Putting the Pieces Into Place

Whether one-design or handicap racing, the winning formula always boils down to three basic elements: boat prep, boatspeed, and a top crew. This year's surprise PHRF champ had them all. A feature from our April 2008 issue

Bad Girl 368

Allen Clark/photoboat.com

Robert Armstrong's problems started when his red J/100 Bad Girl finished its first-ever race at Acura Key West Race Week. As he passed the race committee boat, he looked back to enjoy the sight of his nine competitors in the PHRF 4 division strung out to the horizon. In his wake was a collection of boats from the heydays of the past three decades. Bad Girl was the only new girl in the fleet, so to speak.

"I was amazed," says Armstrong. "The very first race with the boat, I'm looking back and in a line behind us, by several hundred yards, was the entire rest of the class." His closest competitor was a good minute and a half behind on the stopwatch. In the next contest, Bad Girl was second to the best J/35 team in the country, Mr. Bill's Wild Ride, by a slim margin. Their third race was even better: first across the line with nearly 2 minutes advantage in the corrected-time column.

With PHRF racing it's no secret you have to be careful about being too good. Beat people too consistently by too much time and it won't be long before someone takes an interest in your rating. And folks did take an interest after that impressive opening day, with one competitor, and an observant race committee, enquiring into Bad Girl's rating. With Bad Girl flying a 140-percent overlapping headsail and symmetric spinnaker it was obvious this wasn't your standard-issue J/100. In fact, it was far from it.

But that's the point, says Armstrong, Key West Race Week's reigning national champion.

Armstrong, 43, is a ninth-generation St. Croix businessman who grew up in this Caribbean extension of what he calls "the outskirts of the Empire." In his youth he was purely a recreational sailor: "Piña Coladas and girls." An uncle turned him onto J/24 racing after college, and it wasn't long before he was campaigning his own boat, a J/29.

While taking a break from the sport in 1998 ("building a house and having kids") he learned he had a rare genetic defect in his heart, which required, as he puts it, to be cut open and Kevlar and titanium stitched inside. "[After this] I decided to try and do something that was a little more fun," he says, "I saw an ad for the J/100, thought it was a great looking boat."

And with this he rediscovered racing, campaigned the boat hard in the Caribbean, and did very well. Then, in rapid succession, his father died and he and his wife parted ways, leaving him a single dad of three children. So what's a sailor to do after life delivers that many backhanded swipes?

"There was a lot to sort through, but in it all I'd determined that if you don't try having any fun before you die then you die without having had any fun along the way," says Armstrong. "So I pressed ahead with Key West Race Week."

At first, he explored shipping his boat to the regatta, but decided otherwise because of the high cost. What made more sense was to buy another 100, he says. "But I wanted this one to be configured exactly the way I wanted it."
His experience with his previous J/100 had convinced him that the boat, by design a shorthanded daysailer, performed far better with an overlapping headsail and a rail full of crew-usually lots of fast, young guys. "I don't know a whole lot about sailboat design," he says, "but I'm telling you, you hank on some extra canvas and throw some meat on that boat, it really goes."

So with clear intentions to slip out of what he perceived as the straightjacket of the J/100 class rules, he contacted J/Boats about finishing one off on his own. They resisted, as any established production builder would do, but ultimately agreed.

After the boat rolled off the production line sans hardware, Armstrong's right-hand man Carlos Skov brought it to nearby New England Boatworks (Portsmouth, R.I.) for speed-shop treatment. The entire boat was faired, "right on down from the toe rail to the tip of the keel," and the deck layout configured to accommodate the larger sail plan and what Armstrong says is more efficient crewing mechanics.

According to Jens Hookanson, Bad Girl's helmsman for Key West, a past J/24 world champion, and custom rigging specialist with Hall Spars & Rigging in Bristol, R.I., the work list was extensive. The main and jib halyards were led below decks to eliminate hardware on the cabin top; a 12-to-1 purchase was added to the jib halyard and led to the cockpit, which allowed them to adjust halyard tension on the fly; the cabin top was built without windows, the toe tails were removed aft of the shrouds, and the backstay hydraulic adjuster was moved from the back of the boat to the front of the cockpit. To accommodate the larger headsail, longer jib tracks were installed. The standard J/100 uses a padeye for tacking an asymmetric spinnaker to the bow, but for handicap racing Armstrong had to have the symmetric spinnaker, so Hall Spars set up the rig to accommodate this. Add to the list a shiny new boom and spinnaker pole, and nothing but Hall's best ropes.

