Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I've always been a one-design guy myself. I've raced Lasers against Lasers, and Sunfish against Sunfish mainly. First boat across the line wins.

But in many yacht clubs where they have a variety of classes they have some kind of handicap racing. Someone works out a conversion factor for every boat and they do some mathematical jiggery pokery to convert all the times it takes every boat to sail around the course to some common base. The bigger faster boats cross the line first but some guy in a slow boat at the back of the fleet might win on corrected time if he is a better sailor than the guys with the big boats.

The Portsmouth Yardstick is one of these handicapping systems. The tables in the link are calculated from elapsed times of actual races sent in by yacht clubs all over the country to US Sailing. So the handicaps are based on the performance of real boats of each class raced by real people in real races.

Of course no system is perfect. And if you are always being beaten by the same boat it is natural to believe that the fault lies in the handicapping system. Today I received this email from one of my readers...

I own a Choate Cf 27. The Yacht club where I race the boat uses the Portsmouth Rating system. I have to race an E Scow. In the Portsmouth system my boat is rated 75.3 and the E Scow is rated 75. Where did Portsmouth get these numbers? There is no way this right. I have written Portsmouth to try to get the rating changed and the say they have the number to prove the rating is right.

Hmmm. I don't know why he thinks I can help him. As I mentioned before I'm more of a one-design kind of guy. I have done some handicap racing and even won my old club's multi-class championship in a regatta scored using the Portsmouth Yardstick system.

Why is it a "yardstick" by the way? I've no idea.

Anyway I did do a bit of googling around about Choate Cf 27 and handicapping methods, and discovered an interesting story about a Cf 27. Apparently back in 1996 some guy bought a rather tired, 18-year-old Cf 27, slapped on a coat of paint, and picked up a few new sails. He entered it in a 116 boat handicap regatta in San Diego and on a 7 mile course won his class by over 9 minutes.

So don't blame the boat, my friend. Don't blame the handicap system. Prepare the boat well and you may well do as well as the San Diego guy. The full story is at Dennis's Menace.

Oh yeah, I forget to mention, the skipper of the Cf 27 in the San Diego race was Dennis Conner.

Any comments, observations or advice from readers who are into handicap racing?

1 comment:

Pat said...

The Portsmouth yardstick is calculated from race results sent in by several dozen yacht clubs. If the numbers are accurate (assuming race chairs/scorers are trained and diligent), and the numbers are entered correctly, then it's a good, relatively objective system.

It avoids some of the controversy of systems that rely on regional boards who adjust handicaps, or of systems that use "secret" formulas.

Several factors can influence the fairness or accuracy of the numbers. The numbers should be pretty good for popular classes and common wind ranges, but can easily be skewed for uncommon boats, for which only a few data points may be recorded.

This is especially true if your race committee uses wind range modifiers and you try to do handicap racing on an uncommonly windy day (because fewer results are reported for the higher wind ranges).

Also, if some boat classes are widely represented in all kinds of bodies of water, but others only sail in one restricted locale, the numbers for the latter group could be less general. Or, if you only sail in one kind of sailing environment (say, light air with big tidal currents), your mileage may vary compared with the national averages.

The level of competition in a given type of boat also affects the numbers. If a whole lot of hotshot racers are drawn to a class, then the assigned numbers will be tougher to sail to. If a bunch of lazy cruisers sail the class very casually and don't do much to prep their boats, then the numbers will be easier to meet.

So, one "formula" to "beat the handicap" would be to buy an oddball boat that no one else races seriously or puts any money into, sail it in a body of water with typical conditions that favor that type of boat, customize and prep the boat to the maximum amount allowed, and hire a hotshot crew, and then spend every day on the water training.

Of course, most good racing sailors wouldn't be all that interested in racing a tub and more of them are interested in one-design racing against their peers, but if you're really desperate for a trophy....

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