Sailboat Racing PHRF

Club racing is likely the best way to become a better and safer sailor if you’re new to the sport. I’ll give you my understand which (disclaimer) won’t be to the standards of the lifetime avid racer but more directed at those who, like me, want to get involved at least on some level.

We’re a small club with about fifteen boats that usually race. Racing sailboats is sketchy at best because you have to rely on the weather and you have to arrange races for times where people will actually show up. Trust me, it’s not easy. I’m the race committee chair this year. Yikes!

We tend to race on Thursday nights at around 6:00pm. To be involved in the race, you really just have to show up ahead of time to get a race sheet that the race committee usually has at the ready.

As you likely know if you’ve ever sailed in your life, planning to sail is always a bad idea. Sailboats only work when there’s wind and if you’re trying to get somewhere, there will either be no wind or wind directly in the wrong direction. It’s just how it goes. Sailing life.

Provided the wind and weather cooperate and people show up, the race is on.

As it’s very rare for any two sailboats to be equal unless your one design racing, you have to handicap the faster boats somehow so everyone is somewhat competitive. Our club uses the PHRF system. “Performance Handicap Racing Fleet” measures are published online an easy to find. Without getting too technical, we use this system to try to make every boat finish the race (in theory anyway) at exactly the same time. It makes things exciting!

Each boat has a PHRF rating, typically well above zero. The “zero rating” is a theoretical boat and describes how fast that boat would take to get around the race course. A boat that is slower than the zero boat would have a higher rating. Let’s say your boat has a rating of 100. This means it *should* take your boat 100 seconds MORE THAN the zero boat to go each mile. In a one mile race, you would start exactly 100 seconds before the zero boat. Someone with a rating of 200 would start 200 seconds before the zero boat. This way you and the 200 boat should finish at the same time.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to actually know any of this. The race committee finds your boats PHRF and bases your race start time on it. My boat for example is a 147. This means if the zero boat started at 7:00pm and the race were one mile, I’d get to start 147 seconds before him. If the race were ten miles, I’d get to start 24 and a half minutes before him.

We start the slowest boat at 7:00pm, followed by each faster boat. A few boats start very close together, and the very fast boats start as late as 7:30pm. The races are usually less than ten miles.

The timing is adjusted as the season goes on to try to get all of the boats to the finish line at exactly the same time. May the best sailor win!

This works for the most part and once you understand the PHRF system it makes a lot of sense. The problem is, boats that are the same are often not the same. My Hughes 35 for example has no problem placing in the top five or six boats at the finish line. Another member however, also on a Hughes 35 sailboat usually wins by a huge margin.

The difference is in the unmeasurable. Does his sailboat have a smoother bottom, a folding propeller, better sails? Or does his 60 years of experience just trump my five years? Everything comes into play in PHRF racing because the boat has no advantage. It’s like drag racing a Corvette and a Prius. If you mathematically figure out how far ahead to let the Prius get before the Corvette can leave the line to make them finish at exactly the same time, the race is very hard to win in either car. That’s what PHRF does. It comes down to the driver.

Racing in PHRF is also very unforgiving. If you make a mistake, typically the only way to make a comeback is if everyone ahead of you also makes a mistake. The learning curve is very steep.

I can say that despite to competitive stress and my long list of mistakes in almost every race, I am still learning tremendously fast.

Races in PHRF are definitely not for the faint of heart either. Boats under full sail and heavy heel are often very close together. Tactics are everything. Passing someone on the high side will steal their wind so even if you can’t make it past without hitting them, when you get into their wind they will fall off and you won’t hit them anyway. It’s very tricky to master the close quarters combat but an extremely good time if you like that sort of thing, which I certainly do.

Our racecourses are marked by buoys and typically have three legs headed in three different directions, always with an upwind leg to keep things interesting.

Anyway, that’s all on PHRF racing for now. If you have questions please post in the comments.


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