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.