Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Pursuit and Handicap Racing - Portsmouth Yardstick

Pursuit racing and handicap racing are a bit of a mystery to me. So this post will probably have more questions than answers. I hope, dear reader, you have some answers for me...

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.

A pursuit race

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."

It's Complicated

What do you think?


SoxSail said...

It is my understanding that in the Great Lakes, handicaps get adjusted based on results, which take the sailor into account. However, the system can be gamed when a boat's rating becomes distorted by many years of under-performance, and a new owner is added to the equation.

Cooking the books is not only less fair, but it also may have unforeseen consequences. Novice sailors who finish well may not improve as fast as they could while at the same time, the "head start" may lessen the feeling of accomplishment. Newer sailors may be drawn to one class over another because of the perceived advantage. Experienced sailors may become frustrated, especially as the landscape changes, and the ratings struggle to keep up with the changes.

The ladies H12 class at Beverly YC (in Marion, MA) used to give the winner each week a tennis ball filled with rocks that she had to drag behind her boat the following race. If she won, she got another one, and if she lost, she could remove one. This was a handicap that could be adapted weekly without a meeting or agreement. It was a sign of honor to drag the ball behind your boat, while also allowing every sailor to compete for top honors. For dingy's, I would suggest a tennis ball with no rocks might be enough added drag to make a meaningful difference. It could be that any boat in the winning fleet's class has to add a ball, or only the top three finishers, etc. Or maybe one fleet adds two balls, and one fleet adds one. Either way, it's an adaptive measure to even out fleets for fun racing, without the politics and ramifications that go along with changing handicaps based on results.

R1 said...

Having spent most of my sailing in handicap fleets, the national PY has always been used. If you want to try club specific numbers, I would suggest that's done in a separate series rather then club wide.

Having raced in handicap fleets that included development classes using the grandfather concept (they adjust the current PY based on the age of the development class) I can assure you that nobody is happy. The "old" boats use a PY from date of build but then update rig, foils etc. I've never seen so many arguements over handicap.

Ultimately, handicap racing under national PY is great because we get a bigger fleet racing. You just have to accept that on some days the conditions or competitors skew the PY against you, but favour you other days. But over a reasonable series they even out. A huge effort by RYA keeps the PYs workable.

Ideally, real fleet racing would be best with personal handicap for a separate series (potentially extracted from the same set of results but for a separate prize). The flip side (pragmatically) that I would like to see would be fleet results extracted from handicap racing.

I like the tennis balls concept though.....

Tillerman said...

SoxSail - I like the tennis ball concept too. That's a brilliant idea.

R1 - I must admit that sticking to national PNs is very attractive. My post was triggered mainly because I can see a lot of pitfalls in local adjustment of PNs.

The handicap numbers at the Archipelago Rally were very "local" I think. Although I submitted what I thought were fair numbers for RS Aeros, I suspect a lot of the other boats must have had somewhat arbitrary numbers. How could they not as some were home builds from a variety of "found" parts? And others had been adjusted based on performance in previous years - which led to the anomaly of the Laser Radial starting after the RS Aero 9s and 7 which really wasn't fair to the Radial sailor.

Oh well. Best not to take pursuit racing of any kind too seriously, I suppose.

Unknown said...

Here's my half thought-out response to the issue at hand. Let's go hi-tech. Each boat should have a bar code ID on its sail and deck so the boat can be identified by the committee boat or overhead drone, etc. The ID should include the class and serial number, and can be read by character recognition, bar code reader, etc. The race recording system should respond to audio input so the exact time of the start can be recorded. The time of finish of each boat should be recorded. Now an app on a computer, iPhone, iPad or whatever can process the results of the race anyway anyone wants. You can check your finish position, your time elapsed of your race, and can compare your results with the other boats in your class, other boats with PN's. You can tell how well you did compared to your previous races, compared others in your class, compared to the whole fleet, compared to last year, compared to the results of your new sail, compared to how well you did against the Lasers or Aeros, etc. Of course, the reason I want to use elapsed time is because it is a better gauge of your performance than where you were in the fleet.

Tillerman said...

I like the technology Jay.

Of course, what clubs do in real life is ask the race committee to record the elapsed time of every boat in every race, and then crunch that data to decide whether any adjustments to handicaps are appropriate.

I understand that the Hypothetical Sailing Club (HSC) in the hypothetical example asked their RCs to do that for the pursuit races over a whole season. Some RCs were better than others at capturing this data, just as some RCs were better than others at managing the pursuit races so that they finished in the target time which had been used to calculate the start times. I understand that HSC is going to have a hypothetical meeting in the off-season to review the data and make decisions on any changes to pursuit race start times for next year.

Gordon S said...

Great topic, and I love the tennis ball idea. Our club has individual events that are either pursuit or handicap. It's a small lake and the Jet 14s usually beat the Scots, but the 14s have a few of the best sailors. The best Sunfish have won on occasion. While I tend to prefer pursuit, the race is often decided whether the wind increases or dies between the first and last start. If the slow rated boats (Sunfish) get a fast getaway and around the point before the wind dies, the faster boats can't catch up. If the wind picks up after a slow first start, the faster boats soon roll over the fleet. I suspect Handicap is fairer for this reason, but it is anti-excitement and requires a retentive RC crew.

Tillerman said...

Good points Gordon.

Pursuit races can be unfair for the reasons you describe. And also for the tide issue that I mentioned in my post about the Archipelago Rally.

I have also won a handicap regatta (with a large silver cup at stake) by choosing to race in the fastest boat at the regatta and being the only boat in that class. Once I had won the start and punched out into clear air I could extend my lead with no interference from other boats, while the rest of the fleet was fighting each other, getting in each other's wind shadows, slowing each other down at mark rounding etc. etc.

Children can be so cruel at my age.

Tillerman said...

The racing committee of the Hypothetical Sailing Club had their hypothetical meeting this week and after much discussion decided to leave pursuit race start times as they are because
a) nobody could come up with any system that would be better
b) the finishes are always close
c) everyone is having so much fun with the way things are.
The sailor from fleet B who won the series was sternly warned not to do it again.

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