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How to Win in the Protest Room

How to Win in the Protest Room

Two-time Olympic competitor and World Sailing International Judge Bill O’Hara gives his expert tips on how to improve your performance in the protest room.

Ian Roman/Volvo Ocean Race

Ian Roman/Volvo Ocean Race

My first ever protest experience was during a Cadet dinghy race on a Thursday night at the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, back in the bad old days of the “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. 

I was 10 years old and I remember having no idea at the time what I had done wrong or what rule I was meant to have broken. 

Penalty turns weren’t an option in those days and as I was fed up of having to retire from races, I decided I would go to the protest room instead.

Royal Ulster Yacht Club is a historic institution with a long pedigree that includes five challenges for the America’s Cup. My protest was held in the Sir Thomas Lipton Room and the intimidating looking protest committee was made up of three blazer-wearing Royal Ulster Yacht Club members. 

Recognising that I was somewhat out of my depth, the protest committee chairman did his best to put me at ease. He began by explaining that, as the protest had been lodged against me, I was the ‘Protestee’. Thinking that he was referring to me a Protestant, I jumped to my feet:  “Oh no Sir! I’m a Roman Catholic!” I declared.

Perhaps because my outburst failed to impress the panel but one way or another I lost the case. 

That was the first of many protests I lost over the next 14 years, until I decided enough was enough and I needed to get better at preparing myself for protests. 

Here are the main points of what I have learned along the way. 

1. Learn the rules

This is the most important stage of how to prepare a protest. 

You wouldn’t expect any success at a regatta if you hadn’t prepared your boat or practised with your crew. Winning protests takes exactly the same preparation. 

The rules are complicated and if you are involved in a protest – either as the protestor or the protestee - you can’t expect to win if you begin your rules education 20 minutes before the hearing.
The best way to learn is to look up the rules after every incident you have had on the water; whether it’s in race situation or even when you are practising.

Most boat-to-boat incidents happen at the start or when rounding marks. In training you can create plenty of protest situations by making the start line short, having a small course and doing plenty of laps. 

It’s important that when you are discussing the rules you have a rulebook to refer to. So many discussions on the rules take place on the water, in dinghy parks, changing rooms or sailing club bars, all with no reference to the text of the rule.

There are two really good apps you should consider that will give you the rulebook and much more. 

US Sailing’s excellent App uses excerpts from Dave Perry’s book ‘Understanding the Racing Rules of Sailing through 2016’ to help explain the rules. 

Taking it a stage further, the Royal Yachting Association’s App ‘Rules& Cases 2013-16’ is an essential for the serious sailor as it references all the World Sailing case law and the Q&A’s relating to each individual rule. 

2. Be prepared

At a regatta, the biggest challenge when you are preparing for a protest is running out of time. Normally, the event protest committee or International Jury will try to hear all the protests as soon as possible, so if you have to go looking for information, you will eat into your preparation time. This makes it really important that you have all the relevant documents relating the event easily accessible to you.

You can’t always guarantee reliable Internet access at an event venue, so don’t rely on being able to access the documents online. The smarter option is to put together an electronic folder that you can get at offline, including:  the Notice of Race, Sailing Instructions, Class Rules, World Sailing Case Book, and anything else you think you might need.

When you arrive at the event, make sure you find out straight away where the regatta’s Official Notice Board is situated and ask then where protest hearings would be held. 

Read the Sailing Instructions thoroughly and check if there are any special local requirements for a protest to be valid – things like informing the race committee at the finish of the race. 

If a red protest flag is required, make sure you have one, or else your protest will be doomed before it even gets lodged.

3. Lodge a valid protest

Many protests and requests for redress are declared invalid before they are heard. When this happens sailors get angry with the protest committee, thinking they are dismissing the case on a technicality simply to save them having to deal with it. 

I can assure you, this is absolutely not the case. If the requirements for a valid hearing have not been met, the protest committee are required by the rules to declare the protest invalid and close the hearing. 

Here’s a list of what you have to do to file a valid protest:

  •  Hail ‘Protest’ at the first reasonable opportunity
  • If required, fly a protest flag at the first reasonable opportunity
  • Complete a protest form with the following information:

(a) identify the protestor and protestee; 
(b) describe the incident, including where and when it occurred; 
(c) state any rule you believe was broken; 
(d) state the name of the protestor’s representative.

  • Lodge the protest inside the specified protest time limit

Of course, on occasion there are exceptions and maybe additions to all of the above and that’s why you have to study the rules, the local sailing instructions and notice of race.

