Handicap Racing: Hope balanced with frustration

Published on May 10th, 2015

IRC 72 class manager Rob Weiland takes a wry look at today’s hotchpotch of rating rules, provided courtesy of Seahorse Magazine

If the problems of owners, sailors, rule and event authorities dealing with handicap racing and rating rules are anywhere more obvious than in the US, please do not tell me where that is. My recent visit to Quantum Key West Race Week inspired me to the following observations.

Of the two ISAF recognized international systems spread over dozens of countries in the world, IRC (about 7,000 certificates) and ORC (about 9,000 certificates), only IRC has been used in the US in the last 10 years. But its use there is now in steep decline.

A couple of events still have small IRC starts, scrambling together enough boats by having wide rating bands; which is not ideal and is not helping to promote the use of IRC. This also affects in a negative way the interest from non-US owners to bring ‘handicap-racers’ to the US… and vice versa.

The US VPP-based system ORR is a black-box operation (‘trust us we are professionals’) and has just over 500 certificates in use in two countries: the US and Mexico. Its ‘non-typeforming and fair VPP’ (www.offshoreracingrule.org) is positioned to the slow side of HPR and IRC, targeting the typical cruiser-racer. Meanwhile, that 500 certificates number is leaning heavily on ORR being the mandatory rule for the Transpac Race, the Chicago-Mac Race and the Bermuda Race, forcing owners interested in those classics to send a few bob to ORR!

Never mind that owners and especially foreign entries have to adapt to the quirks of a local system for these three allegedly international events. It is not the cost of the certificate, but the cost of the boat optimization that frustrates owners! Two times, as after the race you go back to where you came from, or to the next one, if you have a decent international schedule for your boat.

Like a 50ft to 72ft racer may do Key West Race Week (IRC or HPR), one or two Caribbean events (CSA), Caribbean 600 (IRC), NYYC Annual Regatta (IRC or HPR), Bermuda Race (ORR), Copa del Rey (ORCi, possibly IRC if enough interest), Middle Sea Race (IRC)… and the Caribbean Sailing Association (CSA) Rating Rule is yet another ‘adventure’.

All these rules (except HPR) claim to be created with the intent to handicap fairly a broad variety of monohull yachts. Pity the fair approach does not lead to equal type-forming and the same boats winning under different rules! Instead of every dog has its day (the single number scoring catchphrase) we are headed for every dog has its rule.

So praise here to HPR, the only rule to claim as its start point that fair handicapping is only possible if boats are typeformed. And thus promoting typeforming instead of making false promises.

Face it, as user of these rules you will have to make continuous equipment choices and these choices affect the outcome of the game. Also, of course, the rule makers do recognize the imperfections and demonstrate this with yearly rule upgrades – even perfect equipment requires a yearly check-up and tweak!

It is the survival of the fittest, financed predominantly on the back of the yacht owner. Not that the yacht owners are completely innocent or without blame in this one, quite a few are intrigued by the possibility to outwit the rule makers – as well as the competition – before it gets to the actual racing.

Back to the US. Recently it has (had) quite a few rule options. It is instructive to read a report by America’s number one rating guru, Jim Teeters… dating from 2000 but still good reading (www.scora.org/teeters.pdf). Jim’s brain really should be stored in the cloud somehow. How are we going to cope when he retires?

With about 20,000 certificates PHRF, which stands for Performance Handicap Racing Fleet, is the most popular rule in the US. ‘A performance observation-based handicap system is the best assurance to compete fairly between all designs, new or old of high performance family cruising boats’. So PHRF handicaps are based on the speed potential of the boat and equipment in proper condition, determined by appointed handicappers observing results of the past as well as the present… so the boats in action.

It is not the principle of ‘guesstimating’ performance by keen individuals that is the real worry here, as the system indeed aims to serve the local racing of multi-functional boats. The real worry, if not the nightmare, is that somehow PHRF managed to divide itself into currently 22 (sic!) US fleets. Plus a few outside the US… each claiming to be an independent handicapping authority with its own assessment staff and procedures. Consequently the same boat rates differently depending upon location.

US Sailing is blamed for this, as it allowed this development to take place. It has not sunk in yet that if you’re up a dead-end street you may try to turn yourself around instead of blaming the authorities for not supplying an exit. The PHRF system is further so subjective and political that the competition is often fiercer on the shore than on the water. It drives the organizers of popular events mad.

Like Block Island Race Week, which attract boats from several of these fleets. Somehow the PHRF ratings are ‘streamlined’ by issuing Guest Certificates to PHRF participants from fleets other than the Yacht Racing Association of Long Island Sound. It is a pity that it would take up far too much space to explain this process in detail… (but you can amaze yourself: click here).

On the positive side (and there always is one) you have to admire the efforts by US Sailing to bring some unity to rating boats the PHRF way. The PHRF Support Service is a credible effort. As long as its use is restricted to local sailing and local events.

Meanwhile the Sailing Yacht Research Foundation (SYRF) is another glimmer of hope that all is not lost for offshore sailing. I just hope that all the SYRF’s evident energy, intelligence and love for our sport does not lead to further fragmentation; surely it is time for action and some clear choices, research is not much use without translating it into a product?

I guess we have to accept that there will always be many rating rules at the local level. Local authorities will not cooperate towards reducing the number of rating rules, let alone come down to a decent number like three of four rules for three or four levels of competition, from local to international. ISAF will never be strong enough to enforce uniformity. Even if keen to do so. Nor will any other authority.

Should we care? Not really where it concerns local racing. But we should care where it concerns facilitating and encouraging international competition.

To that purpose we should not just make, but also enforce, a clearer distinction between international and non-international events, whether national, regional or local. Boat owners, events and authorities should work together to set and maintain a list of international events and ensure that an event is only labelled as international if it has starts for ISAF recognized international rating rules and all competitors other than from the host country shall enter these starts.

ISAF already uses the term principal events, but as yet it has no clear definition for what these are. Of course on this list should be the ISAF-recognized World and Continental Championships, but also all events labelled International Race Week and all offshore races labelled international. Events labelling themselves as international shall have an International Race Officer and International Jury. Further the IRO and IJ members shall only accept the invitation if the event is truly international, in this case if all foreign flagged entries race in ISAF recognized rating rule starts.

You may feel that popular events simply will not bother about the international label, but that is where the boat owners have a task. In the end it is the owners who decide which events are popular, nobody else.

Report provided courtesy of Seahorse Magazine

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