By Kurt Hoehne
About a dozen years ago in my “PHRF-RIP” piece in Northwest Yachting I supposed PHRF-NW was dead, or at least dying. I was wrong. Or at least I had no idea how long the handicapping system could keep breathing.
In recent months, Pacific Handicap Racing Fleet of the Northwest (PHRF-NW) has tried to kill itself, but so far failed. In short, a dramatic and poorly executed attempt at grouping and rerating the fastest of the boats in the fleet has produced extreme frustration, disillusionment and even questions of character.
Sailors and handicappers can and will argue ad infinitum about whose numbers are right and wrong. Frankly, I don’t think those numbers are important in the least. What is important is that the way handicapping is being done is sucking the life out of the game, replacing the respect competitors should have for each other and their own skills with endless, pointless rating controversy.
Back in September PHRF-NW announced a complete overhaul of ratings for the big boats, i.e. boats that rate 0 or faster. The Big Boat Fleet Subcouncil (BBC) changed ratings up to 39 seconds/mile. Most of the boats were rated faster, some slower. The new ratings came as a big surprise to many owners. PHRF-NW president David Lynch freely admits communication with the owners affected was flawed. “We erred pretty badly in not letting them know. That made it appear like backroom dealings.”
There was the expected hue and cry. But among the loud voices was a somewhat quieter one that deserved some close listening. Steve Travis, who’s raced on Puget Sound for decades, spoke loudest of all by putting his boat Flash on the brokerage market. I believe Steve when he says it wasn’t due to the 27-second/mile hit Flash took. “The bottom line is I don’t want to be part of an organization that operates in secret,” he says.
Travis is not generally a reactionary kind of guy. He maintains his boats extremely well, has a loyal crew, and has more ocean racing miles and big-time racing experience (including Europe) than nearly everybody else in the room at any given time. Moreover, he gives back to the sport with his time. He’s a sailor to respect.
Fast-forward to a January 13 handicappers meeting in Bellingham, where Icon owner Kevin Welch presented a thorough argument against the changes that had been made on behalf of the owners of the “bigger” big boats (-20 and above). Welch’s presentation outlined what his analysis and the represented owners considered a set of appropriate ratings. After that full handicappper’s meeting, the BBC held a meeting (with Welch) into the evening on the matter, and came up with a new set of numbers different from Welch’s and the BBC’s orignal numbers. Lynch reported that Welch left the meeting saying that the big boat owners “wouldn’t accept” these ratings either.
Then there’s the issue that only one band of boats is getting rerated, and even that group is now being divided into the “big” big boats and the “little” big boats.
Oh for the love of God make it stop.
Lynch’s refrain is that it is “speed potential” at the core of PHRF, not “performance.” I believe him when he says he’s trying to take the subjective elements out of the equation by bringing in data from measurement handicapping systems to establish ratings.
I also think that effort is doomed within the PHRF framework. There are no such things as completely accurate ratings. They’ll be discussed until the salmon spawn. The real question is the belief about how those ratings are arrived at. If ratings are viewed as subject to the human efforts and failings of manipulation, persuasion, argument, prejudice (intentional or not), the sport suffers.
This little dance between handicappers and owners eats away even further at the credibility of, ….wait for it….wait for it, not PHRF-NW but sailboat racing itself. I won’t question the intentions of handicappers or anyone at PHRF.
But here’s why the credibility of sailboat racing is at risk. The endless, often completely subjective discussion and negotiation around handicaps steals something essential from the game, respect. When handicaps are subject to meetings, presentations and multiple (often conflicting and questionable) methodologies and human judgment, the game changes. Discussions that should be about sail shape, tactics, crew work and boat preparation take a back seat to discussions about who has a gift rating and how they got it.
And because these ratings are appealable, that option always lingers like one of our Northwest clouds. If you’re winning, you’re worried your competitors might challenge your rating. If you’re not winning and you feel you should, appealing is always an option. In an appeal you have to stand up and say either “I really am an outstanding sailor and my results don’t show it” or “My competitor really is not as good as his results show.”
No sailor I respect wants to say either of those things.
Sailing is a game that should ooze respect. Respect for the sea, respect for one’s competitors, respect for the rules (since competitors are the ones to enforce), respect for one’s mates (your life, literally, may depend on them). The great Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom famously said “If you’ve won and don’t have the respect of your competitors you haven’t won at all.” Word. (I can’t find the exact wording but I’m sure that was Elvstrom’s sentiment)
When we participate in sport it’s about feeling good. For some, winning produces that. For others, it’s improvement. For others, it’s simply participating. Competitors fee
l best when they respect their competition and the game itself. Leave the arguments, doubts, committees, lobbying, analysis and finagling for the workaday world.
PHRF has its place. It’s a great system for eyeballing ratings for casual racers and embracing a wide variety of boats that are looking to play together. I would like nothing more than to see the hundreds of boats sitting at Shilshole, housing untold millions of mollusks, to be cleaned up and raced under PHRF, old sails and all.
But sailors who devote much of their lives to getting that extra tenth of a knot deserve to have that human, malleable component out of the ratings. There are, and always have been, alternatives. Just because Northwest sailors haven’t heard of them, or have been scared by comments about them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
These are called measurement rules. Measurements are put into a formula and then out comes a number. Change something on a boat and a new number comes out. End of discussion. Let’s go sailing. In the world of competitive sailboats, the Pacific Northwest is mostly a backwater. Few new racing designs make it here. The arms race some fear just isn’t likely, and if a few newer boats showed up it could well be a good thing. It’s worth noting that in its efforts to take the subjective out of the PHRF equation, the BBC relied on numbers from several measurement systems, especially ORR and the internationally established IRC.
