Discussion: General Recall Problem

From Andrew Bohl, NCSSA President
“My fellow C-Boaters,
As many of you know, this year at a few of the larger regattas the fleet has had issues getting clean starts off. This led to numerous general recalls, Z flags, and black flags. Nobody wants this. It limits the number of races we can get in, makes the days longer, and is generally undesirable. The question is, what do we do about it?
Below is an open letter to the C Fleet written by long-time C-Boater Kent Haeger and NCSSA Treasurer Will Haeger. In it, they state what they believe are the primary causes and possible solutions for the “General Recall Problem”. They also attached a letter from Tufts sailing coach and long-time PRO Ken Legler with his thoughts on General Recalls.
We have turned comments on for this post and encourage your feedback here in the hopes of starting a dialogue and working towards a solution. All C-boaters and judges are strongly encouraged to read the letter and contribute to the discussion. Let’s get this fixed.”

Open Letter to the C Fleet:
Meant to provoke discussion.

Disclaimer: We believe that the RC acts in accordance to what the fleet wants so this note is directed at changing fleet expectations.

Problem: The C fleet has way too many general recalls and postponements within the last minute of the start. This results in less races sailed and unfairly penalizes boats that were not OCS during those starts.

Causes: There are certainly numerous things that have led to our general recall problem but we’ll try to list the most pertinent ones below.
• Competitor Incentives: Because there are so few individual recalls (especially on I-flag starts), sailors feel as if there’s no penalty for pushing the line. If they actually are over, they assume the start will be general recalled and they will not be penalized. If they are not over, they have gotten a great start and avoided line sag. Thus, the incentive is to always push the line on I-flag starts. This phenomenon is self-reinforcing- the more general recalls we have on I-flag starts the more sailors actively expect a few generals before a given race.
• Improper Race Committee Expectations: The Race Committee exists for one main purpose- to ensure fair racing. Keep in mind that this does not mean that their job is to make everyone happy all the time, or to try and get a start off where nobody is over. With that in mind, it seems as though RCs are hesitant to have individual recalls at all. If all boats are “close” with some potentially over, it’s all clear. If there are more than a couple boats over, it’s a general. General recalls are supposed to only be used sparingly, in the case where there are so many boats over that the RC could not possibly get a reasonably accurate count and the race would be unfair. Any boat that is not over during a general recall (AKA boats following the rules) is adversely impacted by the general.
• Electronic Equipment: Equipment used to “ping” the line can cause generals in two ways. First, it leads to these boats setting up much closer to the line than they might otherwise, which causes boats around them to line up similarly to avoid getting shot out the back. Second, by assuming that you “have the numbers”, these boats pay less attention to where the flags may actually be at a given time (due to waves, wind shifts, etc.).
1. Set Expectations with the Race Committee and Competitors: Reset expectations about what starts should be general recalls and which should be individual recalls. Encourage strongly individual recalls over generals, except in extreme cases. Let all RCs know the C fleet’s intentions and communicate said intentions to the C fleet at large. It will likely take a couple of individual recalls with 10+ boats over for people to get the idea but it will be worth it in the long run as people reset their expectations.
2. Stop Giving Sailors Extra Time to Ping the Line: If the line is set and sailors are out early enough to ping both sides, great. If sailors are out late or do not have the time to ping both sides of the line, tough luck. This will encourage people to get out earlier, use their eyes more, and reduce the advantage given to those that can afford electronic equipment.
3. Start Calling OCS Boats at 1 Minute: Have RCs begin calling boats as soon as they’re over. The RC hail is a courtesy, not mandatory, thus you can do with it what you will. As soon as the first boat is called over, the fleet will recognize where said boat is and adjust their expectations of where the line is accordingly. If a large part of the fleet is over, this gives the RC a long time to capture numbers before having to resort to a general. Furthermore, if you are over, it gives you a better chance to clear yourself such that you have a better start and you’re not in the way of boats starting cleanly.
4. Mid-Line Boat: In large regattas, over 50 boats, use a mid-line boat. This provides additional eyes with which to call OCS boats and provides a closer flag from which competitors can assess where the line.
Additional Commentary:
• Moving to Z-flags or harsher penalties to discourage generals is suboptimal. A lot of boats travel great distances to compete in what may be only a couple of races, so to take away their ability to sail in a given race is brutal.

Let us know your thoughts, and whether you agree that this is something worth emphasizing in the 2019 season.