"I know the reaction of others after looking at the boat, the way it is and at how it performed [in Key West]," says Armstrong. "They'll say, 'that's a cheater boat, they did something that made that boat different than a J/100.' But the only substantial thing we did differently is fair the hull. The boat is set up for handicap racing."

I was a little concerned [about the rating]," says Bruce Bingman, the country's top ratings expert who helped establish-and now leads-Race Week's PHRF Consortium, a committee of top PHRF officials from around the country, which determines specific ratings for the event (known as KW-PHRF). The Consortium had assigned them the rating for a standard J/100, which is still a relatively new design with not a whole lot of "observed" Key West data behind its rating. "No one had ever seen a J/100 perform like that. I got a report from Wayne [Bretsch, the Division 4 PRO] that these guys are really sharp. That they're hitting the windshifts every time; getting every set and douse nailed."

"Did we pooch his rating?" Bingman thought to himself.

Come to find out that evening in Key West, a simple clerical error on the PHRF Consortium's part hadn't accounted for Bad Girl's extra upwind sail area, which Armstrong had reported when he filed his application. The Consortium swiftly lopped off three seconds-per-mile from Bad Girl's rating. Standard hit.

This Consortium was created by Premiere Racing as a way to make Race Week's rating process more efficient and more "fair." It was a wise move that is now paying off with far fewer headaches for all involved in Key West. It's a system they take very seriously, and absent are the local influences and politics that give PHRF its bad rap. The behind-the-scenes labor of a handful of volunteers-before, during, and after racing-is what now makes KW-PHRF the most trusted PHRF rating in the country. As far as ratings go it's as good as you'll get. As proof, consider this: of the 59 boats registered to race under PHRF at Key West this year, there were only two rating appeals filed before the regatta, one of which was dismissed.

"Every year after Key West Race Week we run a rating program to see how well we did; whether we blew it anywhere," says Bingman. "And that's based on two things: Number one: How did the boat sail to its assigned rating, and number two, since most of us are on the racecourses we can see how those boats actually sailed in the regatta-were they second-rate starters; were they shrimping spinnakers and all that kind of stuff?

"We think we have a good handle on it, but you always worry with brand new boats-and this event is where they tend to show up. For example, last year I was worried about the Esses [8.50] and we had them right. But they didn't do as well as they should have this year. What's the difference? Last year was unusually light. This year was unusually heavy. But it's a one-number rule and you don't have the luxury of adjusting it for windspeed. The people that complain most about their rating, they don't understand that it's a one-number rule."
The hit didn't faze Armstrong. But then again, why would it? He and his team of top-shelf sailors-a mix of veteran sailors and hot young St. Croix locals-were already convinced the boat was plenty quick, and the practice they'd put in for past 15 months had given them the skills they needed to win this thing boat-for-boat.
With the boat's rating pegged at 87 on the second day, the crew returned to the racecourse undaunted. Bad Girl continued to have its way in the PHRF 4 fleet, with a few other boats giving Armstrong and his crew a run for their class trophy (a large glass vase in which a Japanese fighting fish now resides). They went on to win four more races, boat-for-boat, and every other subsequent race on corrected time. In one race they even turned back to rescue a crewmember who'd fallen off a competitor's boat, and still went on to win the race.
They were that good.

"We did everything well," says Armstrong. "And even on the last day we knew we'd won the class, but we weren't thinking about our division or the PHRF championship. All we were thinking about was beating Tangent [a Cape Fear 38, second overall by 9 points] boat-for-boat again. So we were sailing it as hard in the last 30 seconds of the regatta as we were in the first 30."

"I totally understand where people are coming from because there's no handicapping system that I'm aware of that would rate us beating a well-sailed J/35 boat-for-boat," Armstrong admits. But PHRF is what it is and Armstrong is pretty sure every other J/100 owner that races PHRF in North America has to hate him right now. "How is the PHRF number not going to get reviewed?" he asks.

To which Bingman, who's group is tasked with dealing the question, says, "Will this make us re-think a J/100 rating? I don't know because when I get reports that they're the best-sailed boat on the course I'm reluctant to penalize them because they sail well. This is not golf after all. You still have to get around the course well. But this should be an eye opener for other 100s around the country."

And the reality check for those who scoffed at Bad Girl's rise to the top of the PHRF world can be found in Race Week's PHRF Rules and Regulations. "It is the intent of KW-PHRF handicapping that any well equipped, well maintained, and well sailed boat has a reasonable chance to win," it reads in plain, simple English. "And that any boat that wins a Key West race is indeed well equipped, well maintained, and well sailed."

Check. Check. Check.