickly you can move up a level.

But the best way of all is to get out there and do it. And stay safe!