Understanding the Big Picture

Published on April 16th, 2017

by Don Finkle, RCR Yachts
PHRF is sailing’s favorite whipping boy, but like it or not, for many of us PHRF is what we have to work with if we want to sail locally with and against our friends and fellow club members.

Before you get the wrong impression, PHRF generally works better than anything else currently available for this purpose. PHRF ratings are assigned by others, often people you actually compete against. This is in contrast to a measurement rule which is not subject to local bias. However, the latter is more complicated than the majority of sailors at the local level want to deal with. So we use PHRF because it is relatively simple and inexpensive but people complain about their ratings all the time.

The real issue is what we are asking PHRF to do. If the goal is the most accurate rating for a given boat model, then a central body using the full range of statistics from all over North America would accomplish that. This will remove any local bias, perceived or not, and cancel out the differences in the way the boats were being sailed.

Going one step further, each boat model would have three sets of rating numbers for light, moderate, and heavy winds. The race committee would select the number for the conditions at the time. This could all be done without that much difficulty. However, this begs the question of whether or not having the most accurate rating possible is really best for local sailing.

It is no secret that fleets everywhere are struggling to maintain numbers, let alone grow. The disparity between the skill level of the experienced sailors and the newbies has never been greater. The same can be said for those who treat Wednesday night racing as important to them versus those who look at this as their night out to have fun with their friends.

In any case, the good sailors will whip up on the others to the point where it won’t be much fun for either group, and attrition will set in. The solution is rating the crew, not the boat, which is done in other sports, golf being a prime example.

For more important events, the best possible rating system is appropriate. Sailors want to treat it like a real competition and they prepare accordingly. But for less serious local beer can type racing, the golf-handicap idea might be better.

We use the example of the Erie YC Racing Fleet. Their weekend spinnaker races are held using real PHRF ratings. Their weeknight “Family JAM” series is run by changing the ratings as the season progresses. You win and your rating goes down. I don’t compete in their races but I watch the results and the better sailors still win but the fleet appears to be closer. This system in various forms is used elsewhere too.

In the end each fleet needs to assess what their real goals are and decide what to do based on that…and make sure the members understand the big picture.

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