by Kimball Livingston

Naval architect Bill Langan wants you to know: “This country needs an enlightened conversation about which rating rules work for what purpose, and why.”

Cool, but whenever I write about rating rules, first I take a deep breath, and I say a little prayer . . .

A decision by leading New England clubs to create a 2007-season IRC/PHRF split at PHRF rating 90 has caused a bit of a stir (Langan: “A lot of angst”) as rating rule choices so often do. And rules “discussions” lead sideways into arcane complexities that go on and on and soon you’re stepping on somebody’s sailing religion.

The stage is Western Long Island Sound, so this is not a national development, but if you listen to the players and think about the issues, the problems here represent the larger national debate about rating rules. The split requires that any boat rating faster than PHRF 90 (lower numbers mean that the system thinks the boats are faster) can race only IRC. But—

Don’t we disenfranchise somebody by making every boat that rates PH 90 or faster race IRC instead? IRC measurement is more complicated and more costly than getting a PHRF handicap assigned by your local Performance Handicap committee, so I answer that question, yes.

Langan: “It’s upsetting especially for people who race only occasionally and have no desire to compete against the hot boats; they thought they had a home under PHRF.”

So—I chased down Barry Carroll, who runs the US-IRC office, and he said, “This didn’t come out of US-IRC. It’s a Long Island Sound deal where they don’t want to see, for example, three 45-foot PHRF boats in one division and five 45-foot IRC boats in another. They’re also trying to get beyond a situation where, going to different regattas, you run into different particulars.”

Before we ended our conversation, however, Carroll and I had drifted sideways into rating rule comparisons. ORR and IMS were on the table, and he was telling me how many boats race today in the U.S. with bogus ratings based on outdated, owner-reported data. He said, “Our measurement system in this country sucks. Please quote me on that.”

Thus (in part, there’s more below) spoke the guy most often accused of wanting to “force” everybody to race IRC.

We should note that the impetus for creating an IRC/PHRF split came from New England-based organizations running high-end regattas, the Storm Trysail Club, for example, with Block Island Race Week, which in 2007 doubles as the debut of the Rolex US-IRC National Championship. PHRF 90 corresponds to the rating of a C&C 40. There will be no PH racing offered for boats rating faster than PHRF 90. The same will be true at many other high-end events in New England. In its statement, STC notes, “The old fast limit was 21, which thinned out both IRC and PHRF fleets and allowed a few fast PHRF boats to race against many older, smaller PHRF yachts.” Clearly, offering PHRF as an option for all of the fleet has caused problems for the big regional events. No one I talked to claimed that an IRC/PHRF split for regional events is anything but a good idea. The question is how far down the ladder to go in requiring larger, faster boats to race IRC.

So, those are the optimists on the side of a mandated PHRF-90 split. Their goal is to make sailboat racing better, and more fun.

On the other side are the people who predict a loss in overall participation. Their goal is to make sailboat racing better, and more fun. This is perhaps a good place to note that there are more than 22,000 boats with PHRF certificates in the USA.

The Yacht Racing Association of Long Island Sound on January 5 sent out a letter describing the IRC/PHRF split as, “inconsistent with the composition of the fleet and exclusionary.” The organization’s executive committee noted that, of 696 PH certificates within the organization in 2006, only 14.6 percent (102) went to boats that also carried IRC certificates. Of boats rating 90 or faster, only 33 percent (73) had IRC certificates. While approving exceptions for major events, the committee wrote to “encourage race organizers to continue to offer both IRC and PHRF options…let’s not put any barriers in front of less-active boats.”

And just who is the Yacht Racing Association of Long Island Sound? Their web site describes the organization as being, “run by sailors for sailors,” with 65 member clubs and some 1,000 individual members. The clubs include Larchmont, Stamford, and Manhasset Bay, for example, and the list of other clubs that have made and continue to make huge contributions goes on and on. The 2007 president is Robert Kendrick, who signed the letter excerpted above—and who is an IRC measurer. Kendrick says, “We have, on Western Long Island Sound, arguably the most prestigious set of clubs in the U.S., and in our YRA, PH functions as a subcommittee. In protecting performance handicapping, the YRA is not so much steeped in vested interests as concerned about maintaining participation.

“Back when boats migrated from IMS to PHRF,” Kendrick says, “we lost the back end of the fleet. We’ve been working to get that back, and when IRC came along, we looked to IRC to take some pressure off PHRF by taking away the top 20 percent. Our concern is that, in practice, a cutoff at 90 is exclusionary. We’re going into our third year on the Sound with IRC, and at the same time we have something like 700 boats rated PHRF. On top of that we have probably an additional 700 or so that race only local club events without even a formal PHRF certificate.”

There are many examples of owners who race a few events a year. They’re out for a good time, not to beat the world. They’re competing at a PHRF level. But if their boat rates faster than PHRF 90, will they have racing in 2007 without stepping up to IRC?

Maybe. Many events do not yet have a published notice of race, and it’s likely that different clubs will take different routes. That’s why this qualifies as a controversy, and if you haven’t had to attend any meetings, much less vote and then face the membership, count yourself lucky.

Kendrick says, “In every rule transition we’ve had this situation. Say you’re planning to race Block Island—you know it and you’re going to be ready with rating in hand. But somebody who isn’t thinking ahead, if there’s no PH racing, will look at the IRC certificate and the cost and the three weeks or so that it takes for processing, and just not do it. Our concern is to make sure the race committees see that they might be shooting themselves in the foot.”

