From the moment that Black Jack owner, Peter Harburg, criticised Wild Oats XI for allegedly turning off their AIS before making a tactical “buffalo girls” manoeuvre that won them line honours in the 2018 Rolex Sydney Hobart, the sailing world has taken sides.
Comments on our website and in social media show there is a strong feeling among some that “the bastards cheated and should have been rubbed out”. There is an equally fervent view that AIS is not a perfect system, with frequent drop-outs, and that Wild Oats skipper, Mark Richards, should be believed when he says it was turned on for the whole journey south.
Because the International Jury found that the protest against Wild Oats by the Race Committee was invalid, because it should have been lodged by a competitor, we will never know the truth.
So what have we learned from the whole sorry saga, that once again showed the non-sailing public that we are a badly-governed sport?
I believe that AIS should be compulsory, and that it should be turned on throughout the entire race.
While the risk of collision with another boat is very low (although this year's race did feature a pea soup fog for a short period), the main benefit I see in the technology is that most personal EPIRBs are AIS compliant. If a crew member is lost overboard, his or her position can be pinpointed by any vessel in the area that has an AIS receiver.
Let's take a hypothetical scenario. A person falls overboard from a supermaxi that is doing more than 20 knots downwind. It is going to take that boat several miles and many minutes to get the reaching sails down and the boat safely turned. However, another yacht is following close behind and the navigator sees the MOB appear on the AIS screen. It will be quicker and safer for that boat to slow down and pick up the MOB than it is for the boat that lost him.
If I was in the cold water of Bass Strait, I'd want more than one boat coming to my rescue.
In the old days, before trackers and AIS, unless you had your rivals in sight you didn't know where they were, except when they radioed their position at the scheduled time.
But now, with trackers and AIS, every boat should know where all the other boats are at all times. Competitors need to accept that the situation has changed, and obey the rules. There is no “stealth mode” in the Sydney Hobart, like there is in the Volvo and Clipper races. So suck it up, Sunshine! The rules state that you must be visible at all times, so make sure that you are.
If this means that your competitors can cover every move, so be it. If you are better than them, you will beat them.
I wrote an editorial for Australian Sailing magazine, saying that more people should protest yachts that do the wrong thing. Our sport is self-governing to a large extent, and relies on all competitors to do their penalty turns if they interfere with another boat. If they don't follow the rules, they should be protested, so they realise they can't get away with cheating.
In the Wild Oats AIS incident, if Peter Harburg genuinely believed that Black Jack was disadvantaged by Oats not transmitting an AIS signal, he should have protested. It may cause some temporary bad blood, but it is the only way to get the message out there – if you cheat, you will be “in the room”. Of course, if they weren't cheating and could prove it, the protest would be dismissed.
But it does the sport a lot of harm when accusations are made that are never tested in court.
The Sydney Hobart Race Committee is known for handing down harsh penalties. Some have been fair, some have been stupid.
I believe that any infraction of the rules that disadvantages another boat, such as the port/starboard incident between Comanche and Wild Oats last year, deserves a harsh penalty. Wild Oats had the chance to do penalty turns, and had they done so, they would have won line honours and set a new race record. They chose not to, and paid the price. Their manoeuvre was stupid, unnecessary and dangerous.
In this year's case, I have no opinion on whether Oats should have been penalised, because I don't know whether they were transmitting an AIS signal, as they claim, or deliberately turned it off as a tactical ploy, as Black Jack alleged.
Had it gone to the Jury as a legitimate protest from one competitor against another, and it was found that Black Jack and the other supermaxis had been disadvantaged by the move, to the point where it cost one of them the win, then the penalty should have been sufficient to take line honours away from Wild Oats.
But if it was found that the ploy did not materially affect the result, then a 10 minute penalty would have been sufficient.
As I said, we will never know.
The standard penalty in sailing always seems to be a time penalty. Which is correct if a competitor has gained a time advantage by their infraction of the rules.
But if they have simply failed to put in their paperwork, as Infotrack did last year (and were hit with a 20% time penalty) or have gained a small advantage but not enough to have changed the outcome of the race, or if they have tossed a bag of rubbish overboard or otherwise broken a rule without affecting the outcome, then perhaps a fine would be a better solution.
The fines need to be significant, to deter rich yacht owners from deliberately breaking rules. (And in that case, a Rule 69 (contrary conduct) protest could and should be lodged.)
The fines money could be donated to the SOLAS Trusts, which benefit all Sydney Hobart competitors, or to some other worthwhile cause (such as supplying hard-working journalists with free beer).
Before next year's sailing instructions are written, the Race Committee needs to examine the issue of AIS reliability and determine a way to prove, conclusively, whether an AIS transmitter is turned on or not. If they can't prove it one way or the other, then the requirement for AIS has to be removed until they can.
But compulsory or not, all boats should carry one, have it turned on, and monitor it for other boats and for any MOB situations. That's just common sense.
In summary, the Race Committee shouldn't make rules it can't or won't enforce. And if a competitor feels disadvantaged by another boat breaking the rules, they should protest. It's as simple as that, really.
- Roger McMillan, Editor