November 23, 2014

A better way to race

EARLIER THIS MONTH we were talking about Ken Read’s plea for simpler racing. Mr Read is president of North Sails. Now it has been pointed out to me that U.S. Sailing, the big boss of sailboat racing in the U.S.A., is also concerned with simplifying matters.

They’re suggesting a plan for what they call golf handicaps. That’s basically a system of helping regular losers, and handicapping regular winners; a system designed to prevent the same boat from winning all the time and discouraging other entrants.

This is what John Collins has to say about it on the U.S. Sailing website:

Performance handicapping (PHRF) obviously works best when there is a small handicap range in each class. That is fine if you have many boats. If, however, you have few boats with sailors of wide-ranging abilities, and boats with a wide range of speeds, the racing will be dominated by one or two boats. This leads to unhappiness.

A possible remedy, at the local club level, is to institute golf handicapping. PHRF golf handicapping works just the way that golf handicapping works. The PHRF handicap is adjusted after each race, or regatta, based on the race performance. This should only be attempted in small fleets. It should not be used for large regattas or for large fleets sailing in several areas.

The way it works is to pick a reference boat, say the boat that corrected out 40 percent of the way down the fleet. Then figure out the seconds per mile that the other boats either beat this boat by, or lost to it. Take a small fraction of this delta, say 10 percent, and lower the faster boats’ handicaps by this amount and raise the slower boats’.

By taking a small percentage you do not make radical changes to a boat’s handicap. If the boat corrected significantly faster or slower than the reference boat, say by 50 seconds per mile, do nothing with these boats. There has to be a reason for this large delta like good or bad luck. You don’t want to contaminate your adjustments with such races.

The golf handicap scheme is very simple to apply at the local level. It can help a small fleet. Over time it will tend to even things out. It will still allow the better sailor to win overall. 

Today’s Thought
Golf is not a game of great shots. It’s a game of the most misses. The people who win make the smallest mistakes.
— Gene Littler, golfer

Press release from the Washington Legal Aid Society:
“A new partner recently joined the firm of Button, Button, and Button. His name is Zipper. He replaces two Buttons.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Sixbears said...

I don't know. At some point isn't the whole idea of a race to see who's really the fastest?

Kinda seems like shooting the best Olympic sprinter in the knee, just because he's fast.

John Vigor said...

Well, Sixbears, it's hard to disagree with you. It's an interesting point. The trouble, as you know, is that if the best guy wins all the races, the others will soon stop racing, and then he won't be the fastest of anything any more. Should we learn to be better losers, or should the perpetual winner learn to throw a race now and then to encourage the others?

John V.

Unknown said...

John, I am with Sixbears here. Racing is racing and the point is to learn and get better.
I learnt and cut big holes in the sails of all the other boats

57 degrees North said...

The problem as I see it, is that a consistent winner may not necessarily be the best sailor.

Seems to me that a handicap system makes a great deal of sense in a mixed-boat fleet. When for example you have a couple Cat 27's, a Contessa 26, a Colgate 26, and maybe a Westsail 28 all jockeying around the cans. Barring some ham-fisted misfortune, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who's likely to stroll into first... And who's probably going to be bringing up the rear.

Even in one-design racing I can see a need. That neighbor kid who saved up his paper route money to pick up a waterlogged plywood mirror with blown out sails, cannot realistically compete against new GRP boats with brand new sails.

For better or worse, racing has generally been dominated by those with the money to pour into performance. A handicap system would level the field to allow the best sailors to compete successfully regardless of what they are floating around in.

My $.02 and worth what you paid...