What are protests for in sailing competitions and who can file one?
Firstly, let’s remind everyone that filing a protest is not a lack of fair-play, quite the opposite. It is actually the only possible action of regulation in a sport where self-refereeing is the rule. Sailing is not a sport played on a court or a field, you can’t have an umpire or a referee behind each boat, like we have in match-racing. The skippers themselves are therefore the first to be able to enforce the rules. Then the Race Committee, or even the jury itself, can also protest if they notice an offence or a breach of the rules. Let’s not forget that filing a protest is simply suggesting there is the possiblity that one of the competitors has broken a rule.
Once a protest has been filed, how is the case studied?
For more clarity, the Vendée Globe organisation has decided to study the protests as we receive them. We mostly use emails to communicate. When a competitor wants to file a complaint, he or she sends an email to the Race Direction, which then forwards the email to us. We are an international jury made up of one New Zealander, a Spaniard, a Briton and two Frenchmen. The protest is sent to the five jury members as well as all involved parties. That can take up to two days because we need to check everybody is aware of the complaint.
Then comes the time to study the case; every involved party can contribute to the discussion or bring elements to defend themselves or justify their protest. Every exchange in that debate is made through emails that are sent to the jury. Because of the weather conditions faced by the fleet, the exchange went on for three or four days as skippers were too busy to spend too much time typing on their computers. The jury sets a deadline depending on the weather conditions and once that deadline is over, the discussion has to stop.
The jury then has to give its ruling. First: state the actual facts and determine who did what. Then, based on those facts, determine whether a rule has been broken. And finally, if a rule has indeed been broken, determine the appropriate penalty based on how serious the offence was.
Why ask solo sailors to immediately serve their penalty during the race?
It is mostly for clarity reasons, especially for the public. Imagine the following situation: a skipper who has been given a two-hour penalty is the first to cross the finish line in Les Sables d’Olonne but the second skipper finishes the race an hour later. In the heat of the excitement, how do you explain the public that the skipper they think won the race actually finished second? The penalty is served immediately, during the race, which is much simpler in the end.