All handicap racers know the RYA Portsmouth Yardstick system’s imperfections. But is it the best we’ve got? In this post, I look at the system’s pros and cons and try to answer the question, could we do it better?
Click here to learn more about the Portsmouth Yardstick system.
The Pros & Cons of The Portsmouth Yardstick System
What are the pros?
Any system that allows somewhat fair racing between multiple classes is a great achievement. This is especially important at a time when boat builders are producing new classes like breeding rabbits. With so many new classes and the number of sailors in decline, this has badly harmed fleet racing. Handicap racing allows people to race who don’t have any nearby class racing available to them.
Having a handicapping system is also good for small clubs and clubs starting up. As they might struggle to get the numbers for fleet racing, handicap racing allows them to attract other classes and so grow the numbers out racing.
Another positive of the system is that it solves a key problem of class racing—namely, beginners being left behind. If a beginner to the class joins class racing, they’ll often find everyone else is much faster than them, so they get left quickly behind.
Usually, they are left so far behind that they can’t observe the other boats to see what they could be doing better. So it makes learning challenging and racing not much fun. With handicap racing, if you are a slow RS400 you can at least race alongside those sailing slower classes.
The Portsmouth Yardstick system does take into account factors other than just race results. It looks at performance trends, sea vs. lake performance differences and more. Also, poor performers are excluded so those results don’t affect the calculation. This is important because if a beginner finishes an age behind the penultimate finisher, this would have a disproportionate effect on that class’ average time.
However, the system has several flaws. Many of which will be shared by any alternative handicapping system. However, there are some improvements that can be made.
What are the cons?
The most significant criticism is that it arguably favours certain classes (which are somewhat jokingly referred to as ‘handicap bandits’).
There are several types of ‘Bandit’…
THE ‘TACTICAL BANDIT’
This is where someone buys a class of boat that has ‘had its day’ so its Handicap number is higher than more modern classes (higher the number = slower the boat).
They could then fit it out with new fittings and sails using design and materials not available in the days when the class earned its Portsmouth number.
Without restricting the boats that can sail, I don’t think there’s a solution here. This would plague any handicapping system (unless it became seriously restrictive about which boats can sail).
THE ‘NEW DESIGN BANDIT’
Unless a class has very strict class rules, builders will continue improving the design over time. This is a problem as you have old designs and new designs racing under the same Portsmouth number. The obvious example here is the Moth class which went from non-foiler to foiler.
There are plenty of other examples of this. I race in the Solo class and any boats older than 20 years old are significantly slower than the boats built in the last 20 years.
When a class has a sudden leap forward in development, the newer boats get a significant in handicap races as they are handicapped based on the old design. This problem improves over time as race result data from the latest designs filters into the handicap calculations. However, as the handicap moves, those with older designs find they become less and less competitive.
Do you exclude old designs from competing?
Do you exclude new designs from competing?
Do you have multiple Portsmouth numbers?
None of these is ideal. A major advantage of the Portsmouth system is that it’s open to all. Restrictions would mean that those who race old boats would find themselves no longer able to compete. If we restricted new designs, then the sport wouldn’t move with the times.
Having multiple PNs for different periods in the class development makes things confusing. Also, as mentioned, what’s to stop someone from taking an old design and putting a brand new sail on it and the latest fittings? It would be significantly faster than it was at the time it was built.
THE ‘LOCAL BANDIT’ & ‘WIND STRENGTH BANDIT’S
The Portsmouth Numbers don’t change depending on the conditions of the race. As it’s an average number, it doesn’t adjust to differences in venues and different weather conditions. For instance, the Paralympic mini-keelboat, the 2.4mR, is comparatively worse off in choppy conditions and strong winds (as it can’t plane). But this gives it an advantage in light winds on flat water.
To combat this problem, the RYA encourages clubs to adjust the Portsmouth Numbers for their venue. The RYA are very keen on clubs doing this. The second line of the introduction to the Portsmouth number list reads, “The RYA actively encourages clubs to adjust handicaps where classes are either under or over-performing compared to the number being used.”
However, most Sailing Secretaries tend to avoid this poisoned chalice. Tweaking the numbers would prove very unpopular with those who end up on the wrong side of the decision. The response would be to hurl accusations of bias and question the validity of data. If you’re the Sailing Secretary, you better make sure your class of boat doesn’t end up with a better handicap! Otherwise, you may become even less popular than the Race Officer!
Furthermore, if you adjust one handicap, where do you stop?
On the wind strength issue. The system doesn’t handle planning/ foiling very well. Just a few knots more breeze can change a boat’s speed dramatically. If it’s marginal planning conditions, then boats that get up planing more quickly will have the advantage that day.
The RYA is partway there on this one. Sailing secretaries just need to bite the bullet on adjusting numbers for their venues. Accurate data will go a long way here.
I’ve been told the RYA’s online tool (PY Online) gives clubs recommendations for local PY numbers after uploading their results each week. This data should give the sailing secretary some support.
There remains the problem of cases where there are only 1 or 2 of a particular class racing at a club. If they are both excellent sailors, should their handicap be adjusted unfavourably to ensure they finish around mid-fleet? Or do you exclude them from racing until there is adequate data? Excluding them from racing would mean the data would never come. I think the only solution here would be to use the RYA PN if the number of boats included in the local data is less than 5.
On the wind strength issue. If clubs adjusted numbers, that would help matters. Then the numbers would reflect the average wind strength and other conditions at that venue.
