What weather information can I legally use when racing offshore?

Steve Hayles answers...

Monday March 24th 2003, Author: Steve Hayles, Location: None
Steve is most well known as an offshore navigator. He competed in 93-94 Whitbread Race as the youngest navigator in the history of the race, and since has been involved two other Round the World Races, most recently with the Volvo 60 Tyco as navigator.

He started sailing professionally at the age of 15, after being thrown out of school, and has competed in the majority of offshore classics such as the Admiral's Cup, Fastnet, Sydney Hobart and transatlantic races.

On land he is the Technical Director of Diverse Yacht Services. The company has developed products such as Racevision and supply electronic hardware and software to many of the top racing teams worldwide.

Steve is currently working on developing a number of new products and software programmes in conjunction with partner companies and specific race boat projects.

Iain Duthie asks:
In this age of modern technology can you advise what information is legal to be used in offshore racing. i.e. weather information, which is now easily available from the internet and by mobile phone (voice, text or wap). Or are we still restricted to the old radio reports, vhf coast guard reports, etc.


Thanks for your question on a subject that I think is very relevant in the modern day and, in particular, to offshore racing.

My answer to you is quite long, that is because there is no one defined answer. It can be broken down into the following parts:
- How data is transferred
- Where the data comes from
- The role of the Sailing Instructions for a particular race
- Examples of different approaches by different race organisers
- My view of what will happen in the future

The advent of modern communication systems has meant that access to a wide variety of weather information from an even wider range of sources is readily available via relatively cheap and simple systems in almost geographical area of the world. The trend towards faster bandwidth communications systems that can be used at sea and the move towards powerful handheld devices will no doubt continue this trend and make accessing this sort of data even simpler, cheaper and more reliable

In answering your question I think it is important to separate the 'problem' into two parts. Deciding whether access to a particular item of weather data is legal or not means we must look at the source of data itself and the method of communicating it. Unfortunately, there is not one clear cut answer to the question that will hold true in all cases. The individual regulations, Notice of Race, and Sailing instructions of a particular event often make reference to what is permissible in a variety of ways. For instance the Tour de Voile to date has made a very specific reference in the events sailing instructions that has banned even taking a mobile phone onto the boat. Having a phone in your pocket during a race would put you in clear breach of the SI's. (one clause of the 2002 SI's read " Mobile phones are forbidden on board during all the races.")

There might possibly be an argument that a boat in that event could have fitted some other means of gaining 'internet' type access (iridium for example) but you would then be into an unnecessary argument about exactly what the definition of a mobile phone was and I have no doubts that the committee would quickly amend the SI's to ban any attempts to circumvent this rule. Their intention was very clear that they did not want competitors having 'internet access' during racing. I use the term internet access in a slightly generic sense to include the numerous other similarly related protocols such as ftp, wap, e-mail etc in addition to the web browser type access that we probably more normally associate with the 'internet'.

In this case it was clear that we could listen to as many publicly broadcast radio forecasts as we wanted as well as download weatherfaxes (it seems it won't be long until that option will be gone as more stations are being discontinued), listen to the VHF etc. but we could not reasonably access the internet.

Other SI's make specific reference not to any particular equipment restrictions but to the physical act of getting our hands on the data. Most references in such rules will be in a restrictive sense telling us what we must not do but sometimes you will see a further clarification of the situation by giving us an idea of what is allowed. For example this reference from the Pacific Cup SI's from last year clearly banned internet access to weather information. I think in this situation I think you could argue that it would be have been fine to go online and check my e-mail providing that there was absolutely no weather information waiting for me and even browse around the internet providing I did not access any weather information.

"7.2.5. A yacht may receive publicly scheduled transmissions of weather data. However a yacht that requests and receives weather information transmissions during the race, and/or receives a privately prearranged weather information transmission during the race will be considered to have violated RRS 41. Thus, a yacht may subscribe for a private weather forecast; however, any such forecast must be obtained in its entirety by the yacht prior to her start. Access of Internet weather information during the race is to be considered a "request" for such information, and is therefore disallowed. "

When events follow either of two 'cases' above I think the situation is relatively clear apart from occasions when the wording of the rule is particularly bad. One problem that is faced when trying to write rules to govern this area of the sport is that the many of the terms used have no real defined meaning in there own right. We all have a basic understanding of what we mean by the 'internet' but it is extremely difficult to find an exact definition of what the term means. This may not seem important but as the number of ways that we can access this type of data increase the situation will become more and more confused in my view as competitors try to find legal loopholes in these rules.

