Fueling the Handicap Debate
Fueling the Handicap Debate
With too many rating systems in use, the sport cannot progress. The solution is out there, but it requires cooperation.
Handicap racing is a major component of our sport, allowing teams of all skill levels, budgets, and boat types to race weeknights and weekends, at the club level and on the grand-prix circuit. It’s a critical engine that helps drive the sport, and the industry that supports it. While handicap racing is fundamental, we nonetheless continue to struggle to create and sustain a single system that equitably handicaps boats of different sizes and purpose.
At present, we have a mind-numbing variety of handicapping systems in use around the world. The list reads like bad Scrabble: IRC, PHRF, ORR, ORC, MORC, CSA, CYA, and more. New sailors and potential owners are understandably confused, uncertain which measurement system to build to, or under which rule their boat is most fairly rated. This confusion is not helping the sport, and it must end. The solution is simple and obvious in concept, but incredibly challenging in its execution. What we need is a single handicapping concept used throughout the world, one that accommodates all types and levels of racing.
In this age of incredibly powerful software, developing a package to meet these objectives should be possible, but progress is restrained by the dramatic differences in performance from boat to boat, the influence of design evolution, and the geographic rivalries of profit-motivated rule administrators. It’s been forever impossible to create a meaningful system for all regions and all boats.
This problem existed as far back as the early 1900s, with the Universal Rule, and since then, at least 20 different rating rules have been attempted, each with a limited run, and each giving rise to an alternative. In the 1960s, the United States was using the Cruising Club of America Rule and the British were using the RORC rule. In order to better enable international competition, a cooperative effort resulted in the creation of the International Offshore Rule, which used elements of both. IOR provided great racing and enjoyed international acceptance for nearly 25 years. But in the end, IOR encouraged boats with undesirable sailing traits. The Measurement Handicap System, which followed in the 1980s and 1990s, was intended to address the failure of IOR to fairly rate a wide range of boat types. It was also intended as a middle rule, capable of rating cruiser-racers, with IOR remaining as the grand-prix rule. Because more desirable boats could be designed to the MHS, it became the International Measurement System, and eventually replaced IOR. IMS was a poor choice for a grand-prix rule. It was too complicated and gave too much credit for “go-slow factors.” It failed for the same reason as IOR, in that more desirable boats could be designed outside the rule.
Experience has taught us it’s extremely difficult to handicap the wide range of boats being raced today. For example, an all-carbon TP52 design can easily plane, while a heavy-displacement crossover can barely surf a wave in strong wind. Can one rule possibly accommodate such disparate differences in performance? Racecourse configurations are another factor making it difficult to fairly handicap boats. Most inshore events now consist of short windward-leeward courses, while distance races are heavily skewed to downwind sailing. And then there’s the age-old question of whether it’s best to use time-on-time or time-on-distance calculations when computing results.
A formidable barrier is measurement itself. While mid- and club-level rules attempt to alleviate this by either accepting owner-declared measurement data or using standard, builder-supplied data for many designs, this method can be expensive, time consuming, and complicated. An attempt to lower this measurement barrier is the “universal measurement form,” a measurement system that can be applied across all existing rules. Its implementation requires buy-in from disparate handicap-rule administrators.
The universal measurement form would include all measurements used by all of the participating rating rules. When an owner has his or her boat measured, the measurer would take all measurements required by all of the participating rating rules. The owner wouldn’t need to re-measure to race under any of the participating rating rules. From the point of view of the owner, the advantage is obvious—no need to ever re-measure. From the perspective of the administrator of a rating rule, the disadvantage is that it makes it easier for owners to race under other rules.