However, arguably, the fairest solution is to apply Portsmouth numbers after the race, depending on the conditions. More on that later.
The Portsmouth Yardstick system tries to shrug off this problem with the excuse that ‘every dog has its day’. Put simply, the conditions today might favour the ILCA, but next week they’ll favour the GP14. However, single-day events will be won by who has the favoured boat for the conditions. You could even switch boats depending on the conditions.
THE ‘BANDIT THAT’S NOT A BANDIT’
Just because a particular class always seems to do well doesn’t always mean the handicap is unfair. Perhaps the class attracts better sailors?
It’s undeniable that some classes tend to attract more expert sailors, and some classes attract more beginners.
This poses a problem for clubs adjusting their PY numbers. Is it the local conditions that cause a particular class to outperform? Or is it because better sailors tend to sail them?
Clubs could just not adjust PY numbers, but these local adjustments are important for solving other problems.
Even if clubs don’t adjust PY numbers, this is a nationwide problem. Usually, if experts tend to race a particular class that’s because there is something about the class that attracts them (or puts off beginners). This could be skewing nationwide PY numbers. It’s a difficult one to solve as you’d have to find an objective way to say whether one sailor was better than another.
Perhaps there is a solution here, but I can’t think of one. Let me know if you have one.
Fast boats get short races.
Or the opposite- slow boats get very long races. If the race is planned for the middle of the fleet to finish around the 1 hour mark, that often means fast boats get 20 minutes or so less race time (as they finish sooner).
Split the fleets so there is a fast and a slow fleet. Or a fast, medium and slow if numbers allow. Any handicapping system would find problems trying to race a Moth against a Mirror.
Significant changes in the conditions in the middle of the race
What happens if the wind suddenly dies halfway through the race. The fast boats are almost finished and gain a considerable advantage. The opposite can occur if the wind suddenly increases when the fast boats are across the finish line.
The only way to solve this problem is to record the wind throughout the race and use a formula to calculate how much of an advantage the fast boats got by finishing while there was still a decent breeze. I’m sure someone cleverer than me could tell me if this was possible.
Popular classes are disadvantaged
If you are sailing a popular boat such as an ILCA, you will likely have to sail close to others in the same class. As a result, you get more dirty air and are therefore disadvantaged. However, the handicap system should take this into account. For instance, if ILCAs around the country are disadvantaged, this will show in their results. Consequently, their PY numbers will change accordingly.
However, if you are the only ILCA at your local club, you now have an advantage (as your PY number assumes you are racing in a big fleet). Likewise, if you sail a dinghy with low numbers nationally, but there is a large fleet at your club, you will have a disadvantage.
Again, this would be largely solved by clubs adjusting PNs.
Is there a better way?
The Portsmouth Yardstick is well established and, on the whole, supported by the dinghy racing community. Changing it may be more effort than it’s worth. But that’s not going to stop me from brainstorming alternatives!
Suggestion 1: Don’t race fast boats with slow boats
This is simple to do, and unless you have a tiny club fleet, it makes sense. Have a fast and a slow handicap. No system is ever going to tackle the problem of racing a moth and a mirror together fairly.
Here are some advantages:
- It would mean fast boats don’t end up short-changed, and slow boats don’t have to sail past dusk.
- There would be less of a gap between the first boat and the last boat, which means there is less opportunity to be sailing in different weather conditions.
Suggestion 2: Further encourage and help clubs to adjust handicaps
The RYA should support sailing secretaries to make these changes. They should help provide the data to support such decisions. It looks like PY online helps here. However, it is woefully underutilised. Communication between clubs and the RYA needs to improve.
Numbers shouldn’t be adjusted if there are less than five boats in a class.
Suggestion 3: Integrate race management software with the local handicap list
The software used to run club races should include or integrate with software that creates a recommended list of adjusted local handicaps. As soon as the race finishes, the handicaps could be adjusted. This takes the pressure off the sailing secretary to adjust the numbers. Instead, an impartial algorithm built by the RYA would do it automatically.
This also means handicaps adjust quickly to class developments. At the moment, PNs are only adjusted yearly. With this system, you could adjust monthly or even after each race. The system could also auto-upload race data to the RYA so national PN numbers could constantly be updating.
Many clubs would benefit from an improved race management software. Such software could automatically generate race results and upload them online as soon as the race finishes. The Race Timer app is an interesting project which has the potential to revolutionise how we do things.
I say radical, but in 2021 we have all the tech we need to do this. And I expect it’s what will happen eventually. It’s just a matter of when.
The problem with the PN system is it’s trying to predict the future. You can do a pretty good job of this, but it will never be perfect. The alternative… assign the handicap after racing.
This would allow you to adjust the finish times based on the conditions the race was sailed in. Many clubs have wind speed data, and for those that don’t, we could start by using the forecast. This way, if the wind dies mid-race, the handicaps will adjust, so the fast boats don’t get an advantage for finishing while there was still wind. The tide data is predictable, so it could be fed into the race management software.
This software could use past race results at the club to calculate local class handicaps. Over time it would have enough data to work out local handicaps in different weather conditions and auto-adjust the finishing times based on weather data fed into the system.
This may sound complicated, but the software would do everything for you. We have the technical ability to do this in 2021.
To Sum Up
No system will do a perfect job as there are just too many different factors to take into account. However, there are several improvements we could make that wouldn’t make handicap racing more complicated or restrictive. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my suggestions? Do you have any suggestions of your own?