From the December, 2020 issue of 48° North.

In addition to saying “good riddance” to 2020, on January 1, 2021 we get to say “hello” to a new version of the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS). The RRS are updated every four years and the new rules automatically go into effect on the first of the year, with one exception: the Notice of Race or Sailing Instructions for an event that begins in 2020 may specify that the RRS for 2017-2020 remain in effect through the end of the event — think Southern Sound Series.

Most of the rule changes for 2021-2024 are clarifications, they remove ambiguity in the wording to reinforce the current common interpretation. In other words, they don’t change the way we play the game. However, there are a number of changes that do have a material effect, if only at the margins.

The World Sailing Rules Committee (chaired by the Pacific Northwest’s own Dick Rose) has posted a terrific “Study” version of the new rules. It shows all the changes and provides comments with respect to the Rules Committee’s reasons for making each change. You can download it from World Sailing at

Here’s what I think are the most important changes. I am limiting this discussion to changes in Parts 1 through 4. We’ll address important changes to Part 5 (Hearings and Appeals) and the Appendices later. Please note, the comments provided below are mine alone and are not official/authoritative interpretations.

Changes affecting Safety:

New Rule 37 requires that when the Race Committee Signals Boat flies Code Flag Victor (White with a Red “X”), all boats must, if possible, monitor the race committee communication channel for search and rescue instructions.

RRS 40 (PFDs) has been rewritten. If Code Flag Y is displayed before or with the warning signal, competitors are required to wear a PFD during that race. If the signal is made ashore, then competitors are required to wear a PFD while on the water. The Sailing Instructions or Notice of Race can modify these requirements.

RRS 41 has been revised so a boat that receives help from others to aid an injured crew member or a crew member in danger (e.g., crew overboard) cannot be penalized for accepting such aid — even if they gain an advantage from it. This change was made to ensure that boats do not refuse such aid (at increased risk to their crew) for fear of potential penalty.

New RRS 20.4 requires a boat to “make a signal that clearly indicates her need for room to tack” in addition to a hail when “conditions are such that a hail may not be heard.” The SIs or NoR can specify what those other means are, but there is no other requirement with respect to what those means are. Regardless, it is still very important to plan ahead when sailing in heavy air and approaching obstructions. Be safe. Bearing away to duck a starboard tacker is often the safest solution.

Changes to Definitions:

Start and Finish have been changed so the position of a boat’s hull is the only thing relevant to these definitions. No more easing the spinnaker sheet and/or guy to get the kite to project forward and finish sooner. Using the definitions of hull and bowsprit in the Equipment Rules of Sailing, this means boats with bowsprits (fixed or adjustable) can have their sprits — and headsails attached to the sprits — over the line at the start signal as long as their hull is fully on the pre-start side of the line. On trapeze boats, crew can be over the line (reaching down the line) if the hull is not.
In addition, rules that address starting and finishing situations have been revised to reflect this change. They include all of the start “flag” rules (30.1 through 30.5) and 29.1 (individual recall). RRS 44.2 (taking a penalty) has also been revised where it addresses penalties near the finish.

The definition of a mark still says the anchor line of the mark is not part of the mark. But now, all other objects intentionally attached to the mark are part of the mark. In other words, you can no longer touch the “limiting mark” trailing behind the race committee signals boat at one end of the start line without incurring a penalty.

Obstruction has been revised to clarify that an “object, area or line” so designated by the sailing instructions is an obstruction.

Sail the Course is a new definition. It pulls the definitional aspects of RRS 28 out of that rule, allowing RRS 28 to be written in the style of a rule. It does not substantially change anything that we have done in the past.

Proper Course now makes it clear there may be multiple options for a proper course by stating that a proper course is “A course a boat would choose in order to sail the course and finish as soon as possible…

Other Changes

The penalty for a violation of Fundamental Rule 2, Fair Sailing, cannot be excluded from a series score.

New Fundamental Rule 5 makes it explicit that the RRS apply to the organizing authority, race committee, and other race officials.

New Fundamental Rule 6 refers to World Sailing Regulations and replaces former Fundamental Rules 5 through 7. These regulations can change at any time (not a four year cycle like the RRS). In most cases, they are only relevant at national level events and above, but all sailors should be aware of them. They can be found at

The Part 2 (When Boats Meet) preamble has been revised so the Notice of Race (not the Sailing Instructions) must indicate if the RRS are to be replaced by the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCAS — sometimes known as the ColRegs). Several Pacific Northwest races, most prominently Swiftsure, replace the RRS with IRPCAS at night.

RRS 16.2 (Altering Course) has been revised to read:

… on a beat to windward when a port-tack boat is keeping clear by sailing to pass to leeward of a starboard-tack boat, the starboard-tack boat shall not bear away if as a result the port-tack boat must change course immediately to continue keeping clear.

The big changes from the previous rule are to limit this requirement to upwind beats (it doesn’t affect “hunting” before the start or in a match race) and to replace “change course” with “bear away.” This means the starboard-tack boat can come up in this situation (without being protested for changing course) since doing so does not affect the port-tack boat’s ability to keep clear.

Rule 18.1 now has the sentence, “Rule 18 no longer applies between boats when mark-room has been given” added to the end. This removes the ambiguity of when RRS 18 turns off after rounding a mark.

RRS 42.3(c) now allows pumping on a beat for boats that can plane upwind. But it is still only allowed when planing conditions are present and still only one pump per wave or puff and only to initiate planing. But it now allows unlimited pumping for foiling boats to get up on foils.

Part 4 has been split into two sections. Section A addresses General Requirements and Section B addresses Equipment-Related Requirements. As a result, several rules have been reorganized and renumbered to make the rules “flow” more clearly.

New RRS 43 consolidates all the references to exoneration in Part 2 into one rule in Part 4, Section A. It does not fundamentally change the concept or use of exoneration, i.e. if you are forced to break a rule by another boat’s action, you can’t be penalized for that. The old RRS 43 addressing competitor’s clothing and equipment has been moved to a reorganized RRS 50 in Section B. Section B Equipment-Related Requirements now references World Sailing’s Equipment Rules of Racing. They can be found at:

While these modifications may seem simple, they provide important clarity for racers, committees, and judges. It’s just another way 2021 looks quite a bit brighter than 2020!