Basic rules for racing
To get you started in dinghy racing you need to understand one or two basic rules. You also need to know what you have to do if you do something that means you have to take a penalty.
When you start racing, the most important rules to know about are those that govern those situations ‘when boats meet'. The first thing to say here is that the overriding principle is that the intention is that boats should not actually ‘meet' in the sense of colliding! The rules here are all about ensuring that each party knows who has the right of way, such that actions are taken to ensure that there is no collision or interference with the progress of the boat that does have the right of way.
The two principal rules relate to (a) port tack and starboard tack; and (b) windward boat and leeward boat.
Port tack and starboard tack
Whether a boat is on port tack or starboard tack at any particular point in time is determined by the position of the mainsail (effectively the boom) in relation to the centre line of the boat. If the boom is set over to the port side of the boat, (which would normally be the case when wind was falling onto the boat from its starboard side) the boat is said to be on starboard tack. Conversely, a boat with its boom set on the starboard side of the boat is said to be on port tack. The rule is that when two boats are approaching each other, any boat that is on port tack has to give way to any boat that is on starboard tack.
Sometimes, particularly in the heat of the moment when you have only just realised you are closing on another boat, it is not easy to think quickly about whether you are on port or starboard tack. A useful rule of thumb is that if you are helming the boat in the ‘normal' position sitting on one side of the boat facing towards the boom, if your right (starboard) shoulder is towards the way the boat is going, you are almost certainly on starboard tack. If your left (port) shoulder is forward, be ready to give way!
Windward boat and leeward boat
But what happens when you are approaching another boat and you are both on starboard tack? Or when you are both on port tack? In this case a second rule comes into play, that of windward boat and leeward boat. The rule here is that the boat that is to windward has to give way to another boat on the same tack that is situated to leeward of them.
The most common occasions in racing when this situation arises is when one boat is beating upwind and another is reaching or running downwind on a course that takes them through the line taken by the boats heading upwind. In this case the boat going downwind needs to be ready to give way to the boat coming upwind if they are both on the same tack. (If they are on different tacks, it is the port/starboard rule that applies).
Understanding and knowing how to apply these two rules is likely to be all you will need to get you started in dinghy racing at club level. Before long you will need to know more about specific rules that apply in other situations, such as where boats are overtaking each other or rounding marks of the course. You can learn more about these from various publications that are available, the best of which use diagrams and commentaries to explain the rights and wrongs of the situations that most commonly arise during real life racing situations. However, do be aware that the rules are reviewed and updated every four years, so you may find some of the commentary in older publications is not fully up to date. (The rules currently in operation will apply for the four years from 2009 to 2012).
Infringements and penalties
The two most common penalty situations that you will encounter when you start dinghy racing are (a) touching one of the marks of the course; and (b) touching or impeding another boat when that other boat had right of way. If you touch one of the marks of the course, you have to take a penalty by performing a single turn that must include one tack and one gybe. If you touch or impede another boat who had a legitimate right of way over you, the penalty is two turns in the same direction each including a tack and a gybe. Penalty turns must be taken clear of the fleet and should be taken as soon as reasonably possible, which in most cases will mean before the next mark of the course is reached.
A couple of good tips about taking penalty turns are (i) practise them!; that way when you do have to do them in a race it won't cost you too much time; and (ii) when you do the turns, make sure you move well away from the course that other boats are taking, otherwise you may hit or impede them further as you complete the turn, and thereby incur more penalties. In the spirit of good and fair competition, helms are expected to take penalties wherever they are clearly in the wrong, and also in those cases where there is reasonable doubt about the rights and wrongs.