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How PHRF Can Be Improved

Published on April 12th, 2017

Tom Doyle is a long time PHRF sailor (since 1985), and while he feels that PHRF is the best handicapping system for the way most people race, he has his problems with it. And he says he’s not the only one. Here he shares his thoughts:

As Rear Commodore of my club, I once contemplated offering a perpetual award for the boat with the most PHRF complaints each year. At any after-race party, you can always find a heated discussion about PHRF rating inequities.

Ultimately this impacts participation. What can PHRF could do to improve local racing? Here is a summary:

• Clean up non responsive regional PHRF handicap committees.
• National coordination and oversight to rationalize ratings, standards, and adjustments.
• Develop better defined standards for ‘well prepared’ and ‘well sailed’.
• Develop adjustments for sailing conditions: wind speed and course format.
• Consider a sailor/crew handicap.

Let me explain…

The regional character of PHRF is both its strength and weakness. Regional means that it is responsive to the local area. If the handicap committee is paying attention to local racing, proactive in its administration, and active racers themselves, then PHRF can be an active force in keeping sailboat racing alive at the local level.

Not only must the committee be active, it must be perceived to be active. Make sure the sailors know what the committee is doing to further racing.

Too many handicap committees are not active, not responsive, and don’t publicize what they are not doing. There are many reasons for this. Entrenched committee members that have been in office many years, purposefully weak leadership, an aversion to change, and reluctance to bring in new members, especially new members who might rock the boat for members who are no longer active racers.

PHRF is organized in regions and the regions do not talk to each other. A boat racing in Block Island Sound can have a certificate from New England, Narraganset Bay, or ECSA (Eastern Connecticut Sailing Association), each having a different rating. The national organization, US Sailing, which could act as a coordinator does not. No, we don’t want to lose local control but we would like to have some consistency.

PHRF is based on observed performance and regular review of boat performance within the fleet with rating adjustments as needed. Too many committees do not review fleet performance regularly, only responding to complainants (and grudgingly at that).

For most of us, PHRF provides a fair handicap. If you have raced your boat over a number of years you have probably achieved a fair handicap. If your boat is a well-known and popular model, your handicap is probably fair.

But if you have a new one-off boat or a new type boat (those pesky sport boats and multi-hulls), then not so much.

The tendency is to “give it a low rating and see what happens”. As performance is observed, adjustments can be made. If the handicap committee is active and the boat owner aggressively works the system, he will get a fair rating. It may take years but eventuality he will.

Handicap committees are reluctant to make big changes; they would rather sneak up on a fair rating rather than take a chance of overrating the boat. Five to ten years is not an unusual time frame to get a fair handicap on a new one-off boat. And that’s with an active handicap committee. Don’t even think what it would be like with a non-responsive committee.

In some regions where the handicap committee is active, handicap ratings are adjusted by the type of course the race committee sets. Some regattas insist on a windward/leeward format which might be fine for one designs but in a mixed boat class there are boats that don’t go to weather all that well but reach very well indeed. If there is a reaching leg they can make up for their poor windward performance. In races where there is no reaching leg, an adjustment for course type could make them competitive. Perhaps this system should be more wide spread.

PHRF rates boats that are ‘well prepared and well sailed’. Well prepared by whose definition? Not PHRFs because they won’t specifically say. To who’s standard? The guy that spends $50,000 a year to campaign his boat in regional races with a professionally faired and burnished bottom and foils, recent sails of the latest technology, and the latest and greatest electronics?

Most of us are Wednesday night club racers with an occasional weekend regatta thrown in. We are not in that highly-prepared category and don’t want to be. We spend what we have to get the best result possible. When we complain about our rating we are told “your boat is not well prepared”. PHRF could do more to define what ‘well prepared’ means and to what standard we are being held.

The other poorly defined requirement that PHRF relies on to handicap boats is ‘well sailed’. PHRF ‘rates the boat, not the sailor’, but the ability of the sailor is a major factor in performance, and ability differs. If you are a one design sailor you know this. You may be a tiger in the local fleet but go to the class nationals or midwinters and the best you can do is mid fleet, if that.

Golf handicaps the players, why can’t PHRF? Well, sailing is a team sport and the makeup of the team varies from race to race depending on who is available for a particular race. Much more difficult to handicap the team, or is it?

PHRF handicaps boat performance over time based on observed performance. Over time the sailing ability of the crew evens out and it is possible to observe their performance over time and rate it.

Would it make a difference? In real terms, probably not. Most of the poorer sailors are in the back of the fleet. Will a 20 or 30 second a mile adjustment make them a winner? No, the leaders are 3 or 4 minutes a mile better. But it might be enough to keep a discouraged newbie in the game long enough become a better sailor and move up in the fleet, and as he does an active PHRF committee that is paying attention will adjust his crew handicap accordingly.

What about at the top end of the fleet? The Off Soundings Club penalizes winning boats. They call it the ‘Burden of Winning’ – 15%, 10%, and 5% for the first, second and third place in each class. Some boats have 25% or 30% penalties; they are that good! Has it made a difference? Yes, the guys that are almost as good have a chance to win, and it has made a difference in the level of competition.

Let’s face it, the really good sailors will always beat the pretty good sailors. It is only when you get to the very pinnacle of compilation that everybody is really, really good and the playing field is level. Until then, handicapping the sailors will give the almost as good sailors a taste of victory and a feeling of satisfaction that will keep them in the game and make the really good sailors work that much harder to win.

How about a wind speed adjustment? After sailing ability, wind speed is probably the next biggest factor in boat performance. We chose our boat for diverse reasons: aesthetics, financial, cruising comfort, ease of handling, sea worthiness, but not many of us thought about handicap? Will we on the next boat? You betcha! Yet now we are stuck with the boat and have to live with the handicap. Not all boats are equal; some are light air rockets that struggle in moderate conditions while some boats need 15 knots to get moving. A wind speed adjustment would go a long way to even out these performance differences.

Yes, I know. If I hate PHRF so much why don’t I go to one design? Well, it’s hard to cruise in an IOD. Anyway, I don’t hate PHRF. I think it is the best handicap system for the way most of us race. I just want it to be better.

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