Written by Rob Overton, Chair of the US Racing Rules


“Shall” and “Will” in Sailing Instructions

As even a casual glance at the Racing Rules of Sailing will show, the word “shall” appears often.  That’s not a common word, at least in the American idiom, but a lot of readers don’t think much about it, assuming that “shall” is simply a synonym of “will”, preferred for some arcane reason by the rules writers.
One consequence of this interpretation is that when race committee chairmen write sailing instructions, they sometimes simply put “shall” everywhere they normally would have written “will”.  This usually doesn’t cause any serious harm, but it’s wrong, and I want to set the record straight.
As used in the world of contracts and specifications, and in our rules, “shall” is compulsory and “will” is generally either promissory or factual, depending on the context.  Here’s an example of a hypothetical specification written by the US Government regarding work to be done by ABC Contractors:
The project will begin 1 January 2015.  Before that date a final schedule of meetings will be provided to ABC in conformance with paragraph of the Contract.  ABC shall attend those meetings or pay a fine as specified in paragraph of the Contract.  Additionally, ABCshall notify the Government in writing at least 10 days in advance if theywill not be able to attend a meeting.
The first “will” is a statement of fact.  The second is a promise by the Government.  In contrast, the “shalls” are demands made by the Government upon the contractor. The last clause shows one other use of “will”, in conditional clauses – the non-attendance is neither mandatory nor factual, just conjectural, but in the future.  Such constructions rarely if ever come up in sailing instructions, so we will ignore this usage.
Note that the second “will” binds the Government whereas the “shalls” bind the contractor, ABC.  Obviously, it’s critical to know which party is issuing the specification when choosing whether to use “shall” or “will”.
How does this apply to sailing instructions?  Well, sailing instructions are rules issued by race committees (see rule 90.2(a)), so it’s appropriate to use “will” to describe anything that is factual or under the control of the race committee and “shall” for anything that’s under the control of the competitor (but is being limited by the SIs).  Here’s an example:
18.1  A Safety Checkout Board with tags identifying the competitors willbe placed near the Official Notice Board no later than two hours before the first race each day.  Each competitor shall, before going on the water each day, remove her tag from the Safety Checkout Board and shallkeep it on her person until she returns to shore.  She shall return her tag to the Safety Checkout Board as soon as reasonably possible after she returns ashore.  Failures to obey this instruction may result in disqualification from the first race of the day, without a hearing, but shallnot be grounds for a protest by a competitor.  This changes rules 60.1, 63.1 and A5.
What does this instruction say?  First, it promises competitors that the Safety Checkout Board with all tags will be placed in a certain place before a certain time each day.   Failure by the race committee to make this happen could result in a claim for redress, if it were to affect a competitor’s score through no fault of the competitor.  The rest of the SI uses “shall”, which means the competitor must obey or risk a penalty.
The final sentence carefully uses the word “may” in referring to a race committee action, rather than “will” which would be a promise.  Suppose the sentence about penalties had said, “Failures to obey this instruction will result in disqualification …”.  In that case if, say, a competitor didn’t return her tag promptly one day because the string holding the tag broke and she lost it, and the race committee took pity on her and didn’t penalize her, they would have been breaking their own rule.  That, in turn, might be grounds for redress for the rest of the fleet.  “May” gives the race committee discretion on how to administer the rule.
So, in writing SIs, remember:  “Will” makes a factual statement or commits the race committee to an action (if they don’t do it, a competitor could obtain redress for the omission), while “shall” commands the competitor to take an action (if she doesn’t comply she can be disqualified, unless some other penalty applies).


Dave Perry is so clear spoken on the subject of the racing rules for sailing. He is so willing and patient with questions, it was a pleasure to spend the day on an uncomfortable chair while the sun shone through the window. I look forward to the opportunity to attend another seminar on rules for match racing and team racing.


It is with sadness I report the passing of Bruce McPherson. He was very bright,clever and intellectually curious; always exploring the deeper corners of thought.


John Bruce McPherson of Hyannisport (MA) passed away peacefully on March

15, 2011. A graduate of The Lawrenceville School and the University of

Virginia, Bruce spent most of his life as a designer. In 1966, Bruce moved

to New York City to work for yacht designer Sparkman and Stephens, becoming

Olin’s right-hand man in many ways during the ’60s and ’70s.

In 1975, he designed and built the Maltese Cat, his own 30′ racing yacht.

He later designed and built his dream sailboat, a 36′ 20-knot cruising boat

known as CAYUSE. Bruce spent his recent years on Cape Cod exploring his

interest in responsible wind energy.

A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, March 19, at Union

Chapel, 15 Wachusett Ave., Hyannisport. Donations, in lieu of flowers, may

be sent to Cape Cod Maritime Museum, 135 South St., Hyannis, MA 02601,

designated for the “McPherson Sailing Skiff Project.” —


The following is written by Peter Wilson, with whom I have sailed and respect enormously. For me it touches a cord that transcends sailing, and questions our essential values as a society.


By Peter Wilson, US SAILING Umpire/Senior Judge

As a racing sailor who is also a coach, judge and umpire, I worry that the

‘fundamental principle’ which is the foundation of our (mostly) ‘self

regulating’ sport has become significantly less relevant. As a consequence,

our racing rules appear to have less value to competitors, and the behavior

we expect these rules to encourage is not as prevalent as it used to be.

Quoting from the RRS, “Competitors in the sport of sailing are governed by

a body of rules that they are expected to follow and enforce. A fundamental

principle of sportsmanship is that when competitors break a rule they will

promptly take a penalty, which may be to retire.” Most of us would agree

that this means; 1) If I hit a mark and whether someone sees me do it or

not, I should take a one-turn penalty; 2) If I tack to port because I can’t

fetch the starting pin and force a boat on starboard to tack when she can

fetch, I should take a two-turns penalty whether or not the other boat

hails protest; and 3) If a boat fouls me in a way that significantly

worsens my position in the race, I should enforce the rules and protest.

However, what I have observed on the race course over the past fifteen

years, in the U.S. and abroad, is a growing percentage of sailors who do

not enforce and follow the rules. I see sailors break rules with contact

between boats and ignore their infraction, even when the other boat

protests or the infringing boat gains an advantage in a flagrant foul. I am

not talking about incidents where who is at fault is unclear and no penalty

turns are taken or no one is protested. We all do that from time to time.

I’m talking about the apparent trend towards an obvious level of clear

infractions with no action by either party. What seems puzzling is, if it

is so easy to exonerate, why does it happen so seldom? Why do sailors break

rules and keep on sailing if no one protests? Why do sailors use kinetics

when there are no judges around? And a related question is, why aren’t

there more protests taken to the room? Are the rules not as relevant in

today’s world as they used to be?

Perhaps the best analogy is speeding on the highway. Lots of us drive above

the speed limit. But when the radar detector says we are approaching a

trap, or we see a cop parked up ahead or coming up behind us, we slow down.

But most of the time, the ‘speeders’ speed. Similarly, when there are

judges or umpires enforcing Rule 42 (kinetics) on the water, body pumping,

rocking, and sculling seem to disappear when the judge boats are close by,

but they often reappear when the judge moves on to observe other boats.

And, when judges whistle their observation of a foul with the option to

protest, competitors usually take their penalty.and when the judges are not

around (or don’t whistle/protest), not much happens. Just like speeding, it

seems as if one doesn’t break a rule unless an official says we do.

(My only remark of a minor sort would be that I have never agreed with the rule against pumping. It is a skill that must be developed to do well. That said, until the rule is changed it is still a violation. )  But this is a remark that is not at the core of Peter’s thesis.