They rule over wind and water


A word to Olympic sailors in Sydney, Australia, this month: Be on notice - two of the sharpest pairs of eyes on the Chesapeake Bay will be upon you.

Pat Healey, Naval Academy racing dinghy coach, and veteran Annapolis sail racer Jim Capron have been recruited to the international adjudication panel for the Olympic regatta.

They will be helping decide whether all that takes place between the 400 sailors on 272 boats in the 11 classes of Olympic sail racing is according to the rules.

Healey is chairman of the judges committee of the International Sailing Federation, the worldwide authority for sail racing. Capron is chairman of the judges committee of U.S. Sailing, the national yacht racing body. It is the first time two American judges have been involved in the Olympic Games.

The regatta is likely to be highly charged, the end of years of preparation and selection by competitors seeking golden glory.

Explaining their role, Capron, who was an adjudicator at the U.S. Olympic trials in San Francisco earlier this year, pointed out that only one boat from each class in each country was able to win through to the Sydney Games.

"It's a five- or six-year endeavor for any one of those teams to get through," Capron said in an interview at the Annapolis Yacht Club before his departure for Sydney yesterday. "And it all comes down to one or two weeks."

To keep the atmosphere at the protest hearings under control, the judges will be dressed in Olympic uniforms, and the proceedings will be formal.

"Our job is to keep it from getting emotional," said Capron, who has been adjudicating major sail races for the past six years. "I've never known it to get out of hand. It has gotten emotional, but you have to put a stop to that very quickly.

"It's going to be more formal in Sydney, but, from a judging aspect, I suspect it's going to be very similar to any other high-level event."

After each fleet race, five-judge panels will weigh crew protests against each other or against race committee decisions, and the Annapolis duo could be recruited to any of the panels, although they probably will be excluded from any U.S. complaints.

"If I were a chief judge, that's the way I would set it up," Capron said. "Not to say any of the judges bend in any direction. We just lose track of nationalities when we are out there, under way. But in order to keep the appearance of impartiality, it is quite likely I will never umpire an American match."

Capron is an international-level umpire as well as a judge. Judges and umpires are, in his words, "different animals." Umpiring is more specialized than judging. There are 400 international-level judges, but only 100 umpires.

Judges hear protests on land after the race is over. Umpires make rulings on the water during the course of the race. But they only operate during match races, when two boats go head-to-head around the buoys. The only Olympic match-racing class is for Solings.

Capron has been told he will be involved in the on-water control of the Soling races. Competing boats fly yellow or blue ribbons. Each has an umpire watching it. The umpires talk to each other throughout the race. The commentary makes it easier for them to agree on what is happening and what goes wrong.

"As the boats come together," Capron said, "the conversation [between the umpires] goes something like this: 'I am blue. I am port. I am giving way.' ... 'I am yellow. I am starboard. I am holding. I am holding.' ... 'I [blue] have to do something now. I am luffing. I am tacking.' "

If the yellow crew protests a move by the blue crew, the umpires blow a whistle and fly the flag of the penalized boat - a blue flag means the blue boat must do a 270-degree penalty turn. Similarly, a yellow flag indicates the yellow boat is at fault.

A green flag means neither boat has committed a foul. At international level, there is no appeal of the umpire's immediate ruling.

"There has to be agreement between the umpires," Capron said. "If one umpire says the blue boat committed a foul and the other umpire says the yellow boat committed the foul, they will green-flag it, which means there will be no foul.

"We have disagreements. Occasionally, we make mistakes. But when we make mistakes, it's the same that happens in pro football if the guy was inbounds but was called out of bounds. It can't be changed. Even if we realize it on the water, we can't change it. The decision's already been made."

Solings apart, all of the Olympic sail races are by fleet, with all the boats of a class starting at the same time and racing round the same course. Judges will be on the water, but will not make any immediate rulings.

They will watch, take notes, and make recordings - particularly at the start and around the markers, where the pressure on the boats is highest and the possibility of infringement most likely. Only after the race will the judges adjudicate any protests.

On the water, the sailors will shout "protest" to each other. If the accused skipper feels an error has been committed, he or she must voluntarily complete a 270-degree turn. If the protest is ignored and goes to the judges, a guilty finding leads to automatic disqualification from the race.

"The whole sport is founded on honesty," Capron said. "This is a highly coached event. These are top-of-the-world sailors who are meeting at the Olympics. They will make the decision really quickly on taking a penalty.

"If you take the penalty on the water, it's just some time lost. If you come in and lose it in the hearing room, it's disqualification from the race. I would say a good number of penalties will be taken on the water."

Capron, who runs a company in Rockville specializing in the automatic control of temperature, humidity and security systems in buildings, has taken a month off work to monitor the Olympic racing, which starts Sept. 17.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "I would be foolish not to do it. I think for most judges who have been racing sailors, judging is giving a little bit back to the sport."

His remaining ambition: to umpire New Zealand's defense of the America's Cup, the ultimate match-race trophy, in 2003.

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