Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club


Introduction to PHRF Handicapping
By Tom Nowak, BHSC Handicapper
(adapted from the BHSC Newsletter)

(Ed Note: The following is a brief introduction to PHRF handicapping, graciously written by our Club Handicapper, Tom Nowak. For more information on PHRF Handicapping, please check out the US Sailing web site at www.ussailing.com)

This is the first part in a three part series discussing the philosophy and mechanics of handicapping at PHRF-LE, from my prospective.

Before I was associated with PHRF-LE and subsequently was appointed to the handicapping board I was one of those very loudly critical people who was convinced "those guys in Cleveland" didn't know what they were doing and had a hidden agenda so that they could win and I would lose. Well I've learned a lot in the past couple of years and I would like to share some of it with you.

There are basically two different underlying philosophies in handicapping. The first says that a boat should be rated based on the absolute maximum speed potential it has. This assumes the boat is in showroom condition, all the sails and equipment are in new condition, the crew is perfect and never makes a mistake, the skipper makes all the right decisions, and the start is perfect. Obviously most of us don't even come close, but it is a constant standard for all boats. We don't need to be concerned with the boat condition or the crew ability when we rate the boat. In our mind all boats that were built the same are rated the same no matter how good or bad the crew is.

The second philosophy is what I call the 'golf" handicap or "bowling" handicap. This is a handicap based on how well you do in races. You win races, your handicap is reduced. "This gives everyone a chance" is what you hear often describing this method. But it also makes it very difficult for the well prepared, well sailed boat to win consistently and often leads to a loss of interest in the best sailors. This rating method can be applied to individuals, in which case you will have identical boats with different ratings, or it can be applied to classes of boats whereby the types or classes of boats who are not doing well in the area are given better and better handicaps until they start winning. Under these conditions there is no real incentive to improve, just sit and wait and your handicap will get you a trophy.

The "golf" handicap system is used in some smaller clubs where keeping everyone happy is more important than providing good competition.

There are areas that use a combination of the two philosophies also, taking an absolute handicap and then adding a fudge factor to it to "give everyone a better chance". A good example of this is using a time-on-time scoring applied to a time-on-distance handicap. It tends to "help the little guys" with the high handicaps, particularly in light air conditions.

Many clubs on Lake Ontario use this kind combination system.

PHRF-LE handicaps strictly on the absolute theory which most serious racers seem to prefer.

Remember also that every PHRF area is free to handicap as they wish. There are no national standards so you cannot accurately compare a rating from one area to that of another unless you understand the underlying philosophy of each. People are constantly asking why their rating is different here than other places. Well this is one reason why, and why you cannot just average all the ratings in the country and come up with anything meaningful.

How Sailing Yachts are Handicapped
There are various systems available for handicapping sailing yachts. The first is what I would call the scientific method whereby one tries to create a mathematical model of the boat and then predict its speed potential using the mathematical formula. This is the way the IMS, IOR, and MORC systems are based. On the surface this sounds like good way to go. My old comment was always that "If we can put a man on the moon we surely can predict the speed of a sailboat". Well it turns out that there are so many variables that no one has even come close. I suppose that if we spent several hundred million dollars like NASA has, we could come pretty close but that hasn't happened yet.

One of the major drawbacks to this mathematical approach is that a soon as boat builders figure out what the formula is, they design boats to beat the system. That's why you saw 10 to 20 years ago boats designed with weird sterns and bulges in funny places. They didn't make a better boat, but they beat the rule.

Americap is a mathematical system where the formula is a secret so designers can't try and beat it. As you could predict however the designers pretty much figured it out within a year, and newer boats have a huge advantage over old ones in this system. The Chicago- Mackinaw race will be scored on Americap this year and rumor has it that it is because the guys who spent huge amounts of money to race got tired of being beaten by 15 year old Hobi 33's and the like.

The other problem with mathematical systems is that boats need to be very accurately measured with a large number of measurements. This typically costs $1,000.00 or more and once measured you cannot change anything. No wonder there are only a couple of hundred IOR boats and about six hundred Americap boats in the country.

The bottom line is that these systems just don't work across the board. You may be able to predict a single boat under one set of conditions pretty accurately but when you throw in all different conditions and hundreds of different boats and designs, even the most talented engineers with the best computers throw up their hands and reach for empirical data gained from experience.

Performance Based Systems
As with most scientific endeavors, if you can't see a mathematical relationship, you take the empirical approach. You start with known data and then try to find a relationship the data will fit. As you get more data you refine the relationship. The more data, the better the relationship, and the better your ability to predict new results.

The Performance Handicap Racing Fleet is based on this concept. In Lake Erie PHRF, the entire spectrum of racing boats was divided into three parts and a "typical" boat was chosen for the base boat in that part or "band". The three are the J-35, Tartan 10, and Tartan 30. These boats were given a specific handicap and then all other boats are compared to them and given a handicap accordingly.

The tricky part is the comparison. Though there are some mathematical relationships to fall back on, most of it comes down to just plain experience and intuition. You do your best to give a new boat a fair rating , and then you watch it carefully and adjust the rating as more and more data becomes availably, taking in to account all the intangibles such as boat conditions, crew experience, skipper ability etc. Because this is such a subjective decision it works best if a large number of knowledgeable people are involved in the decision. At present PHRF-LE has 13 voting members on the board and all decisions are made by majority vote.

Is the system perfect? No. But with 10,000 to 15,000 boats racing under PHRF it appears that most racers feel it's the best system around.

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