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Behind the Scenes: Life as a Sailing Judge Explained

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  • Starting as a racing sailor provides valuable experience before transitioning to judging
  • Interaction with sailors and fairness are highlights of being an International Judge (IJ)
  • Common misconceptions about judges’ roles and the importance of self-policing on the water

Win or lose, it might come down to the results of a protest. It’s a sailing judge’s job to make the call, meaning that fairness and a thorough knowledge of the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) are imperative.

A judge ideally starts his or her career as a racing sailor, says Luis Matos, a computer analyst and ISAF judge (IJ) from Puerto Rico, who trained the judges officiating at the Pan-American Games held in the Dominican Republic in 2003. “Racing gives you excellent experience before moving on to the administrative side,” says Matos.

Ruth Miller, an attorney on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, became an IJ by being in the right place at the right time. “We were having a Grade 1 match race in St. Thomas and Henry Menin invited me to come out on an umpire boat to experience this side of the sailing. Not only did it give me a bird’s eye view of the competition, but there was an opportunity to flex my brain and learn ‘the game’ from the inside. Once I learned the rules well enough to umpire, it was a smooth transition to judging. By the way, I still love to race whenever I can, and the better judges continue to race to keep sharp.”

Years working as the Caribbean Sailing Association’s (CSA) chief measurer led David de Vries, director of Budget Marine St. Maarten, into the protest room to deal with ratings issues. “When there was an ISAF Jury seminar in St. Maarten, I decided to join to get a better understanding of what was happening in the protest room. When I passed the test at the end of the seminar, which is one of the requirements to become an IJ, I decided that it was worth it to work on becoming an IJ,” de Vries explains.

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The basic duties of a person on a protest committee or an IJ are about the same, says Miller, who has officiated at Caribbean regattas such as the International Rolex Regatta, Antigua Race Week and Grenada Sailing Festival. “In larger events, you may be called to have input into the Notice of Race (NOR) or the sailing instructions, to help weed out confusing provisions or to anticipate problems. Then, you usually arrive before the event begins to meet with the other race officials and the organizer to help them with last minute issues that arise. During the event, you may be on the water, observing conditions and/or race committee work informally, or you may be actually judging things such as kinetics. You hear protests and requests for redress and decide them after each day’s racing. You should also make yourself available to talk with the racers and help them learn the rules.”

What’s great about being an IJ, says de Vries, who has judged at Caribbean regattas from Puerto Rico to Tobago, “is all the interaction with sailors and other members of the Jury, trying to bring as much fairness in the game as the RRS allows. Being part of juries at international events gives you the opportunity to become good friends with interesting people from all over the world.”

A downside, says Matos, “is that some sailors don’t view you as a friend anymore. Dealing with kids is hard, heart-breaking, in fact. Sometimes they cry and still don’t understand what they did wrong.”

A common misconception about the job on an IJ, says Miller, “is that some sailors perceive that it is the judges’ responsibility to find out where rules may have been broken, and go after the offenders, sort of like policemen. In reality, in most cases, it is the other way around: the sailors need to watch, protest and follow through. We are not generally there to be police, but to help the sailors police themselves.”

Finally, for those who would like to become an IJ, de Vries advises, “Volunteer to become a protest committee member at local sail races and try to join as many protest hearings as possible. Most juries will have no objections if you join the hearings as observer. Once you are more familiar with the rules and, as important, with the procedures during hearings, you can join and be part of the jury.” 

Miller adds, “The Caribbean needs more judges and we are happy to help you along.” 

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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