MAX EBB — IF YOU RACE IT, I
t’s easy to lose track of just how old this yacht club dinner meeting crowd has become. Until, that is, there’s a bunch of college students hanging around for contrast. Someone had mistakenly scheduled the monthly dinner, lecture and business meeting for a race day, so the late-departing race crews were mixing it up with the early arrivals for dinner. One group was in post-race saltstained sweats and foulies; the older demographic was in club blazers and perfume. “I wish more of these young members would participate in our dinner meetings,” fumed a former commodore as she bumped into me at the hors d’oeuvres table. “Where’s the club spirit? Where’s the unity?” “Um, we’re actually not, like, club members,” said a young woman as she and a small mob of sailors maneuvered into position to better scarf up the tiny hot dogs wrapped in pastry. “But this is an awesome spread you put out for us racers.” The young woman was Lee Helm, still dripping sea water from the Bay. She’s in grad school, but most of the people dressed for dinner were old enough to be her grandparents.
ou are staying for dinner, Lee?” “Not at these prices, Max. I mean, like, even at the Society of Naval Architects dinner meetings, where the regulars are every bit as rectangular as the crowd here, they have the foresight to give us starving students a half-price deal. “I’ll make a note of that and bring it up at the next board meeting,” said the former commodore. “Lee, would you really dress up and have dinner here if it was half price?” “Oh, like, that’s a hard one,” she replied with maximum sarcasm turned on. “Is it the outstanding food? The famous speakers? The glamorous guests?” “You forgot to mention the exciting business meeting,” I reminded her. The bar was crowded because of the double booking, so I invited myself, along with Lee and her friends, to the only table that still had a few vacant chairs. There was an older gentleman already sitting there when we arrived. “Max, haven’t seen you for a while,”
said my old friend and competitor as we sat down with our drinks and plates of appetizers. I hadn’t recognized him until he spoke. He was the owner of a boat a little larger than mine but with a similar handicap rating. We had raced against each other regularly some years ago, but he hadn’t been out for a couple of years. “Haven’t seen you out on the Bay much,” I said. “Haven’t seen you at the dinner meetings,” he answered. “Well, we miss you out on the course,” I said. “Did you swallow the anchor for good?” “No, I still do a club cruise once in a while. But it’s the same old story, Max. Can’t keep enough good crew on the boat. And when I do find some promising people, as soon as they’re trained, they jump ship. Even the beer can races were getting to be too much aggravation to be fun, what with having to give sailing lessons during the race, and always coming in near the bottom of the fleet.” “Maybe what we need for boats like yours is a handicap system based on actual race performance,” I suggested. “Isn’t that called PHRF?” added one of Lee’s friends. “I think he wants a golf handicap,” said Lee. “Yes, that’s exactly what we need,” he said. “You know, I play a lot of golf, and the handicapping system is what makes the sport work. It’s not based on the kind of clubs you have, but on the golfer’s ability. We should do the same for sailboat racers. Then I might get back into it.” “We tried that one season, and it was a mess,” said a very tall and skinny racer whom I recognized as regular foredeck crew on one of the larger boats in the club fleet. “The time allowances were based on weighted averages of winning or losing margins from previous races. But it never stabilized, and it seemed like the winners were hardly ever the skippers who sailed the best race that day.” “Like, there’s way too much randomness in using time differences,” explained Lee. “And not nearly enough races in the database to get stable data. Plus you don’t race against the same boats each
"What we need is a handicap system based on actual performance."
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• February, 2006
week. Golf is different, because the score has nothing to do with who you’re playing against, and because the golf course doesn’t change from day to day.” “You can tell she doesn’t play golf,” said the retired skipper. “But the golf score doesn’t vary wildly with the wind speed, like times around the race course do,” said the foredeck crew. “Even still,” continued Lee, “some skippers clearly need a little rating adjustment. Maybe do it more like PHRF — arbitrary and subjective, and in secret. It works, like, amazingly well for PHRF,
The April 2006 issue of the West's premier sailing and marine magazine.