Will Haeger Kent Haeger

PS: See what noted PRO Ken Legler says about general recalls below

by Ken Legler, National Race Officer and Head Sailing Coach of Tufts University

Long before there was a Black Flag rule I had the honor and challenge to PRO the 470 class World Championship with 75 boats. Former Olympian Gardner Cox came along one day as an on-board observer. So I asked him, “What do you do if you set square lines and too many boats keep starting over early?”
“My son, at some point you have to start sending them home.”
I didn’t want to do that. Every entry in that event traveled a long way, some from halfway around the planet. We were using a mid-line boat and discovered two tricks that solved the problem. By dropping the mid-line boat back just two to four feet, competitors arriving in the front row could see two flags lined up and stopped moving forward. They could see the line! They also knew they would be caught if they went any further because we used the one-minute, round-the-ends-rule, now known as rule 30.1, I flag rule.
Using three line boats properly and flag I for prep signal this method virtually eliminates recall problems. When competitors first arrive on the line they know to go no further because they can see the line flags lining up. More important the race committee has not one or two, but four sets of eyes watching different parts of the line, one spotter on each end and two spotters in the middle boat looking both ways.
Why flag I? It’s not about the penalty or threat of having to sail all the way to an end if caught. It’s about the ability of the race committee to write down any boat they see from one-minute on, rather than trying to take a mental photograph at the gun.
It is my firm belief that general recalls are very unfair. General recalls are also a huge waste of time. Let’s say boats A, B, and C make awesome starts but boats D-J are over and only a few can be identified. Two guns, first repeater, do-over start. Now the Black Flag comes out. On the next start A, B, and C are over but D-J make great starts. A-C are told to stop racing but D-J are fully exonerated. What happened to the great starts by A-C at the scheduled time and where is the penalty for D-J starting illegally the first time? See the inequity?
With a little race committee practice it can be done when it counts. Write a script for different possibilities and practice on the water with ground tackle and radios for twenty minutes before the first race.
Some sailors like the Black Flag. Why? Because it eliminates some of their competition before the race even starts regardless of entry fee or distance traveled. What a shame.

Posted on October 3rd, by Karl Lanka in From the Blog.

9 thoughts on “Discussion: General Recall Problem

  1. Specifically regarding calling the line, I want to add some more information about philosophies and methods. This spring, I attended the Advanced Race Management Seminar with Hank Stuart and John Strassman as teachers. One of the exercises in that course was calling the starting line. They taught a method that requires a VERY active scribe backing up the person calling the line that involved discussion of what boat was where for the final minute. That method is difficult and requires a LOT of practice to execute well and resembles an auctioneer speaking and someone writing really fast. Members of our regular RC who also attended really weren’t enthusiastic about using that method. They prefer to “call them as they see them” when boats go over. Both are valid methods, but if we want to call more boats, I would argue that the “Hank Stuart” method would be more effective over the long haul than the “call ’em as you see ’em” method. I am a realist and understand that some of our regular crews may not be interested in participating in that change for good reason. This fundamentally changes what it means to be the person calling the line and is REALLY hard on the scribe. Knowing that, we should have the discussion and consider whether we want to hire crews that work in this manner if our locals aren’t interested. Of course that isn’t an easy discussion as it involves more money that has to come from somewhere and will likely cause strife in the “normal crew” as we experiment and/or transition. That may take away from the fun that RC has working to run great events because the stress level is drastically increased. This point has no easy answer, but discussing it should be on the table.

  2. I want to discuss a some issues as they relate to this general discussion:

    1. There is a difference between a change in conditions during the last minute before the start and an aggressive fleet. Sometimes, a left shift forces everyone close to the line, and a shift back right forces everyone over because you simply can’t hold back if you were in a left shift and get hit with a right shift. This is nobody’s fault, but happens a lot, especially on lakes like Delavan, Okauchee, and Pewaukee. Good race management recognizes this difference and simply rolls into another start and/or adjusts the line accordingly.

    2. There is a lot of bashing the “ping”, but I respectfully disagree. I have seen a trend toward not giving enough time to get a new ping after the line moves. Let’s assume for a moment that we got the right shift that caused the general recall. The pin boat pulls up all of their scope, and then the RC rolls right into sequence the moment they are set. It is likely they didn’t get 10 degrees of starting line angle with just the scope, so the right end of the line is favored. On a long line, you can’t get to the pin and reliably get back to set up on the right end of the line in anything under 10mph, so now there are no worthwhile pings and with a line that is starboard favored, another general recall. One feeds into the other, and we often try to start rather than pull anchors, get the line square, and let sailors get their pings. Another issue here is that the RC often says the pings don’t work because the boats swing. Indeed, they see movement on their GPS devices from their “spot” because of the swing. That movement is largely lateral, so I don’t believe that if their GPS says they have moved 20 feet that they have moved 20′ forward. In fact, the math says that in 50′ of water with 150′ of scope out, moving 20′ laterally means that the boat only moved 1.5′ forward. This basic geometry means that the problem is nowhere near as severe as we have been told.

