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.
The Royal Ocean Racing Club, in England, which oversees its IRC Rule, and US SAILING, which administers ORR, are cooperatively developing the form. IRC and ORR administrators both plan to use the form, and the Offshore Racing Congress, an independent international rating group prevalent in Europe, is exploring the possibility of using the form as well.
The form is a significant step in the right direction, globally, but it doesn’t solve our larger domestic problem of the right rule for the right application. We currently have two “middle” rules in play: ORR and IRC. In 2010, there were 476 boats in the United States holding IRC certificates and 736 boats with ORR certificates. Both rating systems use secret processes to establish handicap ratings, but the rules compete with each other for acceptance and use by race organizers. This is not a healthy situation for owners nor race organizers, who resort to dual scoring and present dual trophies—always a confusing experience for competitors. The Cruising Club of America, for example, favors ORR for its Bermuda Race, as does the Chicago YC for its Mackinac Race, and the Transpacific YC for its Transpac Race. IRC is the rule of choice by the New York YC and Storm Trysail Club for their events. The Annapolis to Newport Race and Bayview YC’s Race to Mackinac are sailed under IRC, as well. If implemented, the universal measurement form would allow boat owners to race under IRC and ORR with a single measurement.
US SAILING must provide even-handed support to both middle rules. ORR works well for point-to-point distance races with set wind conditions and seems to effectively rate a wide variety of boats. IRC works well for inshore races that include a combination of upwind and downwind legs. IRC encourages more versatile (cruising-capable) boats at the smaller end of the range and high-performance boats at the larger, more grand-prix end.
To serve the masses, we rely on Performance Handicap Racing Fleet, which is arguably the most successful handicap rule ever. PHRF is an empirical system used by nearly 20,000 boats across the country; the handicap ratings are derived, in part, from observations of a boat’s performance. PHRF is managed regionally, and those in favor of regional implementation cite the fact that wind, wave, and current conditions differ from venue to venue, and therefore, so, too, should a boat’s rating. PHRF ratings must be reviewed annually, taking into account a boat’s observed performance, which puts considerable pressure on individual handicappers who must make judgment calls without the use of real, measured information, and sometimes under great political pressure.
One issue with PHRF is that skippers will change the number of crew during a series, depending on the wind strength of a given day. Also, boats perform differently in varying windspeeds, making it difficult to maintain fair ratings across all conditions—although this is a fundamental problem for any single-number rule. Another challenge with PHRF is when owners enter regattas outside their region and they receive a new rating, often perceived as unfavorable. This discourages competitors to travel to “away” regattas, and is the source of many a rating dispute and grievance.
At present, there are no common tools (computer programs) in use across regional PHRF fleets, other than the Red-White-Blue handbook published by US SAILING. Also, there are limited cross-reference handicap ratings available for modern high-performance boats. With the continuing trend of speedy sportboats, assigning that first handicap is a daunting task.
The creation of a national database, however—one that includes all rated boats, along with comparisons to other fleets—will help address this issue of disparate ratings. To achieve this goal, a velocity prediction program would be used to analyze the performance of boats. This tool would help generate estimates of PHRF ratings for recently designed boats that are proving to be exceptionally fast and difficult to rate. These reference ratings would be useful for all regional rating committees. Such a system will create fairer racing, and, we believe, increase participation. Boats with fair handicap ratings that race in active fleets retain their value.