How Can We Save Handicap Racing in the Northwest? Take the Survey

Several months ago I got a call from my friend Andy Schwenk. Andy rolls up his sleeves and spends a lot of time increasing racing participation from “within.” He’s active in Anacortes Yacht Club, the Santa Cruz 27 fleet and, much to the point, as Secretary/Treasurer for PHRF-NW. In the unlikely event you don’t know Andy, he makes his living rigging boats with his Northwest Rigging, so he’s got a vested interest in seeing the sport thrive.

But spend five minutes talking to him and you won’t doubt that it’s not all about business: He’s a true believer in the sport. Many “in the industry” are.

Andy’s concerned. “How can we get more PHRF participation?” he asked. As PHRF treasurer, he was concerned because the number of rated boats has been waning dramatically and has been for a long time. More importantly, the number of sailboats actually leaving the dock to race around here has been nosediving.

Is there a problem?

Yes. If you doubt that, take a look at this past spring’s PSSR (CYC Seattle) registration list. Fifty boats. Twenty eight were in one-design classes, leaving 22 racing PHRF. All that positive spin in the world is not going to change that. PSSC a couple weeks ago had better one-design participation, but two of the handicap classes were three boats each, and one of the other two classes had a rating spread of 126 seconds/mile!

To those of you who have come to sailboat racing lately (bless you by the way), you may be wondering what’s the big deal. There are boats out there, clubs are finding ways to get races off and people are having a good time. But for those of us looking through the rose-tinted and somewhat smoky glasses of the 1970s and 80s, what we see out there now is a shell of what was. Yes, I know that was 40 years ago. But even 20 years ago we’d see ~130 boats.

We old-timers KNOW it’s just a lot more fun with more boats. And more boats also means the sport is sustainable.

Compare the Blakely Rock Races of the late 1970s with todays’. Imagine 300+ boats instead of 60. Imagine re-measuring and re-rating right up until the night before the race. At the beginning of the season, new boats would be on hand in nearly every class, every year. Imagine the number of crew involved as the benefits of stacking the rail became apparent as the boats became lighter.

It was energized.

To many in those days, racing was everything. Now it’s something people squeeze in between hundreds of other obligations. Scaring up even a bare bones crew is often a steep challenge.

And when clubs around the country are desperately trying to maintain solvency, and PHRF certificates drop in numbers, it IS a problem.

Are there positive signs?

You bet there are positive signs.

First of all, handicap is not dead elsewhere. In England, the Fastnet registration limit was reached in a matter of minutes. The Chicago-Mackinac race has about 330 boats, most of which race handicap. Racing is still cool for a lot of people. In our own area the biggest handicap events are races like Round the County, Race to the Straits and Blakely Rock Benefit. Swiftsure still has a healthy entry list but it’s been declining markedly. Southern Straits seems to be holding its numbers.

The ORC racing is a really bright spot. Several years ago many owners in the Puget Sound Big Boat Fleet took serious issue with changes in the PHRF-NW handicaps, and decided to institute the IRC rule at the top end of the fleet. This worked for a while, but not completely. In the meantime the ORC rule was taking root in Vancouver. In the end, the IRC fleet has embraced ORC. This has been cause for great celebration. Racers from both sides of the border can now race against each other without having to deal with any PHRF-NW vs PHRF-BC differences and politics. Moreover, as a measurement system used worldwide, there are no local influences that can be perceived as prejudicial.

At the casual end of the spectrum, one positive sign is the rise of fun races. Obviously, Seattle’s Duck Dodge is the original and greatest fun race, but there are others. Elliott Bay Marina’s Downtown Sailing Series provides nearly 100 crews with free racing, hot dogs and beer. At Charleston they had two “pursuit” classes, where I assume handicaps were figured in the starting times, and only one race per day was sailed.

But there are others that aren’t too casual or too serious. Sloop Tavern YC’s Race to the Straits and Blakely Rock Benefit Regatta are well attended but for many sailors are more about participation than competition. If you turn up with a headsail that would be better utilized as a tent, you don’t feel like you’re out of place. You’re out there and everybody is happy to see you out there.

Finally, the increasing activity in some one-design fleets like the J/105s, Santa Cruz 27s et. al., shows there’s still interest in keelboat racing.

Better Racing, Better Boats and Oldies but Goodies

The quality of racing, both handicap and one-design, has improved at the top end of sport. Certainly the level of proficiency in a national J/70 regatta is huge. If you look at the serious big boat programs nationally and internationally, the degree of professionalism is amazing. Pro level sailors are paid well, and as some have pointed out to me, well worth it when amateurs might not have the chops to sail the new high-powered beasts or even stay safe.

