Let’s cut to the chase here. There’s no point speculating as to the likely findings of the International Jury when they meet at 13:00 Hobart time to consider the Race Committee protest against Wild Oats XI. Who knows what they will decide – or what penalty, if any, they might impose.
But what we can do is canvass the issues involved and the questions the Jury will have to consider.
The rule is clear: AIS – the Automatic Identification System – must be turned on in every competing yacht throughout the race, and functioning in both ‘send’ and ‘receive’ modes. When Mark Richards, the skipper of WOXI, told reporters that this was “not mandatory” he betrayed his ignorance of the rules.
AIS is primarily a safety system but it transmits a boat’s position, course and speed, which are all indisputably significant tactical information during a yacht race.
Did WOXI just forget to turn the whole system on, or did they turn off the transmit function but keep receiving data from the other yachts? That would clearly be an illegal advantage.
Next, if the Wild Oats representatives at the Jury hearing run an argument that their AIS was malfunctioning (with or without their knowledge) then they would still have some large hurdles to climb.
First, there is an error light on the AIS that indicates when your position data is not being transmitted. The system can sometimes be patchy, but those ‘dropouts’ are usually only for a few minutes, not the two whole days of the Sydney-Hobart.
Second, the radio relay vessel that shadows the fleet as they race South is equipped with AIS and would presumably use it to regularly check positions. Did they notice that WOXI was not transmitting its data? If so, why didn’t they bring it to their notice at the next scheduled radio report, or by some other means (VHF, SatPhone)?
And third, before the race the skipper of each competing yacht must sign the Category One equipment audit form confirming that all devices on their boat are installed correctly and operating properly. That includes the AIS. Then, within six hours of finishing, the skipper must sign a Declaration attesting to the fact that the boat and its crew complied with the Sailing Instructions and all applicable rules. Did Wild Oats sign that Declaration knowing that their AIS was switched off?
So, in summary: If nobody on WOXI noticed that their AIS was not transmitting they were plainly negligent. Or, if they did know it was not transmitting but failed to inform the Race Committee via the radio relay vessel then they were deliberately withholding essential information. Either way, it’s not a good look.
Yesterday, Wild Oats XI skipper Richards tried to dismiss the issue as “a storm in a teacup”. Wrong. This morning it is lead story on the ABC News, Australia’s most respected TV and radio source.
Richards and his ‘Red Army’ team – known around the waterfront for their arrogance – now face the prospect of losing their second Sydney-Hobart line-honours trophy in succession to a Jury finding. If that comes to pass, few will call it bad luck. The more likely response will be: “just plain dumb”.
– Anarchist David