    3. I believe the boats calling the line are under-staffed on a regular basis. Often, there are 2 people in one or both of the boats calling the line. Another body or two that are practiced at backing up the calls/scribe would make it a LOT easier to identify the boats that are over. I firmly agree that a 3 boat line is a good thing. I think that the mid line boat should have crews calling both directions. I disagree that it should be back as that tends to pack the ends of the line. If anything, being a few feet forward would reduce crowding.

    4. Room on the starting line is often a problem across many fleets. US Sailing recommends 1.5-2.5 boat lengths of length per boat on the starting line. My impression is that we rarely go beyond 1.5. In a 75 boat fleet, 1.5 boat lengths per boat is 0.45 miles. Going out to 2.5 boat lengths is 0.71 miles. That’s a starting line that is as long as some of our upwind legs. Put another way, that is 2/3 of the distance between Conference Point and the South shore of Lake Geneva or the entire distance across Pewaukee North to South. As the wind builds, more room is necessary so there isn’t a “pack” that can’t turn down to keep away from the starting line because there are too many boats.

    5. As Fred mentioned earlier, the rules require “prompt” display of code flag X. I believe that there is nothing preventing us from displaying X, then changing/upgrading to a general recall if it becomes clear that lots of boats are unidentifiable.

    6. I believe that we have seen an attitude shift in the RC where they believe it is “us against them,” especially as it relates to the starting line. Every regatta I attended this year began with a lecture about staying behind the line. Frustration was clear in the voices of the RC. More than once, the RC “called out” people who were over after the start like they were being punished as the cause of the general recall. In a penalty start, it seemed that there was a gleeful cheer in voices as numbers were called. I overheard more than one RC member say “that person has been a problem his whole life.” More than once, “how far was I over?” was met with a non-answer. If this is going to improve, answering a basic question like that will certainly help improve. Losing preconceptions of a person’s lifetime average of distance to the starting line is not helpful or appropriate. When a good sailor asks how far they were over, that is because they want their line judgement to be better. If I was over by 8 feet, I will set up 9 feet further back next time. There have been times in my life where I was over the line a lot for a while because my line judgement got bad. The next year, I was better at it. I’ve had RC members characterize me as aggressive while others have expressed surprise that I got a Z flag penalty at Nationals. Both are inappropriate because that just leads to the thought that the RC has a preconceived notion of whether I am over in a given start.

    Very simply, we need to work as a team to solve this problem. Everything discussed so far should be on the table. The RC and the sailors are both there to have a great event. Let’s get back to free and open discussions about how we can improve and discuss situations on the water openly so we can learn together. I encourage a free and open dialogue that will help us identify some solutions. I encourage us to try some of the solutions listed in this conversation.

    Thank you for this important dialogue.

  3. What will help reduce generals:
    1- mid line boat
    2-call out all individual ocs
    3-call them early if under i-flag
    4-get rid of the electronics – line pinging
    5-the line must be long enough, with enough holes in it
    6-sail on bigger bodies of water
    7-no mulligans – no throwouts, make em all count
    8-drop mid line boat back a little ( a few feet)- true this works
    9-stop the port end line being favored a few degrees stuff

    Seen my share of races in both fleets. In fact, I rarely ocs. I will say its much easier to ocs a C scow than MC. C’s are harder to get going from a stop and harder to hold on the line without moving a bit. They need to run. That said, need much longer lines. Sometimes the rc will let a race go if they are over early and its even. Sometimes the rc blames the sailors but instead the line is really off. Seen that too. Most of the time they get it right. Especially with the new ways of gps of the line. Much better now than in the old days. When you have square lines you have less bunching up. You may see more postponements then. Sailing bigger water means less shiftyness: boji, mendota, monona, oshkosh, clear lake, green, geneva vs beulah, cedar, ocauchee. Dont get me wrong, I like most lakes even the smaller ones but bigger lakes without shores and points is much easier and fairer racing and should be used for the championships.
    With no throwouts you are going to be more conservative early in the series. Theres no question you must get a good start to do well. So, aggressiveness pays off if you need to be but running the line or in an open area of the line is much better. Most of the time I’m watching the boats on each side of me and keep my bow out and you had better be moving before they do. C’s are a tough group of great sailors!