Casual, occasional racers who already were put through the get-an-Americap-certificate hoops a few years ago would agree.

Long Island Sound sailor George Petrides races a lot, actually, but his J/120 rates faster IRC than PHRF, and he’s saying that he won’t be buoy racing AVRA this year: “The idea of the Storm Trysail Club forcing something on me is distasteful. I’ll do J/120 one design and PHRF long distance, and there’s a new K6 one design fleet at my American Yacht Club [which endorsed the split: Ed] so I’ll be plenty busy.”


“The problem is that nobody measures anything any more in this country, not since IMS tapered off,” Barry Carroll says. “When we measured GL70s for IRC, we found that 10 of the 11 boats had elements that were significantly different from what the certificates said were there. The owners had been making changes through the years, and nothing got updated on the certificates. Then, when we measured IRC-wise for the Bayview-Mac there was an explosion. The owners were happy with the way things were. They decided they wanted to keep racing under their old data, and god bless’em. But it doesn’t end there. The ORR continues to use sistership data and other data from 10-year-old certificates.

“The more we look at old certificates, the more we see that are just flat invalid,” Carroll said. “I happen to be anal about measuring, and that’s not such a bad thing.”

[Editor’s note: To the best of my understanding, the degree of measurement under ORR varies, depending on the event. Chicago YC, which uses ORR for its Mac race, chose to continue with a lot of owner-supplied data because they emphasize participation. The 2007 Transpac will use ORR, but with full measurement. Newport-Bermuda requires full measurement, while Marion-Bermuda does not—KL]

On the IRC/PHRF split at PH 90, Carroll wasn’t eager to weigh in. He did say:

“PH is the only rule in the world that’s going to let an Out Island 41 win some races, and when you make an arbitrary cutoff you lose people and that’s not good. PHRF is the rock that you build racing on in the USA, but there are issues as you move up the ladder to the large regional events. Where you begin to overlap four or five fleets you need something like IRC to bring everyone together under one tent.”


When I telephoned Bill Langan, my mission was to ask if, having paid close attention, he had any insights into a comparison between IRC and ORR based on the Centennial Bermuda Race of 2006. This Newport, Rhode Island-based designer was first of all anxious to enlighten me on the merits of ORR (Son of Americap). He said, “Obviously there is a divide in the USA between IRC, ORR, and PHRF.”

And I do believe he thinks that ORR is misunderstood. Separate from the PHRF-IRC debate on Long Island Sound, there’s been a national debate over the merits of ORR (developed through the efforts of US Sailing) versus IRC (which is used in Europe, Asia, and the antipodes).

The ORR, Langan says, aims at doing a better job for offshore racing, where boats are built to beat particular races and you need a more robust system than IRC’s single rating number. “A single-rating number might work fine over a season, where things average out, but not for one race,” Langan says. “Bermuda gets a lot of boats that do the Bermuda Race and that’s it. If you use a single-number system, and the weather for the race doesn’t match the history of the race, you’re sailing on the luck of the draw. What we’re trying to do is make sure there are no preordained winners in a race like Bermuda or Transpac. The reality is that the rules do not compete. IRC is good for Block Island, Key West, or anyplace where commonality is paramount.”

To develop the ORR, Langan says, three strong clubs got together to create the best result for their events: the Cruising Club of America (Newport-Bermuda Race), Chicago Yacht Club (Chicago-Mackinac), and Transpacific Yacht Club (Los Angeles-Honolulu). “They banded together to take the core VPP (velocity prediction program) from Americap and put some muscle behind it and turn it into a real rule. It has secret elements but no subjective elements. The aim is to be able to fine-tune the rule to the course.

“Looking back at IMS,” Langan says, “the inhibitor was the cost of measurement. With the ORR, there are a few boats where the measurement cost has been just as high as with IMS, but that’s not true for most boats. There is a lot of work going into better configuring the VPP-generated ratings to do a better job of scoring.

“The VPP predicts the speed of the boat,” Langan says, “and it does that pretty well. The hard part is deciding how to translate that into a rating.”

The 2006 Bermuda Race was slow, and as a result it did not generate great comparative data between ORR and IRC even though many entries sailed under both certificates. “”Both rules do an adequate job,” Langan says, “but the order of finish pretty much determined the result in the Bermuda Race. The results are still a useful diagnostic tool because we have a snapshot of a time when the ratings matched.”

Okay, what about this IRC/PHRF thing?

“US-IRC should be congratulated for coming up with a large number of rated boats in short order, Langan says, “but international portability—which is one of the issues they argue in its favor—is not really the issue that it’s made out to be. Boats don’t come to the U.S. because of a rating rule, and the international boats that come here in any given year aren’t that many, maybe 10 or so.

“The beginnings of IRC racing in the US were driven by the problems of having mixed fleets of PHRF boats [from different regions, for example, with non-parallel ratings] and they needed single numbers for big events.

“Boats that rate slower than 50, IRC, can sail with an unendorsed certificate, which is based on owner-supplied data, meaning that IRC is then not a lot better than PHRF. Faster than a 50 rating, most clubs require an endorsed certificate [in most cases meaning measurement by an official measurer] and any time a boat is actually weighed and measured, the cost is high.”

“IRC is very type-forming,” Langan says, “and it doesn’t take long for the owners to figure that out. Being type-forming is not bad in itself, but when you have to modify the boat to fit the rule, you have a problem; ask the Aussies about that.

“And don’t forget, this discussion has been going on, in one form or another, since the 1800s.”

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