Why PHRF is Suffering – Part 1

Published on April 4th, 2017

U.S. boat owners now have a shopping list of measurement rating rule systems— IRC, ORC and ORR — none of which is compelling enough to outwit the others. Is having too many options negatively impacting participation for PHRF? Bruce Bingman, chair of the US PHRF committee, thinks so.


The short answer is yes, the lack of a uniformly accepted high level measurement rule does have a negative impact and yes it is too much to ask of PHRF to support a mixed fleet across all skill levels in the same class.

PHRF was never intended to rate the top end of the fleet where thousands of dollars (or more) are spent to gain a few seconds per mile – the accuracy is much more granular than what is (at least theoretically) possible in a full on measurement rule using a VPP (Velocity Prediction Program).

PHRF strives to get most ratings within +/- 3 second per mile accuracy and hopefully all within +/- 6 seconds per mile. This is based on both the ability to extract the data from the observed performance and the fact that this represents a total handicap error for a typical 6 nm or so long club race of less than 30 seconds – or one bad tack or missed wind shift.

For many years, from the mid to late 1960’s as PHRF spread across the country from the original roots as the California ‘Pacific’ Handicap Rule, it served the local club racers and newcomers to the sport. The simple system of using observed data to predict performance proved to be inexpensive, relatively easy to administer, and produced reasonably accurate ratings without requiring expensive measurement and haul outs.

The system was working relatively well for the entry racing level and cruising fleets with the ‘pro’ sailors and ‘gold platers’ competing in the IOR and then later in the IMS fleets.

When the IMS began to falter in the late 1990’s, many of these high-end race boats were thrust into PHRF fleets along with the growing contingent of well prepped and crewed sport boats with planing capability. As a direct result, the PHRF system became the de-facto rating system throughout the country for most local and many regional events. However, the influx of these top level programs and sport boats disrupted the competitive balance which had been established.

Like the other rules, PHRF assumed the boat is perfectly prepared, has new sails, and is crewed by fully experienced sailors – whether it is or not. Since for many years, PHRF tended to serve a more cruising or casual oriented fleet, the competitors were generally at a ‘cruising level’ of preparation and the handicaps worked well. The insertion of the high level programs in PHRF resulted in many of the older boats feeling their ratings are unfair since they were no longer competitive.

In some cases where an older boat was fully prepped to the assumed standards and used new ‘string sails’, the dramatic performance increase led competitors to feel that particular boat’s rating was unfair or they were cheating somehow. These perceptions have ‘tainted’ PHRF and resulted in many older boats dropping out of participation.

Just like in many one-design fleets where the fleet is split into various Gold, Silver, and Bronze or similar performance levels, if PHRF is forced to serve a fleet from the newest sailor on a Catalina 22 to a pro team aboard a TP52, it really must be split into both speed and experience/prep bands. Several regions and Race Weeks have found some success where the fleets can be split into a Race fleet and a Corinthian fleet.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three part series. Here is Part 2 and Part 3.

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