The Elephant in the Bathtub

Playing the shore. Photo by Jan Anderson

OK, we’ve looked at action items to stave off the decline in PNW handicap racing. Now it’s time to look at the elephant in the bathtub, handicapping itself. Though a small part of the October 19 survey, handicapping itself probably generated the most direct, and certainly most vehement, comments.

I’m not going to argue whether or not PHRF offers accurate handicapping. That’s a black hole. Instead, I’m going to talk about how PHRF is perceived, what I feel its role should be and how ORC Club might fit into the picture.

For many in the PNW, PHRF = Handicapping. That’s the only system many, if not most, have sailed under. Assessing performance, rather than measuring boats, is appealing. It’s been the dominant handicapping system around here since the 1980s. When something else pops into the picture, e.g. IMS or IRC, problems are found, there’s no critical mass and they fade away amid the mantra of “PHRF may not be perfect but it’s the best thing going.” And then people hear horror stories about the IOR days when boats would be out-designed yearly, and resign themselves to PHRF.

Gaucho into the mark

Yet, according to the survey, more than half of the respondents feel that handicapping affects their participation at least a little. Twenty nine percent feel it’s a significant factor. The comments reveal some serious frustration, to put it mildly. So, a large percentage of PNW racers aren’t happy with PHRF. Some are downright ornery about it. And many others have just left the sport because of it.

At the national and international levels, US Sailing and World Sailing have abdicated their rightful roles on settling on one system. ORR in this country has not caught on and is expensive, and IRC and ORC are administered in England. So the solutions aren’t obvious and the unknown makes sailors twitchy.

And the idea that you can’t appeal your rating is scary to some. That’s interesting. To me the idea that my rating can be changed in some committee meeting is scary.

So we have PHRF. Its strengths are that it’s administered locally, and you can get your or your competitors’ rating changed if you lobby well enough. Those are also its greatest problems. There are dozens of local handicappers and arcane procedures to determine ratings. Consistency is a big problem, especially between PHRF-NW and PHRF-BC.

No matter what those ratings turn out to be, flexible numbers are going to be perceived by many as wrong, by either ignorance or politics. And the idea of being able to appeal your competitor’s ratings is just insane. No sailor I respect wants to appeal a competitor’s rating, no matter how wrong it is. The beer you’re sharing with another skipper just doesn’t taste as good when you’re wondering how he got that gift rating, or wondering if they’re going to drag you in front of some appeal committee in the future.

There is an apparent solution at hand. It’s the ORC measurement system which is being used successfully by the big boats in Puget Sound and in British Columbia, and in large numbers around the world. It’s cheaper than PHRF, professionally administered with the force of thousands of serious racers worldwide to keep it on track. ORC and IRC are now working together which bodes well for the future. Different wind conditions can be accommodated to help keep boats competitive in all conditions. For the first time in a long time, BC and WA big boat racers don’t have big crises over ratings when they want to race each other.

So here’s my solution. All the serious racers (of all sizes) shift to ORC. That’s where the racers who buy new sails often, train their crews and scrub their boat bottoms before each race, should race. If they want to optimize their rating, they can play with sail area or other factors, and it’s cut and dry. The yacht clubs and race organizers would have to adapt, but if they want racers, they would.

The folk who are new to racing, casual about it or have an oddball boat that doesn’t get a fair shake in ORC, can play the PHRF game. Without the pressure of the serious crowd, PHRF can streamline its processes and perhaps rethink how it’s administered. This is where the flexibility of PHRF could be really useful. A wide range of adjustments (many are already in pace) could be identified for cruising gear, old sails, novice skippers etc. Sure, there’s all sorts of room for controversy here, but remember the crowd is mainly out there to have fun and won’t get their foulies in a bundle if they don’t win. The foulies in a bundle crowd will be off sailing ORC.

What about those racers in between casual and serious? They would have to choose. Those who want to keep their boat in “casual” trim could opt for PHRF. Experienced sailors with old sails – well, they could race against the serious guys or go PHRF and just deal with the perceived inequities – their choice.

Let’s say you have a J/35, a boat that’s seen success under many handicapping systems. You still have the competitive spirit, but your sails are a bit tired and your crew isn’t trained up, and it’s tough to find enough rail meat to be truly competitive. It would still be fun to mix it up with the PHRF crowd, especially if you got some extra seconds per mile for your 1993 sails.

Let’s say you have so much fun doing that that you invest in some new sails and put a program together. You get an ORC rating, put your game face on, and play with that crowd.

The beautiful Swan 391 Oxomoxo. Photo by Michelle Neville.

Or use your old sails and novice crew for the casual races and your new sails and trained crew for the serious races. Right now the big boats have both ratings, one where there’s enough ORC boats for a class, one for when there’s not.

What about the sailor who hunts trophies in the PHRF fleet with new sails and a pro tactician? Who cares, let them embarrass themselves.

What about the boats that seem unduly penalized by ORC? I doubt there are many and they’ll get to choose.

It’s self-selection and it can work. As one of the survey respondents said, “Choose your poison.”

To start with, I’d suggest you get in touch with the folk you like to race against. Coordinate so you end up in the same fleet. Making those connections and decisions off the racecourse can only strengthen fleet morale and participation.

IMHO this would be better for all involved. PHRF could focus on the larger pools of new and casual racers while the more intense (but smaller) serious racing crowd could all focus on the racing instead of handicapping. Both systems could thrive. There would be some growing pains, and it may not work out. But it’s better than watching the sport fade.

Think about it. Weigh in on it here – I’ll be happy to post differing (but respectful) views. Or just go get your ORC rating and talk to your club.

And happy holidays to all.


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.

5 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Bathtub

  • December 22, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    Kurt, Thank you for your thoughts and compliment to OxoMoxo, I sure love that boat and don’t really care if we lose, but having tasted victory once in the Van Isle, we sure would like to win something again. The whole race was administered by ORC, and you didn’t have to be a big boat, racing with a pro crew, and new gear, to perform well under that system. We didn’t win every leg, but as hard as we pushed the boat and crew, we were not disappointed with our results. Longing to make a Pacific crossing, I had entered the Pacific Cup, but when the SF PHRF NORCAL penalized our boat 9 seconds per mile for the 2 extra inches of Spin pole and the larger Asymmetrical Spinnaker, we decided to do the Vic Maui, another ORC race, instead.

    My best to you and you son for the Holidays. Doug Frazer

    • December 24, 2017 at 5:55 am

      Hi Doug,

      I’m so very excited about your upcoming Vic Maui!

  • December 23, 2017 at 10:49 am

    That’s what we did in Vancouver in 2002. Seems to work well.

    Thanks for putting the effort into our sport.

  • December 25, 2017 at 9:07 am

    I believe yacht clubs control PHRF thru representatives appointed. Talk to PHRF represenatives. Goal is more boats on the water. More boats, more classes, more similar boats, everybody wins

    • December 25, 2017 at 10:30 am

      Hi Puremoods,

      You’re correct in that there are handicappers for clubs. But my understanding is the clubs do not have any direct control over PHRF.


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