What's new in the 2009-2012 rules?

David Tallis is an accredited International Judge and International Umpire of the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) with more than 20 years experience with adjudication of the ‘Racing Rules of Sailing’ at International level. He was a member of the umpire team at the 32nd America’s Cup in Valencia, Spain umpiring the final series and the final match. He currently umpires on the World Match Racing Tour and is a member of the Jury for the forthcoming Volvo Around the World Race.
Laurie Jensen is a Director of Ross Learning Media and producer of RulesMaster multi-media learning guides. This article was produced to coincide with the release of RulesMaster Racing 2012.  This article is included with the product and shown here as a service to the sailing community.


The International Sailing Federation, ISAF, revises and publishes the racing rules every four years. The printed rule book shows side marks in the margin to indicate the changes from the previous edition.
ISAF also publish interpretations of the racing rules in The Case Book. At the time of writing (November 2008), the 2009-2012 Case Book has not yet been published, but it is expected to be available by January 2009.
So, what's new in the 2009-2012 rules?  The changes are probably the most significant since 1997. Nonetheless, they won’t affect the way we sail around the racecourse all that much.
The most significant change is in Section C, At Marks and Obstructions, which has been substantially redrafted.
The old rule 18 was easily the most complex.  Now it has been completely rewritten to form two new rules: new rule 18, Mark-Room governs boats at a mark, and new rule 19 governs when a boat needs room to pass an obstruction.
It is very clear and unambiguous which rule applies in pretty much any situation. Potential conflict between rules in Section C and other rules has been reduced, if not eliminated. This makes the new rules significantly easier to understand and easier to learn.

Let's get down to the details, insofar as they affect racing sailors.
The racing rules are framed by defined terms. We’ll start with changes to these definitions, and then draw out the impact of the changes as we talk about the rules themselves.


Clear Astern and Clear Ahead; Overlap: these terms always apply to boats on the same tack. They don’t apply to boats on opposite tacks unless rule 18 applies or both boats are sailing more than ninety degrees from the true wind.  As we’ll see later, this change works with rule 18 Mark-Room to clarify when an outside boat has to start giving room to an inside boat, even though they are on opposite tacks.

Fetching:  as in ‘fetching a mark’ is now a defined term.

Mark-room: the preamble to old rule 18 extended the definition of room for the purpose of that rule. That has been replaced with a new definition, mark-room.
A boat entitled to mark-room is entitled to room to sail to the mark and then room to sail her proper course at the mark. That's similar to what some of us used to describe as a ‘tactical rounding’.  When you are at the mark, it doesn’t matter which boat has right of way: if you are entitled to mark-room, then you are entitled to sail your proper course at the mark.
A boat entitled to mark-room is not entitled to room to tack unless the boat is overlapped inside and to windward of the boat required to give mark-room.
Obstruction: a boat racing is an obstruction if you have to give her room or mark-room, if you have to keep clear of her, or avoid her under rule 22 (Capsized, Anchored Or Aground; Rescuing).
The new definition now clarifies that ‘A vessel under way, including a boat racing, is never a continuing obstruction.’  This is a change to the rules when considered with new rule 19 (Room to Pass an Obstruction), discussed later.

Zone: the old definition ‘Two-length Zone’ has been replaced by the new definition, Zone. The zone is the area around the mark within a distance of three hull lengths of the boat nearer to it.
Rule 18, Mark-Room, applies between boats when they are required to leave a mark on the same side and at least one of them is in the zone. That makes the change from two to three lengths quite positive.  It gives more time for boats to sort out their rights and obligations before beginning to round the mark.  The change has been trialled on the water in 2006 and reports are that it worked very well.
Rule 86 provides that Sailing Instructions may specify a two or four hull length zone instead, though this is expected to be unusual. (Time will tell.)  The appendices for Match Racing and Team Racing specify two hull lengths, and Radio Controlled Boat Racing Rules specify four.

Fundamental Rules

Rule 1, Safety: the term ‘Personal Flotation Device’ is now used in lieu of ‘Personal Buoyancy’. The change avoids potential confusion with the same words used in an ISO standard.  This change is reflected in other rules which use the term (rules 27, 40, and Race Signals (flags)).

Rule 3(c)  has been clarified to ensure that competitors do not take doping and eligibility matters to court without first exhausting any remedies they have before the ISAF Review Board or the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The change will have no impact on the process for resolving disputes concerning doping and eligibility.

Rule 5, Anti-Doping is changed to a provide for a competitor who has received a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) or an Abbreviated Therapeutic Use Exemption (ATUE) and clarifies the standards that competitors at the highest level must meet.