Yep, there could be problems. Somebody can and will come along with a faster boat for its rating. There will be gift ratings. Some folk will learn ways to take advantage of the system. It won’t be perfect. The rants at the bar will be just as loud.
But it will be ranting against a system and not at each other. Win or lose, it won’t go to committee. Best of all, it’ll be easier to buy the winner a beer.
Kurt, you have hit the nail with the right tool. PHRF is not equipped to be “speed potential” and never will be the way it is run. It does not have the tools or the talent. Until they provide a combined board of 7 or 9 industry professionals to weed out the performance aspects PHRF is hopeless. It is run from the top down with little experience on the race course.
The PNW PHRF rating system is completely flawed. The ratings for Ripple and Terromoto destroyed the 50′ fleet, and the 40′ fleet is now under attack with the base ratings for Sachem @ 60 and Terromotto @ 39, and a base rating for the Olson 40 @ 60, and Shoot the Moon @ 83! The prior ratings were: 42, 12/18, 42, and the two ton I had was @ 57. I have come to the conclusion that it’s just no longer worth the money and time to race on the water. Closed door ratings have just made racing unacceptable. These boats are hardly beatable.
The concept of a single number rating system that can accurately rate the difference in speed between two boats over the range of wind and sea states is what is flawed. It can’t be done. Sure, back in the day when it was C&C35 vs. Cal 40 it was somewhat workable, but a J109 vs. a Sierra 26? Be serious. I believe PHRF-NW is simply doing the best it can in the face of an impossible expectation. I think the only way to make a single number rating system work in this day and age is to rigidly define class breaks by speed potential, SA/D ratio, D/L ratio, and any other factors that will give the system a good chance to put boats on the starting line with like boats. Ratings can then be adjusted based on speed potential relative to the other boats within its division. Would this actually work? Maybe. Would it be accepted? Unlikely. If for no other reason that no one likes to sail in a division with just one boat in it. Still, I think it’s the only thing that could work. Massage the math for the next ten years and it won’t change the fact that different boats perform radically differently depending on wind and sea state, and a single number rating can’t cope.
PHRF is rotting from the top down. It needs to be blown up and rebuilt like Bob says by people within the sailboat industry. It is PERSONAL at this point and the rotten apples need to be thrown out before sailing is ruined. When honorable guys like Jim Marta throw in the towel you know things stink and everyone knows where the stink is coming from. If it is left to rot the sport will die. It’s not too late for everyone to IMPEACH PHRF and replace the people that are the problem. Otherwise all the classes will be down to one boat. There are few new boats coming into the sport. And that just proves the sport is dying. And PHRF and its President is the problem.
Hi Rob and others,
I understand the frustration with PHRF, and the “personal” nature of the frustration best illustrates the point I was trying to make with my post. Racers nearly always have a problem with their or someone else’s rating, no matter what the system. The PHRF-NW discussion has become about the people involved, both at PHRF-NW and at one’s competitors. This is why I feel the problem is systemic: in the PHRF system there will always be someone’s judgment involved and therefore someone to point a finger at. There will always be the possibility (real or imagined) that there’s favoritism. There will always be the possibility (real or imagined) that one can successfully appeal one’s own or one’s competitor’s. This is NOT where the focus of racing should be. The focus of racing should be developing skills and boat prep and who made the right calls on the racecourse. Racing is simply more fun that way.
One thing is absolutely certain no matter what one’s stance. If racers don’t like the way things are, we need to take matters into their own hands and fix it. If we don’t, we deserve what we get. That observation hasn’t changed a bit in 12 years.
Well said Kurt. I think one of the issues here is” that people are NOT AWARE ” of what is going on. If you are not one of the Boats EFFECTED, you don’t care YET. But according to PHRF, THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING and if it is, then it is the begininging of the end for sailing. I have been out on the water racing since 1976 and there have always been questions about rating. Some have gone up and some have gone down. As BOB said, it is time to take the people out of PHRF that don’t know what they are doing and put professional people on a board and have a board that makes decisions, not one person who has an ax to grind and makes it PERSONAL. For years the Big Boat Owners have adjusted their own ratings to bring the fleet into what they percieve as relative parity. Some have gladly given up time and others have gotten the benefit of time. What needs to happen in my humble opinion is for the owners to collectively rate their fleets so that we have some parity IN the fleets and then let PHRF adjust the fleets so that everyone has the same oppurtunity to win under the rules we all race under. Walt Little used to tell me he could RATE A LOG, but right now PHRF has lost its way and is out of control. The RACERS need to rain the organization OR just PUT THE BOATS AWAY or alternatively race under a different rating system and let PHRF die. If no one uses it, then it will die away and another system will rise much like IRC has in Europe. It has its problems too but they are much less SUBJECTIVE.
Great article Kurt, and it needs to stay on the front burner to keep SAILBOAT RACING alive and well. Thanks for writing about such an important subject. You can’t please everyone all the time with the ratings, but we all know who is winning and who is losing and WHY. Preparation, skills, sails, crew work , tides, wind shifts and staying in tune with your boat.
If the RACERS and the big boat
Kurt, Just found the website after a discussion with some friends at the Seattle Boat Show. Your article is spot on and the real question is as Rob says. So how do we make more people aware and how do we get more sailors who do actually sail the races involved with the process.