Currently I'm in Almeria for the iSharescup. Practise day yesterday and racing today in the afternoon. In Spain everything is always a little later, so first warning not before three. Which gives me time to discuss a rules-issue with you, in this post.
Two boats on port tack approach a windward mark on the port layline. The mark is to be left to port so they both have to tack to round it. The boat behind is more to windward then the other, but only by half a boatlength and there's almost an overlap. Cumming into the three-length zone there's still no overlap. The helmsman of the boat clear ahead signals as much by waiving his arm up and down.
At the same time a third boat approaches on starboard tack and there's a change of a collission with the first port tack boat. Perhaps the port boat can pass in front, perhaps it can not.
The starboard tack boat thinks it will be too close and luffs. One of the crew waives a Yankee flag and the umpires see this.
The first port tack boat continues as there's now enough room to pass in front of the starboard tack boat. He sails past the starboard lay line and luffs. In the meantime the third boat finds a gap above the mark and tacks into it, rounding the mark. The first port tacker follows and subsequently the starboard boat also rounds the mark.
On the umpire boat the discussion goes like this:
U1: "First port boat did not keep clear of starboard; penalty on port. Did he signal room to tack?"
U2: "Yes, he waived his arm up and down to windward."
U1: "Did we hear him ask for room to tack?"
U2: "No, I didn't, he shouted something, but I couldn't hear what".
U1: "If he signalled 'room to tack', the other port tack boat should have responded. Penalty on the second port tacker. If he didn't signal, we have to penalize him. Are you sure he signalled 'room to tack'?
U2: "Yes, I'm sure he signalled"
They then proceed to penalize the second port tack boat.
In the debrief asking about this incident, they learn that the first port tack boat did not in fact wanted room to tack, but was only signalling 'no overlap'.
In this situation that has very little effect. The clear-ahead boat may have gained mark-room by entering the zone clear ahead, but it can't tack. As soon as it passes head-to-wind, rule 18.2(b) is switched off and it must keep clear of the boat still on port tack.
Nevertheless we, the umpires, made a mistake by penalizing the wrong port tacker. I'm at a loss how we could have done otherwise. Rule 20 overrides 18 an 19. It is a safety rule which MUST be complied with.
Perhaps we need a more clear signal when a boat invokes it?
Or should we ignore all hand signals, save for the absolutely unequivocally clear signal?