Right of Way Doesn’t Mean Free and Clear
To make collisions much less likely we need to be able to depend on right-of-way boats to give us time and space to stay out of their way. Therefore, a boat with the right of way has certain restrictions on what it can do and how fast it can do it.
Rule 16 addresses the restrictions on a right-of-way boat when it wants to change course.
You must give the other boat room to keep clear. Room equates to space and time. The keep-clear boat has time to respond and get out of the way, but it’s limited. This very small window is an opportunity for the keep-clear boat to luff, tack or bear away. The keep-clear boat must take action promptly. The right-of-way boat must give time and space for the other boat to act in a prompt, but seamanlike manner. The responsibility is to balance promptly and safely (safe for the average crew in the current wind: the expectation is neither experts nor beginners). But no matter what, the right-of-way boat does not have the right to hit the keep-clear boat. If the keep-clear boat is slow to begin or only halfway responsive they can be protested.
If a right-of-way boat is to leeward and luffs toward you, you must go up and get out of their way. (There are some limits to when they can luff but we’ll get into that in another blog). The boat ahead bears away as you’re about to pass – only okay if you have room to avoid them. You’re so close to a boat to leeward on the start line that they can’t bear away without risking that their stern may hit you. You’re too close and are wrong. But if they come up behind you and slide in beside you so close that, if you attempt to get out of their way, you’ll hit them, they’re probably wrong.
Bottomline is to not push your right-of-way so hard the other boat can’t reasonably stay clear, and to act without delay when you’re inhibiting a right-of-way boat from doing what is legal.
If you’re sailing to windward on starboard, and a port tack boat steers to pass to leeward or astern of you, you can not change course if the port-tack boat must immediately bear away to avoid you. Same idea here. Right-of-way boat must give the keep-clear boat sufficient room and time to keep clear without causing the port tack boat to, in this case, immediately change course. Dave Perry suggests that course changes within two boat lengths of a boat keeping clear risk a protest. And warning a boat you are about to change course does not count as room to react. Room begins when you actually start to change course. So, warn them, but you’re still responsible to be deliberate and cautious.
If you’re in the right, don’t end up in the wrong!