There’s a rise in adventure races, the most prominent being the R2AK. While not exactly adventure races, the Van Isle 360 and Round the County are nothing like out-and-back or windward-leewards. On the international scene, the Golden Globe Race next year will feature 30 sailors in small, full-keel throwback boats racing non-stop around the world.

Another positive sign is the boats themselves. At that high-octane end of the spectrum, the race boats are ridiculously cool. The TP 52s are really great boats. Just watch Smoke , Glory, Kinetic and Mist (nee Valkyrie) speed past. And take the Fast 40 sportboats that haven’t quite made it to the Northwest like the Melges 40, Carkeek 40 etc.

It seems a shame that there aren’t more modern cruiser racers out there. Really good dual purpose boats have been coming out the last couple of decades. J/Boats has the formula pretty well figured out for a boat that can both race and cruise, but so do several European builders like Beneteau, Wauquiez, X-Yachts and Dehler, to name a few. There are plenty of really nice options out there with both more comfort and more speed than was possible a couple of decades ago.

And used boats? Oh my. There are so many good used boats out there that are comfy and competitive it can boggle the mind. And with some sweat equity or cash infusion they could become absolute queens.

Around the world there’s a lot of enthusiasm still for the classics. Around here the 6-meters have a nice pocket of activity, while internationally the J/Class is back in force. 12-Meters are still some of the most beautiful creatures on the water and several lead active and pampered lives on the east coast. And, in what has to be the weirdest trend, in Europe the old IOR quarter-tonners and half-tonners are getting complete overhauls and optimizations costing many times their initial cost and being raced very actively and competitively.

Let’s Change the Culture

So, there ARE positive signs. But the fact remains not enough boats are racing handicap in the Northwest. Will writing about it help? I don’t know. Ignoring the obvious and putting positive spin on everything isn’t helping. Jumping into online forums in places like Sailing Anarchy can be very interesting and informative, but I’m not sure they move us toward solutions. 

I have some ideas about what’s wrong, and I’m sure you have even better ideas, which is why I’ve put together a little survey to see what you think are the problems. It’s not controlled or scientific, but hopefully it can provide some insight which I’ll share with the yacht clubs and race organizers. If you have something more to contribute than a few sentences, email me about presenting them as a separate post.

Click Here to take the Survey.

I’ve tried to make it quick and easy, yet cover the big stuff. A couple of notes – there is a big PHRF meeting this Sunday and Andy was hoping to get some preliminary numbers from this survey to initiate discussion at the meeting. So sending it before Sunday would be helpful to him – I’ll get those numbers to him. Also, please forward this post or the survey link to the racers you know, even the ones that don’t race anymore. (We want to get them back in the fold, right?)

Also, I’ve set up a forum to talk about these things as the relate specifically to the Northwest. There’s a signup process that I hope isn’t too burdensome.

Cruiser-racer handicap sailboat racing is one of the coolest things we can do. It gets us outside. We can play on a team with folks of the opposite gender. We can include our kids a lot of the time. We can challenge ourselves mentally and physically on an ever-changing playing field. It allows us to use an older boat that might otherwise be just growing a furry bottom.

It’s a shame more people aren’t racing. Let’s see if we can change that in the Northwest.

Kurt grew up racing and cruising in the Midwest, and has raced Lasers since the late 1970s. He has been Assistant Editor at Sailing Magazine and a short stint as Editor of Northwest Yachting. Through Meadow Point Publishing he handles various marketing duties for smaller local companies. He currently is partners on a C&C 36 which he cruises throughout the Northwest. He's married to the amazing Abby and is father to Ian and Gabe.

13 thoughts on “How Can We Save Handicap Racing in the Northwest? Take the Survey

  • October 19, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    Awesome that you are doing this!

    • October 19, 2017 at 5:23 pm


      Already some surprising (to me) results are coming in. In particular some very good original ideas are coming forth. I’ll be sharing with all of you plus clubs and organizations to act on (or not) as they see fit. And I expect it’ll be an ongoing topic on this site.

    • November 4, 2017 at 5:17 pm

      PHRF is a nightmare! Its a good ole boy network! Some of the long time PHRF handicapers and directors are not on the water and yet if you try and talk to them they literally walk away, They know it all there is nothing you can say they dont know. Then you have the secret PHRF rules and all this destroys clubs developing a fair positive race program. Getting crew is a challenge and it takes a lots of time to deliver. I made the mistake a few years back of touching a power and that was followed by years of harassment that lead to my joining another club and I only race a few times a year now

  • October 19, 2017 at 6:16 pm

    Wanted to take the survey but Google hates me and denied me access.

