In Pursuit of Fair Racing

Published on May 31st, 2017

Jeff Motley reports on the process taken in the Pacific Northwest to provide fair racing for a fairly diverse race.


Beginning and finishing in Nanaimo British Columbia, the biennial Van Isle 360 Yacht Race circumnavigates Vancouver Island counter clockwise in a series of 9 legs over a 14 day period. At approximately 460km/286mi in length and 100km/62mi in breadth, Vancouver Island, skippers and crews are immersed in some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet every day.

Encounters with wildlife, Orca’s, Bald Eagles, Humpback Whales or Seal Lions are part of the expectation on each leg. But while the 2017 race takes sailors back in time to remote regions, when the 11the edition gets underway on June 10, it will also be moving into the future by trading in PHRF for the technical based handicap system of ORC.

Since 2011, the last year that the entire Van Isle fleet raced PHRF NW, the Van Isle fleets have been searching for alternatives. About four months before the start of the 2013 race, the Van Isle Organizing Authority received a call from representatives of the “Big Boat Fleet” in the Pacific North West indicating that they would like to try something different than PHRF NW for the 2013 race.

The Van Isle Organizing Authority is open to scoring a division by any scoring method, provided there is consensus amongst the skippers for the scoring method. The scoring system chosen for 2013 and 2015 for the Big Boat fleet was IRC by consensus of the skippers. While IRC was found to be better than PHRF from the perspective of transparency, cost and support were not ideal.

After enduring years of criticism for not using PHRF BC (since it is a Canadian race) and using PHRF NW (because it is/was the most popular on Vancouver Island, and it is used by the neighbors to the south), it became apparent that a search for a solution that would work for all competitors, the sport, and not just the Big Boat Fleet was indeed a desired outcome.

In 2015, a decision was made to try out ORC alongside PHRF NW to see if it made a noticeable positive influence with the skippers. It seemed to do just that.

The race has many challenges with course direction and wind speed. The inside legs are mostly (should be) upwind legs with the prevailing winds being from the North West, and the outside legs are downwind (2011 a notable exception).

Leg 6, from Port Hardy to Winter Harbour is a long (69.1 nautical mile) U shaped course with upwind, reaching and running over a 10-24 hour period. Wind conditions and current can vary massively during this period, and with a fleet ranging from a TP52 to a Laser 28, one can be certain of sailing in different conditions at the front, middle and rear of the fleet.

Unlike PHRF with a single time correction factor, ORC rating certificates provide a matrix of time correction factors for a boat based on the predicted performance in various wind conditions and wind angles sailed. This matrix provides the basis for Performance Curve Scoring which is at the heart of the ORC scoring software. Implied wind speed can be calculated separately for each division which is a huge improvement over past scoring methods.

With all the positives, the effort required to obtain certificates for some of the non-standard boats has been a bit of an exercise in naval architecture. Hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours have been committed to ensure accurate measurement of the fleet. Likewise, the training has been first class, and as with all great software, it is only as good as the input from the operators.

At the end of the day everyone involved with sailboat racing is really looking for one thing, and that is fair racing. Relative to the other options presently available, ORC appears to be a step in the correct direction.

Event details: http://www.vanisle360.com

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