Part 2: When Boats Meet

Preamble to Part 2 has changed by deleting the sentence that denies a competitor the right to protest if another competitor breaks the IRPCS (i.e. COLREGS or ‘Nav Rules’) in an interaction with a boat that is not racing. That’s especially relevant for offshore races, where COLREGS may apply between boats at night.  You can now protest a boat for a breach.

Section B: General Limitations

Rule 14, Avoiding Contact has been amended to reflect the new definition Mark-Room.

Rule 17, On The Same Tack; Proper Course
Paragraph 17.2 is deleted and 17.1 becomes Rule 17.
You may notice a few differences between old rule 17.1 and new rule 17. These serve only to take account of the changes in the definition overlap (described above). The new rule 17 works in the same way as old rule 17.1.
The reason for deleting old rule 17.2 seems to be that it was considered redundant, or it was disregarded. Quoting from the submission 184-07 to the ISAF  Racing Rules Committee ‘The purpose of the rule was to ensure that there was at least one passing lane for a boat coming from astern. With the introduction of rule 16 some years ago, passing a boat to windward at some distance became less of a hazard, because when altering course the leeward boat had to give the windward boat room to keep clear, and if attempting to pass to leeward, the other boat would become windward and required to keep clear.’  

Section C: At Marks and Obstructions

Section C preamble: the old preamble said that Section C Rules took precedence over Section A and B rules. This has been removed because it’s no longer necessary. This change really illustrates the elegance of the changes made by the Racing Rules Committee.
The new Section C preamble now says that Section C rules do not apply at a ‘starting mark surrounded by navigable water or at its anchor line from the time boats are approaching them to start until they have passed them. When rule 20 applies, rules 18 and 19 do not.’ 
These words were part of old rule 18.1 and 19.2. They now apply to all Section C rules, reflecting the restructure of the Section.

Rule 18, Mark-Room will look familiar to those familiar with old rule 18, but it’s no longer difficult to understand: the simple and basic idea is that an outside boat must give mark-room to an inside boat. 

18.1 tells us where the rule applies: between boats when they are required to leave a mark on the same side and at least one of them is in the zone. Commonsense provisions include that rule 18 does not apply…

  • ­between a boat approaching a mark and one leaving it, and
  • if the mark is a continuing obstruction, in which case rule 19 applies. A typical example is where a feature of the landscape, such as an island, is a mark of the course.

18.2(a) sets out the basic idea that an outside boat must give mark-room to an inside boat.

18.2(b) provides for a boat’s entitlement to mark-room to be ‘locked in’  when the first  boat reaches the zone.

18.2(c) spells out the extent of a boat’s obligation to give mark-room.

18.2(d): if there is reasonable doubt about a boat’s overlap status then you presume that the situation hasn’t changed. This is the same as old rule 18.2(e).

18.2(e): ‘If a boat obtained an inside overlap from clear astern and, from the time the overlap began, the outside boat has been unable to give mark-room, she is not required to give it.’


Suppose that you are Pink in the illustration. You have been overlapped with Blue for some time. Blue hails for mark-room when she reaches the zone.
You might be thinking that you aren’t obliged to give mark-room because you are hemmed in by White and Blue? That is a difficult case to make, because rule 18.2(e) says that you are only relieved of your mark-room obligation if you have been unable to give mark-room from the time the overlap began, and that could easily be a long way before the zone.


This time you are Blue. Let’s say that you established an overlap with Pink about two lengths before the zone, so there is no doubt that you are in fact overlapped at the zone.  Can you claim mark-room? 
Pink does not have to anticipate the overlap.  Her obligation begins only at the moment that the overlap begins.  So you can claim an entitlement to mark-room only if you reasonably believe that Pink and White and Yellow can all move over in time.  But if they try to give mark room but don’t have time or space, then they haven’t broken rule 18.


18.3 covers the situation where a boat that is approaching a mark changes tack in the zone. That is, she is between head to wind and a close-hauled course on her new tack and so is subject to rule 13, While Tacking. This paragraph is much the same as old 18.3. However, the new, bigger zone means that it’s more important to choose the proper layline when approaching a windward mark.

18.4 deals with gybing at a mark. It is the same provision as the old 18.4. It does not apply at a gate mark, which removes the need for Sailing Instructions to invalidate the rule for that type of course.

18.5 provides exoneration if you break a Right of Way rule as a result of another boat’s failure to give you mark-room; or if you break a Right of Way rule or rule 15 or 16 when you round a mark on your proper course.

