OR HOW I HAVE COME TO APPRECIATE PHRF
By Dr. Thompson and R. Steadman esq.
Anyone who has had the pleasure to race sailboats has also been subject to a cycle of promise eroding to disappointment or outright disdain for a plethora of rating rules. Those of us having been introduced to yacht racing at a young age sometime last century, have lived through these cycles repeatedly. From The CCA Rule, to The STC Rule, MORC, IOR, IOR MkII. IOR MkIII, IOR MkIIIa, MHS, IMS, IRC, and what now appears likely to be taking center stage, ORC. Pretty much all have started out with the best of intentions, put forth by folks who were committed to a fair and level competitive environment. It is important to note that most of these rules were not solely revolutionary, but rather evolutionary. IOR was born out of The CCA rule in conjunction with The RORC Rule. MHS rapidly became the IMS rule. CHS or Channel Handicap System was revamped and ushered in the IRC Rule.
All of these rules have a commonality in that they set out to evaluate the potential performance based on a set of design parameters. By applying these measurements to the formula du jour, we arrive at a number, or, in some cases, several numbers that quantify speed potentials. The goal is to fairly handicap dissimilar designs so that they may compete on equal footing. By no means is this to be viewed unfavorably. For those of us that race sailboats, it is a noble endeavor that there are esteemed sailors who are willing to commit themselves to undertake such ventures. These efforts seek to serve sailors who wish to own differing boats-- boats that have caught their eye, come to admire or outright fallen in love with.
The rub or bane of all measurement rules is that when assigning a value to a particular feature or aspect of a given design, how to accurately weigh that value both as a stand alone feature and in conjunction with other design aspects. A perfect example of this for me, in my very early teens, was getting my dad’s boat measured for the IOR. The fellow doing the measuring pointed out to us that the boat’s propeller strut was a bit shy in girth and width. Were we to make a minor modification to the strut, we would realize a .1 favorable gain in rating. Out came the Marinetex. The strut was thickened and extended from approximately a ½” thick to 5/8” and from a girth of around 2 ½” to around 3”. It made zero difference in the speed of the boat except in the eyes of the rule. While the most simplistic of examples, it foretold the future. Rather than designs that exhibited sea kindly or aesthetically pleasing attributes, an era of bumps and bustles, flat bilges, deep forefoots and pinched sterns came to define yacht designs. These elements were not intended to make boats faster, but rather to make them appear slower in terms of measurement. The value or weight of these characteristics having nothing to do with making better boats but rather better ratings relative to performance drawbacks or impediments. Along with how measurement rules would come to dominate the boats we sail, they also served to make designs become quickly obsolete. The upside was that the IOR, being defined as a development rule, served to accelerate yacht design at what seemed breakneck speed.
By the late 1970’s, dissatisfaction with the IOR lead to its eventual successors. Two very different rules came to the forefront. One being the Measurement Handicap System Rule or MHS. Unique at the time because rather than measuring a set of given variables of differing designs and applying them to a straight measurement formula to derive a rating in feet, it took this data and applied it to a Velocity Prediction Program or VPP. The VPP used was one developed for large ships and a great deal of work went into modifying this to be applicable to sailboats. Without getting terribly bogged down here, the idea was to base ratings and thus results on the given conditions experienced on the race course. It relied on the competitors to supply wind speed and angle for each leg sailed. Those numbers allowed the race committee to select the appropriate predicted velocity based on the polars generated for each yacht. On paper it looked to answer everything wrong with the measurement rules that preceded it. The winner would be decided on which boat(s) sailed closest to their potential for a given course and conditions experienced. In practice it was beyond cumbersome. If memory serves, Storm Trysail Club used the rule for Block Island Race Week in 1979. Results were slow to be calculated and starting racing the next day without knowing who had won the day before was commonplace. MHS was short lived in its inaugural incarnation. It was quickly replaced by IMS which was essentially the same VPP but the process of arriving at a boat’s rating had been streamlined to make it more workable, more universally applicable.