  4. I would like to add to the discussion that the C fleet has seen starts where the RC decides that although lots of boats are OCS, they are equally over and call “all clear” in spite of numerous OCS boats. Recently, I have experienced starts where I felt strongly (and my device confirmed) that I was over the line by a considerable amount, but I was even with the “front row.” This quite simply encourages sailors to be over the line. Until it is agreed that this is unacceptable as a practice and communicated as such to the competitors, there will be a disincentive to stay behind the line. Furthermore, when penalty starts (Z flag) are postponed before the start, the penalty is moot. Lastly, the attitude that sailors are “troublemakers” or “misbehaving” is pervasive among the RC in this area. It is totally inappropriate to assign motive to someone else’s actions, especially when the same people call “all clear” if they think the start is their own definition of “fair” because they think the line is equal.

  5. I think having RC call the boats that are over early starting at one minute is a great tactic. That was used in several regattas in my youth and helped us know where the line was. As someone that does start over early and push the line with no electronics on board, I do think a lot of my premature starts have more to do with not being second row and sailing with the boats around me. I think another issue is lack of space on some starting lines. When the line is short, the line becomes more aggressive which also pushes us as a fleet forward on the line. It has been years since I have found a line sight because of the forgiving nature of general recalls and just racing the boats around me. While this tactic started as the hungover sail out just in time for the race, now it is just being lazy and subconsciously knowing that odds are an over early start will be forgiven. I think pushing for individual recalls will get the point across and help get more time racing and less time waiting for the starts. I think all the points above are good and with the help of the fleet and the RC, we can resolve this issue. On the RC – call boats starting at a minute, use the individual recall, and set long enough starting lines for the number of boats sailing. On the fleet side – get out early, find a line sight or ping the line, make an effort to know where the line is and stay behind it, and try to stay out of the way of the RC when they are setting the line so they can have the best opportunity to set a fair line.

  6. As a active racer and race officer I see both sides of the issue. I believe the reason for the lack of individual recalls is due to the number of boats over the line. The other issue is race officers must post a individual recall flag within 4 seconds of the start. To get a list of 10 boats in 4 seconds is not easy. Therefore I believe this is the reason for the general recalls.
    We as a fleet push the line and I have heard we are teaching our kids how to cover yourself so you don’t get seen. Does this promote fair sailing?
    I believe the electronics are helping to keep the fair sailors behind the line.

    We also have the attitude that if we are not called back we have a clean start therefore putting the burden of proof on the PRO. If we were not called at all, but just given OCS would we think twice about pushing the line?

    When we try to start races in light shifty air you will set the boat up closer to the line and will push to get clean air sooner, causing the masses to be over the line.

    • I just returned from Laser Worlds in Dublin and with four fleets and 11 races with very aggressive fleets. Black flag came out immediately on 2nd start with no problems on those starts. It was obvious the black flag was needed. We were in massive breeze so easy for breeze and waves to hold fleets back. it was purely desire to have an edge by slipping out a boat length over others. Maybe we experiment with black flag on first start with adding the early call to it and longer line on big water. That will cure all ills.

      • I appreciated the Haeger’s letter and especially their inclusion of Mr. Legler’s comments and observations. And thanks to Fred for adding his viewpoint as both sailor and race official. More feedback/observations from members of RC teams would be great!
        Personally, regarding the black flag, I am a fan of this monochromatic enforcer. The Z flag, while colorful, seems to be too conciliatory. The black flag means business. Even so, each time I bring up the subject around a race official or regatta host sailor, I get a different reaction. It’s almost as if the use of this black flag is based on a philosophical and/or regional preference by fleet and/or RC team. For this reason I try to listen carefully to what the RC and host sailors say during the Skipper’s Meeting; this is the best place to gain an understanding of the judges temperament and specifically how they manage their starts. And, likewise, the best regattas are lead by strong RCs who make it painfully clear during the Skipper’s Meeting how the starts will be managed. Black flag or no black flag. For reference, I would like to give a shout out to the late great Charlie Harrett, Sr. Charlie was the PRO for the Spring Lake Yacht Club and the Western Michigan Yachting Association championships for decades. He knew his business. He made it clear to all competitors how he would run the races. We knew, before the boats were in the water, what was expected of us. We appreciated and most importantly respected the clarity of his expectations. As evidence, several scows of different classes in west Michigan still display on their transoms a sticker… “Thank you Chuck”.
        This is an excellent conversation and I look forward to seeing more posts.