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A handicapper speaks

By Bruce Bingman, Technical Chair for PHRF on the ChesapeakeI think the real issue is what kind of racing do sailors want. The problem is that different sailors want different kinds and different levels of racing, but usually there are not enough boats in any one group to be able to offer a specific class and/or start. The USSAILING website offers information on "golf
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By Bruce Bingman, Technical Chair for PHRF on the Chesapeake

I think the real issue is what kind of racing do sailors want. The problem is that different sailors want different kinds and different levels of racing, but usually there are not enough boats in any one group to be able to offer a specific class and/or start.

The USSAILING website offers information on "golf handicapping" as well as time-on-time PHRF (which is likely to be a fairer system where there are large tidal currents and/or a wider rating range). And of course, there IS a $1000/certificate handicapping system with lots of very sophisticated number crunching behind it. It's called IMS and (at least in my opinion) really is the best rating system available today. But it's complicated and many sailors do not like the complexity and apparent dependence on input information.

Note that I carefully use the word "apparent". IMS is a true measurement rule and even course info can be measured. This is not the same as, for example, IRC where the proponents present it as a "measurement" rule when in fact it is really a formula-based version of time-on-time PHRF, since the final rating can be "adjusted" by subjective evaluations of hull and rig factors. Thus the final rating comes out as what the handicappers think it should be, even if the formula would predict something different.

Several PHRF fleets also use a formula-based equation as a starting point for their assigned time-on-distance numbers. There are several different formulas, but all that I have seen involve sail area, water line length and displacement as a minimum. A typical example is Terry Schell's regression formula:

610-8.36*(SA/disp^0.333)+0.000051*(SA^2)-55*(P/(J+E)-30.8*(LWL^0.5)-602*(Draft^2/SA)

As technical chair for PHRF of the Chesapeake, I "crunch" numbers every year to calculate imputed ratings for all boats racing in the local PHRF fleet for comparison and possible adjustment to the assigned rating. However, to try to eliminate data "flukes", the primary data input is from windward-leeward courses, and races where the wind was under 6 or over 20 are discarded. In addition, when not racing, I go out in my powerboat to watch how the boats are being sailed, to see who has new sails, pros aboard, etc. This provides much-needed input and allows some perspective on the calculated numbers from the imputed rating data. It's resulted in pretty good racing in most of our fleets (

s chair of the Key West PHRF Consortium I use the same methods, and this has resulted in extremely competitive racing at the top end there. However, we have an advantage at Key West in that we can group like-type boats in relatively tight rating bands. In smaller fleets with smaller and older boats, both the skill level and equipment level can vary widely, so getting a good measure of true speed differences is significantly more difficult.

Several years ago in the Chesapeake, as IMS dwindled and the really "hot" boats came into PHRF, I proposed, along with several other people, that 2 PHRF fleets be formed, a "Racing" fleet and a "Corinthian" fleet. The proposed rules were, basically, for an anything-goes approach in the Racing fleet, but with the Corinthian fleet to have limits on new sails per year as well as material limits, that they could not be dry sailed, could not have more than one or two group 2's or 3's aboard (and they could not drive) and other rules generally designed to favor more average racer-cruisers. Much to my surprise, the measure was voted down in the annual meeting by the members said they did not want to be put into two separate fleets, one of which would have a more "cruising" connotation!

That choice puts the handicap board in the position of having to rate each boat as though it was fully prepped for flat out racing—a situation which I think is really unfair to the average sailor.

For example, take a Beneteau 40.7 that has been completely outfitted with top line grand-prix racing sails, dry sailed with a burnished epoxy bottom, and sailing with really skilled crew at key positions that sails only in a few local race weeks. Then take another 40.7, outfitted with cruising sails, wet sailed and crewed by friends and neighbors sailing in the average weekend regatta. Is it surprising that this boat complains about its rating? The first boat probably DOES sail at least 10 seconds per mile faster relative to its sistership. A large portion of that represents the boat's much-better preparation (reflecting true potential), while anotehr part of the performance comes with better sailing skills.

I conclude from observation of MUMM-30 regattas that a new set of sails is at least a 3-seconds to 6-seconds per mile advantage over one-year-old sails, and 2-year-old sails are only good for "Friday night" casual races. Yet many (most?) PHRF sailors are out there with perhaps a single new sail and others 2 or 3 years old, and the boats are wet sailed. They are already giving away close to 6 seconds-per-mile in sail shape! Add in the difference of a dry sailed burnished epoxy bottom and they are probably giving away 9 second-per-mile before they even line up at the start. How can this be factored into the handicap? Throw in a few sportboats and a heavy displacement Baltic or Swan with wildly different performance characteristics in varying wind and course configurations and the true dilemma of the handicapper becomes apparent. Much (most?) of the griping about ratings comes from the problem of trying to sort out all these factors—especially when a single number is used for all conditions.

For my local club casual racing, I have calculated "golf" handicaps so that all members can race on a more-or-less even basis. I give credits for microwaves, TV's, oriental carpets, and solid props. Since the "golf" handicaps are based on observed previous sailing times, skill of the sailors and crews is automatically figured in. This makes for good racing at the casual club level, but if one of these boats suddenly went to a flat out race configuration and loaded on a couple of pros, they would crush the fleet with their "golf" handicap. Hence this type of handicapping can only be used for the casual single-club type racing.

It is interesting that the "new" rule seems to have appeal to the competitors not winning under the existing rule. I suspect that a lot of this is due to the old "grass is greener" syndrome. Much of the time, and perhaps not surprisingly, when a new rule is adopted, the same boats continue to win or lose respectively. I think the best way to improve the situation is not to try new rules all the time, but to bring the skill level and preparation of the fleet up, while providing different venues for different skill levels.

The successful one-design classes have known this for years and have seminars, skippers swaps, A, B and sometimes C fleets, and many other ways to teach the new sailor and improve the skill sets of the existing fleet members. Unfortunately, this mechanism does not really exist in most handicap fleets since the 1-D camradery does not exist. The one exception I have seen are the remaining MORC fleets. Here, each fleet also acts as a club and has regular meetings and knowledge swaps, and, at least in the Chesapeake station, many of the top sailors sail with other boats from time to time. This has resulted in a very evenly-matched set of boats even though types and handicaps vary over a wide range. I might add that I think MORC is currently the oldest pure measurement rule still being actively used in handicap racing. MORC will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer at the International Regatta held in Annapolis. We are expecting over 50 boats including sub classes of Maxi-MORC-30's, MUMM-30's, S2 7.9's and possibly J-29's and J-27's.

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