PHHS Poole Harbour Handicap System

PHHS - The Story

Many thanks to Ted Barron (deceased) for this article on the early days of the PHHS, if there are any readers who want to add to the handicap story or technical details then please forward to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Handicapping – The Impossible Dream
Many years ago the wise man said that “if something is impossible the sooner it is proved not to be so the better”, however, as, probably, there were no yachts about then he did not have to handicap them so that they could all race on equal terms. It is still an impossible task.

 The problem is to calculate a handicap for every type sailing yacht such that all shall be equal when racing in all kinds of weather conditions from calm to yachtsmen’s gales. The yachts can vary from small family cruisers like Corribees or Silhouettes through Sadler 25s and Evolution 26s to light speedy cruiser/racers such as Elans and Bolero 26s. The list even includes R19s, Hunter 505and J24s. as so called cruisers. Rigs can vary from a tall bermudian mainsail with a large spinnaker to a loose footed gaff with topsail and two jibs. Keels can vary from deep narrow fin with a heavy bulb to three shallow keels suitable for sitting on the mud, somewhere in between is a variety of lifting keels. In fact if it floats and has a mast or even two and it has a sail or sails it, in theory, can be raced equally with the best in any weather. Multi-hulls have not been included but no doubt someone will want to race a Catalac against a Centaur. In other words what defines a cruiser for club racing. Did someone say rating is easy?

 Over the years there have been many attempts to solve the impossible problem, the first recorded rating rules were introduced in Europe and USA in the 1880s. The rules underwent many changes until about the 1930s when the RORC and the CCA rules were introduced. RORC and CCA combined in 1n the 1960s and the IOR rule was established. The IOR rule was frequently updated as boats changed but it is believed to be basis of all systems in use today. They are all based on a Time Multiplication Factor (TMF), which increases or decreases the actual lapsed time the boat takes for the race. Examples are, Channel Handicap System (CHS) reputedly to be the fairest system for larger boats which race seriously, the formulae are kept very secret, Island Sailing Club uses a “finger in the wind system”, which no competitor understands, for the annual Round Island Race, the R.Y.A. Portsmouth Yardstick which is now mainly used for dinghies, it is based on actual results for each type of boat as compiled by clubs and returned to the RYA for calculation, but very few clubs return the results for cruisers. the East Coast Handicap system, the C.S.C. TMF System and many others including the Poole Harbour Handicap System. The PHHS is now used by all the clubs in Poole Harbour, which race cruisers, and also by Christchurch Sailing Club in addition to its own TMF system.
Most local clubs used a system developed by PYRA which was in regular use in 1973 it was based on the IOR rules but drastically modified to reduce the number of measurements. PYC introduced their own system in 1977 and this was modified in 1980 to include rig, keel, displacement propeller but no spinnaker and this was further modified between 1983 and 1994 to satisfy local conditions such as the dying wind factor. (Poole Harbour is notorious for the wind dying in the middle of an evening race, giving the faster boats an advantage). PYRA used a version developed in 1987, which did not have allowances for not having a spinnaker or the dying wind factor as they usually raced out of the Harbour.

 The PYC and PYRA systems required considerable mathematical ability to calculate the handicaps and so some of the smaller clubs including Lilliput Sailing Club arrived at their handicaps by using historical data, (if a boat won several times the handicap was increased), Portsmouth Yardstick or just guess work and because each club had its own handicap system participation in inter- club regattas was difficult, with the race results often being open to debate.
As soon as small computers, such as the BBC and Tandy, became available some clubs including Lilliput Sailing Club developed their own programs
This situation could not continue and in January 1995 a meeting was organised by Lilliput Sailing Club at which representatives of all the Harbour Clubs and Christchurch Sailing Club attended. It was agreed that a common system for calculating handicaps should be used by all the clubs and that a Committee should be formed from representatives of the Clubs and a standard computer program should be developed to run on Microsoft Excel. The program was eventually used by most of the clubs in the 1996 season
The difficulty is to define a cruiser for club racing? Is it a family cruiser like a Centaur, sailed by a man with his wife and 2 children, complete with gas oven, sea toilet, full water tank, food for a month and 20 gallons of diesel or is it a J24 with a small outboard motor, a litre bottle of water, a stove with an empty throw away cartridge and a child’s beach bucket with the appropriately shaped piece of ply for a seat, crewed by 5 fit, hairy young men who live on sandwiches and beer.

 The calculations of the Poole Rating (this is equivalent to the power/weight ratio for cars) is derived from basic rating calculated from hull and sail measurements and it is then adjusted by various allowances and finally by the handicappers’ allowance. The Poole Rating is then used to calculate to TMF.
 It is only the Handicapper’s Allowance for the type of boat that is not determined uniquely from measurements and other quantitative data supplied by the owner. This Handicapper’s Allowance adjustment is an independent element in arriving at the Poole Rating and it should not be seen as either, a fine tuning device or a way of correcting what may be thought to be errors of judgement by the system. It is applied by the Handicapping Committee to a particular type or class of boat and it is not used to handicap or console individual helmsmen on their performance.
 The total percentage allowance is the sum of the allowances for keel, displacement, propeller and handicappers’ allowance /100. As can be seen from this the Handicappers’ Allowance does not greatly affect the final result. The Handicappers’ Allowance varies from +8 for a Swift 18 to -7 for an R19.but most cruisers that race regularly are in the +3 to -2 range.

 The Committee has, after several years of experience with the system, arrived standard measurements for several types of boats. A good example of this is Sadler 25s which all came from the same mould and all, regardless of 4 different keel types, are supposed to weigh 2080lbs. but they may have very different handicaps because 3 different masts were fitted over the years. Another example is Evolution 26s which came from at least 2 different moulds and similarly Westerly Centaurs came from several different moulds, also some Centaurs have inboard and some have outboard shrouds and in one club considerable variances were found in the water line lengths. Dimensions of reputably identical boats have been found to vary very considerably, and equally some owner/measurers have elastic tape measures.
The formulae are based on average dimensions and information. Critical dimensions are displacement (manufacturer’s declared weight including engine plus 10%), rateable length (calculated from LOA and LWL), rateable beam (calculated from max beam at deck and max. beam at W.L.) propeller type and size ( folding, feathering or fixed, 2 or 3 bladed) keel type and size( fin, bilge, lifting), mainsail area and type, foresail area and type (calculated from the largest jib, spinnaker pole length and spinnaker). Some owners spend a lot of time and money trying to bend the rules without penalty but extremes of any dimension generally tend to penalise. The days of the plank-on-edge boat with massive keel and enormous sails are long gone.
 Over the years club boats have got larger and very few small family cruisers now race, also most boats that race regularly use spinnakers, the result is that the PHHS is now producing very competitive racing, particularly for out of harbour races and it certainly has encouraged inter-club racing.

 The work of John Atkins of PYC must be acknowledged as he has acted as Secretary for several years and has done and continues to do an excellent job of co-ordinating the work of the Committee and of keeping the programs and computer disks up-to-date and we must also thank the representatives of all the clubs for giving their time to this controversial but essential task.. They cannot please everybody.
Finally do not blame the Handicapper if you do not win, he can only work within the parameters of the formulae agreed by all the clubs, perhaps its just not your day to win, or its not your weather, or its your crew or its a rotten course, or it might even be the helmsman’s fault or is it.

Ted Barron (First Chairman PHHS Committee)