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Maybe it’s time to stop playing the ratings game

2012 November 4

Our light little boat has an aggressive handicap; the same as boats 10 feet longer. When we are zipping downwind in a breeze passing competitors, I think we have it great. Then we turn the corner to pound into chop, are passed by competitors, and I start cursing. Like my short memory, our rating is imperfect, but over time, it averages out to be about right.

We've always accepted the rating as if it were gospel. One year, via mail, the ratings god told us our PHRF rating had been changed, as new information had come to light. In a respectfully worded appeal we pointed out that something was missed; the new information was actually the same as the old information. We had an unchanged boat and all the similar unchanged boats had not been penalized. After an entire season sailed under the more severe penalty and a few silent prayers, the rating was changed back, and we thanked the ratings god for the fix.

We felt unbalanced that year. We were in ratings limbo; a sort of purgatory for boats. The adjustment cost us a place or two, but we figured we would find a way to improve. We had just as much fun sailing as the year before or after.

We accepted the word of the ratings god.

I've met a few sailors who aren't so compliant. These are the folks who see the assignment of a rating as a process that might be as much in their control as a decision to tack to cover a competitor.

I have a name for this strategy. As opposed to concentrating purely on the racing game, these sailors have found that it can be just as useful to concentrate resources on the ratings game.

I have no idea how the ratings game works. I imagine that it requires some understanding about the intent of the rules, how committees and computer software interpret those rules, and what changes might or might not catch the eye of one of these people or technologies. It must also require some calculated thinking about how other competitors might respond, and a keen sense for risk and reward.

A sailing friend calls it the "Secret Whispered Game." Here's why:

First, not everyone who is playing knows the rules, because, for the most part, there aren't any. If there were, they wouldn't be secret and the game would be over.

Second, it takes time and lots of spare cash to play and win. Most sailors have just enough of both for the sailing they do now. Seeking and finding loopholes isn't something the majority of sailors will ever afford.

Third, it's like a gambling habit. Once it starts, it won't come to an end until the intervention. Meanwhile, friends will whisper.

And most importantly, few will publicly say that there is a Secret Whispered Game in the first place. This, I've come to believe, is because nearly everyone subconsciously thinks they know the rules and aspires to be a good Secret Whispered Game player. But since so few of us understand and do it well, we can't share our thinking for fear of being branded either a loser or a conspiracy theorist.

But it's there. Why do sailboat dealers promote ratings beaters? Why is the first question asked by a boat buyer who wants to race, "Does it sail above its rating?"
Whether we will admit that it exists or not, sailing organizers have tried many strategies to rid the sport of the Secret Whispered Game. Rating systems demand that boat owners, builders and sailmakers agree to rules ensuring transparency and disclosure, and to accepting assignments without claim or question. And ratings engineers have found nifty ways of troubleshooting the ratings process with better computers and tools that are less error prone and more predictable. We've even invented entirely new ratings to replace the old ones, made cumbersome by the secret whispering players. By my count, we're on V7.0 in the last 20 years.
Meanwhile, the Secret Whispered Game gets more complex and costly to play, and its leaders are legging out.

It's important to note that when racing sailors tire of the ratings game, they'll sometimes (but not often) try one-design sailing or, in extreme cases, quit sailing to do something else with their free time. After all, this game isn't the one they came to play.

Every city has a fed-up family who left sailing, or a guy who raced for 30 years and traded his crewed offshore sailboat for something he could daysail solo, or the fleet that kept shrinking until it wasn't there.

Notice that I haven't called it cheating to play the ratings game. It isn't. But it isn't fair either and it isn't good for the sport. It's not the game we came to play.
It has, however, dawned on me that I am part of the problem. My love-hate relationship with my rating is a relationship of self-defensive convenience. I only speak to the ratings god when I need something. Why risk purgatory?

Here's an idea. We racing sailors can flat-out refuse to play the Secret Whispered Game. To do this, we'll have to give it a name (my friend won't mind if we use his) so that we can point it out when it's being played, avoid joining when it calls us and work together to douse it.

Perhaps it would be best to start by having a little chat with the ratings god.

Nick Hayes is the author of Saving Sailing. A sailor since he was a child, he now sails with his family aboard their boat Syrena.