    Too much personality conflict not enough sport. Need to keep egos in check.

    More education on rules and tactics

    Programs to introduce people to the sport. Especially women and minorities. Let’s sponsor some PHRF introductory boats.

    Yacht club events to introduce racing to non racers. EG be a better, safer cruiser by racing.

    • October 19, 2017 at 8:23 pm

      Hi Mark, I’ll work your comments into the report. Thanks for letting me know of your difficulty, hopefully Google has it out only for you. If any other of you have issues, please let me know.

      • October 20, 2017 at 9:24 am

        I had trouble as well, I needed to refresh the page and take the survey again.

        Thanks for collecting this feedback and working with the local race committees.

        • October 20, 2017 at 9:35 am

          Thanks for letting me know. I checked and your responses did make it in. I don’t know what that’s about but I’ll look into it.

          I’m excited about getting/sharing/interpreting/having others interpret the answers. I wait a few days to make sure to get the most racers chiming in.

  • October 20, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    So tell us why aren’t you racing your C&C 36, a classic racer/cruiser. It’s a great family activity. You used to be so active with your San Juan.

    • October 20, 2017 at 4:32 pm

      Of course you’ve got a good point, Bob. And it’s a fair question. The mighty C&C 36 Slipstream I share with two other families would be a perfectly good family racer. A lot of those survey questions apply to me, i.e. family not (yet) being into it, cost, time etc. Assuming I could get the other owners to buy into the racing thing, Slipstream would need a 4-5 sails (yes, NEED), spinnaker gear and something other than a solid 3-bladed prop. We did “race” the Blakely Rock Benefit with what we had, and it was a lot of fun. If we did race her, it would be in a cruising class so we could keep our anchor on the bow and water in the tanks.

  • Pingback: Pacific Northwest Boating News: How can we save handicap racing in the Northwest? Take the survey | Three Sheets Northwest

  • October 23, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Hi Kurt,

    Thank you for opening up this conversation. It’s a topic being kicked around at most yacht and sailing clubs around the country as racing numbers continue to decline. Many of us remember participating at Whidbey Island Race Week, PSSC and PSSR back in the day when there were always over 100 PHRF boats (with many new rookies in the mix). At Race Week, we’ve definitely seen a decline in PHRF and a rise in OD participation, but have remained steady around 60 boats for the past few years now, (despite efforts to build participation by enhancing the post-race experience and making the event more family friendly.)

    What I think it comes down to is time and money: People only have so much vacation (and personal) time and there is significantly more demands on people’s discretionary incomes – especially in Seattle.

    Race Weeks across the country are all but gone. Many that are still afloat and attracting new sailors have adopted a shorter format that includes weekend dates. This is why we have shifted Race Week to a 4-day race event for 2018 that will run Thursday through Sunday in an effort to make it easier for people to participate. In addition to shifting from 5 days of racing M-F to 4 days of racing Th-Su, here are some other features in store for Whidbey Island Race Week in 2018:

    1. In addition to PHRF and OD racing options, we’re introducing a NFS/Jam Performance Cruising Class for people who want just one casual distance race per day. We’re hoping this attracts our cruising friends and people new to racing who want to be a part of the Race Week experience.

    2. We’ll be presenting the First Annual Molly Kool Cup trophy that will be a perpetual overall award available only to women skippers.

    3. We’re inviting sailors to tell us what THEY want to do. If 6 or more boats commit and come to us with a fleet idea (ie: fleet championships, a double handed class, etc), we’ll work with our PRO and Race Committee to give the fleet their own start.

    So, we keep tweaking things in an effort to build participation and are hoping that some of the changes above bring new players to the sport. I’ll be really interested to see the results of your survey and appreciate all the great work you do to enhance the local sailing community.

    Best regards,

    Schelleen Rathkopf
    Whidbey Island Race Week

  • October 24, 2017 at 8:08 am

    It has been fun reading the responses as they come in, but now that the survey has over 100 responses they aren’t being shown. Do you know if there is something that can be done to show the additional ones?

    • October 24, 2017 at 9:06 am

      Hi Alex,

      Yes, all shall be revealed. I’m going to put the word out today that I’m fixing a problem and all those without a google account can answer the survey. That change may be why you can’t see the results. Apparently my mistake in the first place.

      At any rate I’ll put out the results in their entirety along with some thoughts of what I think it means. No doubt that’ll prod everybody to jump in with their 4 cents.


Leave a Reply