I haven't done much pursuit racing and handicap racing in my decades of small boat racing, but this year was different in that I did participate in some pursuit racing at my sailing club, and at the Archipelago Rally a couple of weeks ago, both in my RS Aero.
Handicap and pursuit races are ways to enable a variety of classes of boats of different speeds to race together fairly.
In a handicap race the boats all start together, and the elapsed times for them to finish the course are corrected to take into account that some classes of boats are faster than others. The correction is done using a published handicap number for each class known as the Portsmouth Yardstick.
A yardstick - probably not from Portsmouth
In a pursuit race the starts of each class of boat are staggered to allow for those differences in speed. Slower boats start first and faster boats last. The times of the starts are calculated using the same Portsmouth Yardstick system.
You can find out more about the Portsmouth Yardstick System from US Sailing or the Royal Yachting Association.
US Sailing and the RYA publish national PY numbers based on information provided by sailing clubs on the times taken by all the boats competing in their handicap races.
So far so good.
But what should happen if a club finds that the published PY numbers are just not working for them? One class always wins? Or one class always loses?
Should they adjust the national handicap numbers?
There are all sorts of reasons why this might make sense. Maybe the winds are always light at their venue and so one class which does well in light air always wins. Or maybe they sail on a very small lake or river so trapeze and spinnaker classes never really get a chance to "stretch their legs."
Sailing on a very small river in England
I'm not sure what the US Sailing guideline on this is, but the RYA positively encourages clubs to develop their own club list of handicap numbers. See 60 years of fair racing.
In order for a club to use the scheme to its full potential and meet the main objective of giving fair racing between different classes of boats, a club will need to develop its own list of Portsmouth Numbers (PN’s).
As a club starts using the scheme it may decide to rely on the national list as this has historically been seen as a list of long established numbers. However, the national list is based on a summation of recommendations from clubs nationwide. The list of national numbers may not be appropriate for every club individually. This is due to a number of factors including the type of boats sailed at each club, the predominant wind trends, tidal factors, size of water etc.
Because the national list will not suit every club, each individual club should develop its own list of handicap numbers from their race results. A club should do this by periodically carrying out an analysis of their race data. By doing this a club will be able to see if any of the classes/ configurations of boat are over or under performing to the PN they are currently racing on and can adjust the number accordingly.
How would a club produce its own local handicap numbers?
One of the RYA's suggestions is "educated guesswork." Always one of my favorite ways to attack any problem!
Or if you want to get more scientific, the RYA offers a system complete with a spreadsheet, for analyzing all your race results and calculating adjustments to the national PY numbers.
Wow! That sounds like fun!
But wait. Is it really that simple?
What if you have one really good sailor in one class? Should her results distort the handicap numbers for everyone else in her fleet?
A very good sailor
Or what about the opposite situation? What if one class in a club has a lot of novices who always perform below the national average for the class? Should their performance so distort the club handicap for that class that the one good sailor in the fleet can easily win every club race on handicap?
Probably not going to win the handicap race
And how important is it that all the fleets in the club have a chance to win at least one race in a series?
Let's consider a hypothetical situation. A club has 5 active one design fleets. In an 11 race pursuit race series, what if the number of races won by each of the five classes was...
A - 8
B - 2
C - 1
D - 0
E - 0
Should this data be used to consider some adjustments to start times in the pursuit series next year?
Or is this focus only on the winners not relevant to all the sailors in each class?
And how can we be sure that any adjustments based on such a skewed set of results would be ignoring the "crew skill factor" as RYA calls it?
What if there were more boats in fleet A and some of the best sailors in the club are in this fleet?
Are the sailors in fleets D and E really all raw novices?
And does it matter if they are?
Would the club racing be more fun for everybody, if sailors in fleets D and E had a chance of winning some of the races occasionally?
Once we start going down this path of adjusting handicaps (or pursuit race start times) based on actual performance of sailors in the club, aren't we really handicapping on sailor ability rather than inherent performance of each design of boat? Why not go the whole hog and just give each sailor a personal handicap?
As I said at the start of this post, there are more questions than answers.
Or as some folk say in their Facebook relationship status - "It's complicated."
What do you think?