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Imagine a PHRF system that is actually fair

2018 October 1

Listening to racers talk about handicapping is like listening to patients explaining the health care market. In health care, nobody knows who is paying what, to whom and for what. In handicapping, nobody seems to have any idea how a rating is derived, who decides it, or if and how it will evolve. Every rating system is complex and opaque, and therefore confusing. But PHRF—the most widely used handicapping system in the nation—takes the cake.

This was evident this spring, when hundreds of Midwestern applicants wondered if they might be able to race at all, lacking timely communication or accurate certificates from a committee in transition. It is pointless to point fingers.

PHRF is an albatross. You won’t find a single delighted PHRF racer. There are folks who can’t sell boats because buyers expect punitive action. Buyers want boats that have a chance, but can’t be sure they’ll get one. More to the point, how many clubs have more boats in slips than on the course on race day? PHRF scares the masses away from competitive sailing. 

PHRF was supposed to be a magnet, not a repellent. As a non-proprietary and affordable system, it was intended to help more people play. That is why it has persisted for decades, despite flaws, as proprietary and costlier systems come and go.

PHRF owns up to many of those flaws, which include a bias to new gear, no factoring for local sea or wind conditions, possible politicization and no remedy for the so-called PHRF-killer.

Every flaw is correctable using common sense and proven tools.

For example, let’s mull PHRF’s bias to new gear. Setting aside the notion that wealth might temporarily buy flags, consider that the fundamental purpose of a handicap is to enable different boats to compete. This should include the inevitability that a boat built in 1970 of fiberglass, steel and Dacron will race against one built in 2018 of carbon, carbon and carbon. To do this, neither rating can be considered stable. Instead, the system must respond with an “innovation factor.” Think of it as a way of accounting
for progress like ultra-lightness, extreme horsepower or even
foiling, and then normalizing the fleet to the new reality.
Performance data should inform the necessary comparisons for local adjustments.

Second, a better system would account for more variables than just hulls and reported sail dimensions.

Take, for example, a fluky late-summer evening breeze; the prevailing club racing condition. In this scenario, handicappers may have pegged the speed potential of two modern racer-cruisers with good crews and decent sails, with one rating 100 seconds per mile faster due to size. On a 6-mile race starting at 6:30 p.m., the taller boat will always finish before the 6-knot thermal lifts, leaving the shorter boat to bob until dark. No existing model can account for this frequent and frustrating experience just as no centralized rating system can know if, instead, one crew happened to spot a puff and the other missed it. One race result doesn’t make a pattern, but three might and 30 will. Patterns are local and so must be a rating’s response to them.

PHRF assumes that race organizers will group fleets and time their starts to minimize the weather variable, but provides no guidance other than seconds-per-mile to do it. On nights like these, mast height or Sail Area/Displacement (SA/D) might be fairer ways to assemble competitors. There are many more ways to adjust than I know or can list, and all ways are transferable.

A better handicapping system would facilitate local data collection and share ideas across fleets, so that organizers can apply a proper prescription for level play as and where required. The exchange would be hosted online and provide scoring, reporting, performance tracking, concept testing, technical changes and new ideas. It would be simple, fast, and would be free to clubs and organizers and open to all sailor-subscribers.

You might ask: Why would competitors want to do this?

Sailors are curious and the majority are fair-minded. Given a chance to study what separates boats and teams, the sailing community would grow and thrive and the racing would improve.

Since it is impossible to perpetually politicize or rig a transparent and stakeholder-involved system, sailors will enjoy consistently fairer play, more choices when it comes to upgrading boats and equipment, and a better environment for crew recruitment and retention.

Imagine a handicapping organization as a national cloud-based open information exchange that delivers fairness, facilitation, flexibility and fun. Call it PHRFFFF.