Last October Nick Hayes published a column, Imagine a PHRF System that is Fair, on the Sailing Magazine website. As an infrequent reader of Sailing Magazine I stumbled upon the column sometime after it was published and made a comment referencing the articles I have on this website. After posting I checked back for comments a couple of times, found none, and the column fell off my radar. Until the other day when I noticed one of my articles had an unusually large number of hits. Sure enough, there had been a few comments. Let me respond to them here.

Nick was the first to comment. He wrote, “I read your recommendations as a call for more information on more dimensions and continuous collection (review.)” If handicaps were based on a skipper/boat dimension that is based on actual performance, then less information is needed. The key information is the boat’s performance relative to other boat’s in the race. Each boat in the race has a handicap that is independent of the ratings of other boats but is dependent on how each boat in the race performs. Because each boat/skipper combination is unique, how the boat is equipped or not simply doesnot matter. What matters is how well the skipper sails the boat he has. If a skipper sails his boat as well or better than usual, the boat will finish higher in the fleet. Conversely, if the sails poorer than usual, the boat will finish lower in the fleet. That is the beauty of an individual handicap, the race becomes a matter of how well you sail the boat you have and not how deep your pockets are or how much time is spent in the yard long boarding the bottom. 

The second part of Nick’s question is key, an individual handicapping system cannot be a one and done system. Actual race data needs to be collected, periodically reviewed, and everybody’s handicap adjusted as the data dictates. The big question is how often should it be reviewed? I’m reasonably confident a fairly accurate handicap can be established after five races if the median sailed-to handicap is used. After that, I am not sure. Rating adjustments that occur too frequently may become too erratic and unpredictable due to random events. Infrequent rating adjustments will allow for scamming the rating. What random events might affect a rating? A string of light air races that place a poor light air boat at a disadvantage. How can a skipper scam infrequent handicap adjustments? Easily, by establishing a handicap with old beat sails and then buying new sails. It will require experience and experimentation to determine the optimal review and adjustment period, it could be based on time, say an annual review, or by number of races, say every 10 races. Somewhere there is a sweet spot for review.

Nick goes on to ask, “Would you agree that transparency and fleet engagement would add teeth?” Transparency is critical. We’ve all heard the moaning and groaning when a handicap is changed and in the absence of transparency conspiracy theories arise and questions of fairness cannot be addressed. To be certain, by necessity some mathematical magic will be needed to review and adjust ratings and that magic will not always be well understood by the fleets, but at least the resulting data can be published and reviewed by all. What I have proposed is a paradigm shift. The current PHRF paradigm is that all boats in a class are equal or could be equal if the all  skippers put in the time, effort, and resources to optimize their boats, and differences in actual on the water performance is due to skipper and crew skill. To my way of thinking, this is simply unrealistic. The paradigm I am suggesting accepts that all boats are unique, that not all skippers have the time and resources to optimize their boats, and at the start line all boats should have an equal chance of winning.

The issue of fleet engagement is a tough one because it requires thinking about the sport from a different perspective. When I have talked to racing sailors about this, there is resistance and it seems to focus on giving weaker sailors an unfair advantage. Overcoming that resistance is tough. In this article Dick White and I tried to get a handle on what the real life consequences of individual handicapping might be. The study was not perfect; however, several trends were observed, corrected time deltas got smaller, point score deltas in series standings got smaller, occasionally a less skilled skipper did better, and boats sailed more consistently did better. From my perspective, these are all positive outcomes and deserve further exploration.

Another commenter, fdroswold remarked, “Finally, we do not need a system which levels every single boat in every single condition so that all boats have exactly the same corrected time.” To my way of thinking when the starting gun sounds, every boat in the race should have an equal chance of winning. The assumptions of PHRF handicapping are not consistent with this premise. Because every boat has an equal chance of winning, it does not mean that every boat will sail precisely to its handicap and tie. Even with current PHRF handicaps, dead even ties are rare. However, because every boat has an equal chance to win any differences in the finish can be attributed to one of two causes, skipper and crew skill or random events on the course. Or perhaps even more succinctly, the skill the skipper and crew display responding to the random events on the race course. By random events, I mean weather conditions, wind shifts, powerboat wakes, other boats, crew errors, etc. The competition is about the skills the skipper and crew bring to the race course with the boat they have.

If I remember correctly, in Nick’s book Saving Sailing he tells the story of a would-be racer who buys a J24 and sets out to race. He soon finds out that he is way over his head and eventually loses interest and leaves the sport. Too often a handful of dedicated, competitive, and competent sailors dominate a fleet leading to the fleet’s demise. That leads to the demise of the sport. Handicap racing at the local and regional level should be about fun, improving skills, camaraderie, spending time with family and friends, and some post-race bragging rights. The current class based PHRF system stands in the way, an individual skipper/boat handicapping system offers an alternative that allows these goals. Let’s find a way to make it work.

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