At around the same time another completely different way to assess boats was hatched. The concept was simple in that rather than a measurement rule of ever increasing complexity, it set out to rate boats based on empirical data. Performance potentials were to be based on observation and prior standings of any given design relative to another. In order for this scheme to work, there would need to be a subjective element to the rule as not all boats are prepared, equipped or sailed equally. A meeting was convened by The YRALIS in late 1978 or early 1979, if I recall correctly, to bring this new rule before the membership. My father was in attendance and sat next to his close friend Don King. Mr. King, a long-standing member of Larchmont Yacht Club and Storm Trysail Club said to my dad as the membership voted to accept this new rating rule, “They know not what they have done.” To this day, my father relaying me that story still resonates. Alas, Performance Handicap Racing Fleet, or PHRF, came into being on Long Island Sound and has proliferated throughout the United States in every major sailing region.
So starts the era of PHRF. A rule vastly different than those that preceded it. Born out of a desire not to have our boats rapidly become obsolete in terms of competitive sailing. The essence of the rule being that as measurement rules matured and became better understood by designers, that they could be manipulated to gain a competitive advantage. That the rule would dictate the boats we sail rather than the boats we sail dictating how the rule would function. This is by far the most important distinction or attribute of PHRF. When a boat is deemed to have an unfair advantage or disadvantage, it does not require an exploratory committee to be convened, the peculiarities of the rule to be examined, explored and a fix to be developed. Instead, like-minded sailors can simply submit information and supporting documentation to their local PHRF committee and an adjustment can be considered and if warranted, implemented.
Some argue that that is the exact problem with PHRF. The subjective nature of the rule allows for politicking that results in rating inequities. They view the strength of PHRF to be a flaw. Personally, I think this is wrong-headed for one very good reason: PHRF relies on the competitors input to work. Void of that, it is certainly prone to misapplications. It is important to note that our sport, the sport of yacht racing, is founded on the principle of self-enforcement by and for those that race. Just as the competitors are charged with enforcing The Racing Rules of Sailing, so are we charged with ensuring that our ratings are just and equally applied.
Equally important is to understand who is PHRF? It is all of us who elect to sail under the rule. It is not some obscure committee that none of us know and have little access to. PHRF is the guy sailing right next to you. Be it a fellow competitor, our crew or the PHRF committee member who is out there sailing in the same venues. Because of this very construct, PHRF is highly accessible to all to offer their input. With that accessibility comes responsibility. All too often we chat amongst ourselves about rating inequities, misapplied credits or boats modified or sailing outside the boundaries of their rating certificates. These conversations are very important to the health of our sport but are little more than cocktail talk if we do not act by expressing our concerns to the local PHRF authorities. Perceived flaws within the PHRF rule are not actually institutionally based. They are of our own doing by not taking those concerns expressed in the tent or at the bar and translated and communicated to your local PHRF authority.
Yes there are flaws in this rating system. To acknowledge that and to work to remediate these concerns is essential to “fixing” PHRF and thus serving to make it more equitable to a wider range of boats. Rather than wander off into the woods trying to address every complaint ever lodged regarding PHRF, we are better served to identify and discuss some fundamental causes that are at the heart or core of a multitude of concerns. By identifying the ancillary aspects that contribute to the majority of those issues, we can consolidate actions to be tabled and if warranted, undertaken to have the broadest impact to correct a host of issues.