Rule 19: Room to Pass an Obstruction will look familiar
19.1 tells us exactly when the rule applies: between boats at an obstruction except when it is also a mark the boats are required to leave on the same side. However, at a continuing obstruction, rule 19 always applies and rule 18 does not.

19.2 provides that a right of way boat gets to decide on which side to pass an obstruction. As you would expect, when passing an obstruction the outside boat must give room to the inside boat.

19.2(c) covers the situation where there is a continuing obstruction. There is a notable game change relating to the new provision in the definition for obstruction.

Blue and White are overlapped, on a reach, with Blue the windward boat. Yellow is Clear astern, and coming up to them. Yellow cannot fit between Blue and White unless she is given room.
White is an obstruction to both Blue and Yellow because they must keep clear of her.

Old ISAF Cases (16 and 29 for example) say that White is a continuing obstruction. Yellow is therefore not entitled to room because at the moment the overlap was established, there was no room between Blue and Yellow (under old 18.5, and new 19.2(c)).

The new definition for Obstruction provides that White is not a continuing obstruction, just an obstruction.
Under 19.2(b), Blue must therefore give room to Yellow, ‘unless she has been unable to do so from the time the overlap began’.
In the example shown, Blue would be able to give room, and she must do so.


Let’s go through the situation from the moment that Yellow overlaps Blue to leeward, step by step.
­Remember, Blue is the windward boat, so she must promptly manoeuvre to keep clear of Yellow under rule 11 from the moment that the overlap is established.
­Yellow is the leeward boat and has acquired right of way, so she must initially give room for Blue to keep clear under rule 15. 
­Only in the case where Blue simply cannot give room (e.g. she is unable to change course or speed because she is hemmed in by other boats) will she be exempt under rule 19.2(b).
It’s likely that this change will affect the way we think about starting line tactics. 

Rule 20: Room to Tack at an Obstruction is similar to old rule 19.  It sets out a process whereby a boat that is sailing close-hauled or above may hail for room to tack when she is approaching an obstruction. 

Old rule 19 was switched off if the obstruction is a mark that the hailed boat is fetching.  That’s a common sense provision.  However it meant that the hailed boat could simply ignore an illegitimate hail, which potentially creates confusion, not to mention a risk of collision if the hailing boat tacks. 
The new rules treat this situation a bit differently.  If you hail for room to tack when the obstruction is a mark that the hailed boat is fetching, then you are breaking rule 20.  However the hailed boat is still obliged to respond, even if the hail is illegitimate.  That’s an improvement in safety.

Section D: Other Rules

Old Rules 20- 22 are renumbered 21-23, and there are a few minor changes made for clarity and consistency.

Part 3: Conduct of a Race

Rule 28: Sailing the course: a new paragraph 1(c) has been added relating to gate marks.

Rule 29: Recalls: a new sentence at the end of 29.1 provides that there is no individual recall when the Black Flag Rule (30.3) is in place.

Rule 30: Starting Penalties: paragraph 30.1 is renamed from ‘Round an End Rule’ to I Flag Rule. Para. 30.2 is renamed from ‘20% Penalty Rule’ to Z Flag Rule. An additional 20% penalty is imposed if a boat breaks the Z-Flag (20% penalty) rule if a race is re-started.

Rule 31: Touching A Mark: paragraph 31.2 is deleted and the old 31.1 becomes rule 31.  The meaning of 31.2 (which described the penalty for touching a Mark) has been moved to Rule 44 (Penalties at the Time of an Incident) which is arguably where it should have been in the first place.

Part 4: Other Requirements when Racing

Rule 41: Outside Help: the old 41(a) is deleted: its wording permitted a boat to receive help and then continue to race, which is not fair. A boat may still receive help as required by RRS 1.1, but only as allowed under 41(a) and (b).

Rule 42: Propulsion: paragraph 42.3(h) provides that Sailing instructions may, in stated circumstances, permit propulsion using an engine or any other method, provided the boat does not gain a significant advantage in the race.

Rule 44: Penalties at the Time of an Incident: Now provides for the One-Turn Penalty previously covered in rule 31.2 as well as the Two-Turn Penalty for breaking a Rule of Part 2.
Old paragraph 44.4(b) has been moved to rule 64.1.

Rule 51: Movable Ballast: makes it absolutely clear that sails not set are considered movable ballast, and must be properly stowed. It’s clear that the intention is to ensure that sails not set are not moved for the purpose of changing trim or stability.  The new rule does specifically allow you to bail out bilge water.