Fueling the Handicap Debate

With too many rating systems in use, the sport cannot progress. The solution is out there, but it requires cooperation.

Sailing World

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Even in San Francisco, once a hotbed of big-boat activity, IRC participation continues to flatline. A universal measurement system could change that.Daniel Forster/rolex

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.

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.

Moving forward, PHRF should remain as the rule for club racing. ORR and IRC continue as mid-level rules, each serving their constituency and event type. Mid-level rules should be measurement based, but should contain subjective factors. A new high-performance rule (HPR) makes most sense. Many owners enjoy building boats to a specific rule. For such owners, the design and building process is a challenging, but enjoyable, part of the game. We believe that the ideal elite, high-performance rule must be an open, published formula-based rule that is suitable for high-level international competition between custom boats.

While IOR was broadly used internationally, the rule rewarded slow features: Many of us still remember IOR boats that rolled wildly while sailing downwind. Designers spent considerable effort “slowing” boats with hull “bumps” or lead added in the bow to get rating credits. These adjustments hurt performance, and as a result, the boats were not fun to sail. A new HPR should focus on fixed-keel monohulls and should encourage boats that are strong and safe for long-distance offshore racing.

Custom raceboats are expensive, but there’s a modest market for this game that hasn’t been served over the past several years. The HPR would need to be stable for a fixed period of time, so new boats wouldn’t suffer from unexpected rule changes and become obsolete overnight. Locking the rule for fixed periods would curtail or prevent designers from using computing power to discover and exploit loopholes in the rule. This will give prospective owners the confidence to make substantial investments in their racing yachts. Accordingly, any rule calibrations must be gradual, deliberate, openly discussed, and have the objective of maintaining the desirable boat type. These boats should also use the universal measurement form, allowing them to easily race under any rule, anywhere in the world, without having to be re-measured.

We believe the HPR must not attempt to rate dual-purpose boats. Instead, this rule should only apply to high-performance raceboats. While necessary for the mid-level rules, the HPR must not credit slow features.

The intentional inclusion of slow features in new raceboats (e.g. bumps, tenderness, pinched-ends) helped kill IOR and IMS, and history will repeat itself in this regard. As an aside, this is why middle rules like IRC and ORR are secretive. Middle rules have to provide credit for slow features in order to fairly rate a wide variety of boats. So middle rules keep these credits secret to discourage designers from intentionally including slow features in new boats in order to get the rating advantage.

A high-performance rule is a bold undertaking, but exciting competition will attract more people to participate in sailing at all levels. Improving our current rating rules and supporting a new rule for high-performance boats will be a significant step forward.