If you have a protest lodged against you, get a copy of it and check that the validity requirements have been met. If you believe they have not, proving that should be your first line of defence. 

4. Be honest with yourself

This is where most people go wrong when they are preparing for a protest. What happens is, they talk about it with their crew or their mates and they try to convince themselves they are right, until eventually, they succeed and they start believing their own story. 

Instead, what you should first of all do is decide if this is a protest you could lose. If it is, then you need to seriously consider what the repercussions of that would be. 

By ‘losing’ in this case, I mean a situation where you, rather than the other boat or boats, would get penalised. 

Try to make an honest, unemotional assessment of your case and if you are in any doubt, withdraw it. If you are being protested, then it is worth trying to convince the protestor to withdraw it. 

5. Focus on what’s important

In my experience, most protests decisions come down to one key fact, such as: Did a boat keep clear? or Was there room?

When preparing for a protest you should try to identify that key fact and work out what questions and evidence you are going to have to bring to establish it in your favour. 

Think about what your opponent’s argument is likely to be. Consider what questions he or she might ask you and how you will answer them.

Practise how you are going to present your case using a set of model boats, as that is what you will have to do in the protest room and it is better to appear calm and confident rather than nervous and unsure when re-enacting the incident. 

A good witness is really helpful. It is important to know what they are going to say so you are confident it will support your case.

Telling a witness what to say doesn’t ever work. Inevitably, under questioning they will forget what you told them and answer as they themselves remember the incident. 

Video evidence can be useful but again you have to interpret what you see as a neutral. Don’t waste everyone’s time watching a video that is not conclusive.

Evidence from a race tracker is generally pretty inaccurate and therefore generally useless in boat to boat situations. It could be useful though to demonstrate that you were nowhere near the incident when it happened! 

6. Protest Room etiquette

Give yourself the best chance of success by not scuppering you case by making a bad first impression on the protest committee. 

By that I mean, get the basics right: turn up on time, make sure your witnesses are there, turn off your phone, take off your hat and sunglasses and behave politely. A smile doesn’t go amiss at this point either. 

The formal structure of the hearing is really important to some people and if it’s being held in front of an International Jury you have to be aware that cultures differ and that it can be easy to unintentionally offend. 

It’s important to stay calm. Rest assured, you will be fairly treated and you will get a chance to present your case, to question anyone who gives evidence and to summarise your case at the end.

A few words on the much misunderstood concept of onus of proof. For the record, in all but one situation (claiming you established or broke an overlap at the zone of a mark) both the protestor and the protestee have an equal onus on them to prove their case. 

Stay calm, tell the truth and don’t assume that because your opponent’s recollection is different, that he or she is telling lies. 

Some judges really focus on what you say; others focus more on how you position the boats, so be precise on both. 

You are not allowed to ask leading questions. For example, if the key fact of the protest is the position of the boats relative to each other when they entered the zone of a mark, then you cannot place the model boats in position and ask the other party if they agree. Instead, you should simply ask them to position the boats at the zone. 

It’s important that you listen calmly and impartially to what everyone says. If your opponent or a witness makes a statement that clearly supports your case, make a note of it, as it can be very powerful to highlight it when you are making your final statement. 

The judges normally haven’t seen the incident and their job is to decide the facts based on the evidence provided. These facts will lead them to come to a conclusion and then a decision. 

Be aware that some of them might never have sailed the boat you compete in. If the mechanics of the boat are important to you establishing your key fact, it’s up to you to make them understand. 

If the judges end up with the wrong facts then you have failed in your presentation, not the other way round. 

7. The Decision

This shouldn’t be a surprise if your rules knowledge is good, as you will know how you faired on proving the key fact. 

Whether you have won or lost, you should always ask for a copy of the decision from the protest committee. At big regattas there is a reasonable chance that the case may be reopened. 

It is easy to get emotional when a decision goes against you, but try not to flounce out of the room muttering curses to yourself under your breath. Better to thank the protest committee for the time and effort hearing the protest and to shake hands with your opponent. 

When it comes to attempting to reopen a protest you have 24 hours to either come up with significant new evidence or convince the protest committee that they have made a significant error. It’s hard to get a case reopened but you have nothing to lose by trying.

All of the rules related to Bill’s article can be found in PART 5 (a) and (b) of the Racing Rules of Sailing and a more extensive guide to how a hearing is conducted is in Appendix M of the same publication. 

[Main Image: Oskar Kihlborg Volvo Ocean Race]

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