The number one complaint sailors express when talking about PHRF on a macro level would be a scaling issue. How many times have you heard or said, “PHRF is good at rating boats in a narrow band but not so good when rating faster boats against slower ones.”? This indicates that the difference between boats that rate 0 and boats that rate 99 is too small. If you added 30 seconds per mile, for example, to a 99 rater, the spread in the ratings would be fairer, more equitable. This may not be wholly linear as adding 15 seconds to a 48 rater may or may not serve to correct this scaling issue. One would have to look over a wide range of results to determine what sort of correction should be applied for different rating bands. It is also important to note that the longer the race, the harder it is to see this effect due to varying conditions, spreading of fleets, progression of weather patterns. What demonstrates this best is short course races. When sailing the same course configuration on something like a 5 mile course, it is not uncharacteristic to see the 40 plus footer rating 0 beat a 35 footer rating in the 80s by a minute or more. Since conditions on such a short course are more static, this would suggest or demonstrate that this is a real concern. Fixing the scaling issue would be a very worthy yet monumental task in making our competition fairer overall in bigger fleets with a wide rating spread.
The second most commonly voiced concern would be, “It just wasn’t our conditions”. Little doubt to anyone that any single number rating system allows for the race to be decided based on ‘horses for courses’. Some would argue that this isn’t really a concern-- over the course of a season, that it all comes out in the wash and the better-sailed boats end up with a better cumulative result. There is no denying that to be true. At the same time, is it fair that a boat that sails better in a given set of conditions, outside of the conditions the ratings are based on, should come out on top? Couple that with trying to rate dissimilar boats designed over a span of time to differing measurement rules and it becomes clear that a single number system has its drawbacks. In reading the other day about Offshore Racing Association’s Triple Number Plus rating system, my eyes glazed over. While I understand and, in principle, agree that there is great utility in such a system, the administration seems unruly. That said, I think they are onto something. For racing on Long Island Sound, we already have a dual number system. One rating for windward leeward courses and another for distance racing. I am not sure you could ever effectively use a multi-tiered rating for distance racing. The conditions are rarely one set of conditions versus another. While they may tend to one end of the scale or the other, the application of a dual rating system would prove impractical. However, for short course and W/L racing you could easily employ a dual number system and in turn ensure more competitive racing with fairer results. Such a system would allow for sportboats that can plane when the breeze gets up to actually race against older displacement boats. Of course the devil is in the details and determining what the cutoff would be and how to arrive at a high and low wind rating makes a great deal of work. That said, the reality is all the data already exists by looking to other PHRF areas/regions and seeing what boats rate there based on predominate conditions.
This brings us to the third thing that needs to be addressed regarding PHRF. Much has been discussed about ratings not being consistent from one PHRF region to another. Partly this is due to differing conditions and partly to how the rule is managed or administered by a wide variety of Regional PHRF Authorities. While this may on the surface matter little to most sailors, there are several drawbacks for those that travel to other areas to compete. Further, it inhibits the ability of one PHRF committee to draw from the experience of other regions that may have a deeper database for a given design that could be used to determine a local boat’s potentials. We would be well served to see PHRF officially nationalized. At the same time, this should not be done at the expense of losing local autonomy. Rather than seeing the nationalization of PHRF under the umbrella of an existing national authority, the regional PHRF boards should come together and form a cooperative with the purpose of fully sharing information and standardizing the criteria of how ratings are arrived at. It would also allow for the consolidation of a variety of databases. From such a database, it would not be particularly hard to decipher how boats of similar design perform in a range of conditions. This could have tremendous application in developing a multi-tier rating system and while those in San Francisco might view the cutoff for light vs heavy conditions/rating to be 16-18 knots, WLIS may well peg that at closer to say 13-15 knots of breeze. In any event, all the numbers to support such breaks would be compiled in that national database.
In closing, no other rule can do what PHRF has done. To survive as long as it has, is a testament to its strength as a rating system. It is highly adaptable with the ability to correct itself through the input of those who sail under the rule. The key to the rule, and to its longevity, is those who serve to make it work. It is dependent on you,the sailor. So next time you are in the tent, at the bar or awaiting a postponement, make it a point to do something more than just talk amongst your crew and fellow competitors. Write that e-mail, commit to volunteering on the PHRF Committee, have your say and do something positive to better our sport.
“They know not what they have done” indeed!