Some events make life very easy by effectively allowing competitors access to whatever they want. This certainly takes away any grey areas, leaves no one complaining about lack of information and in theory is fair for everyone and like everything else in the sport the person that does a better job of researching their sources of data will probably do a better job of deciding where to go. A typical example of this sort rule looks like this from the Daimler-Chrysler challenge next year

"Weather Information. Receiving weather information and routeing advice by any means shall not infringe RRS 41 Outside Help."

The only problem with this is that it specifically allows any access to any weather information via any means, and the problem with that for most of us is that shore side weather routing is completely permissible. Having someone sat ashore looking at weather information night and day and helping make strategic and tactical decisions for the yacht has its place in the sport in obvious areas but for the majority of events I think is is wholly inappropriate. I do not wish to start a major discussion about shore side routing and its merits other than to re-iterate that there are areas of the sport where it is very healthy and other areas where it is not.

To get back to the question, having read this far you may still be left wondering what you can do in the events that you are taking part in. The first thing is get a copy of the Notice of Race , SI's and all other governing rules and hunt down any references to weather access. Get hold of a digital copy of the documents and quickly search for RRS 41, internet or some similar term and you may find the answer you need. I suspect, however, that quite often this approach will not work and the reason for that will be because the rules make no specific reference to the situation at all. There are a few things that you should bear in mind in this case. The first thing is that you can take pretty much whatever you want with you on your boat when you go racing and that includes a mobile phone. If there are no rules stopping you do it then it is also legal to go online using this phone. Whether you use your phone connected to a laptop to get http access, use a WAP browser in your phone, use a GPRS phone connected to your handheld PDA etc makes no difference.

What I am getting at is that the specific hardware and the method of communication, i.e.. voice, text, wap etc. makes no difference. It is exactly what you access that is important. This is often, unfortunately, where very loose terms like 'public domain' or 'intended for public use' come into play and black and white most definitely smears to grey. Anything that is very clearly from a public web site that would be available to everyone would be OK. No-one could argue that the British Met Office web site, for instance, is not legitimately in the 'public domain'. At the other end of the scale employing a private individual or company to prepare forecasts 'specifically' for you regardless of how you receive them would be outside assistance. The term 'specifically prepared' is often seen in reference to these situations and is again of arguable meaning.

If the individual or company was tracking your progress, preparing forecasts and adding their own advice or comments then it would be most definitely outside assistance, but if they were merely packaging existing data and their 'output' was available to everyone there would be no problem. The problem comes in that there is a high degree of interpretation of these phrases and different race organisers will have different views. I realise that the readers of this site will be from many parts of the world but for interest I spoke to the RORC, here in the UK, under whose rules many of us have or will race and their 'policy' was clear, even if not that well documented.

In their events you can access any web site even if requires a membership or subscription (slightly surprisingly even if you have to pay for it); you can use any automated SMS, premium rate fax , or e-mail responders as well as any access any WAP based delivery site. This covers a huge number of sources and no-one will go lacking information. I think in simple terms, if you do not communicate directly (either by voice or digitally) with an individual body then you are almost certainly within the rule.

In summary, If there are no specific rules governing what equipment is allowed, and no reference to what constitutes outside assistance for any event I would advise that you make sure that you did not make any voice calls during the race, and that all the sources of data you used (via any means) could legitimately be found on some kind of public index. My own rule is that if any web site or service I want to use can be researched and found on a big web search engine like Google then I am confident that I am playing within the rules.

I would like to see a move towards a unified clarification of the rules regarding weather access at sea during races and would welcome anyone's view on the subject. One thing for certain is that mobile communications are not going to disappear and the time when we are sat on the rail with broadband type access anywhere in the world is not that far off so any existing grey areas will only get worse.

Best regards


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