Roll Tacks March 2010

For someone who has always been frustrated by how slow the Portsmouth Yardstick scheme has been to keep up with the realities of handicap racing, I was delighted to see some big number changes to the RYA’s official Portsmouth Number (PN) list this year.

Two years ago in this column I wrote about the big developments that were going on behind the scenes at the RYA,  with the electronic, website based system developed closely with Simon Lovesey of Finally, we are beginning to see the fruits of those back-room efforts.

With the new PN list announced at the Dinghy Show in early March, this was the first time that website data collated from the RYA’s Portsmouth Yardstick Race Results website, submitted from clubs, has enabled the Portsmouth Yardstick Group (PYG) to make confident and accurate amendments to the Portsmouth Number list.

RYA Technical Manager Bas Edmonds explains: “The new system has allowed us to collate actual race data which when looking at the returns from the club has given the PYG the option of looking into each submitted race result to see who was sailing and if any conditions were logged, to iron out any anomalies.

“This has allowed us to adjust handicaps aggressively and with far greater confidence. This has led to big adjustments, for example, the International 14 and the Phantom classes move down 10 and 8 points respectively.” Previously the largest movements year to year came in 1’s or 2’s.

I went to see Bas Edmonds at the RYA’s HQ in Hamble to find out more.  I asked Bas why the system has always tended to be slow to pick up on the ever-increasing speeds of the development classes in particular, but also of some of the progressive one-designs. In past years, explained Bas, when a sailing club submits its annual paper return to the RYA, its data has tended to be given the same weight as more or less every other club. On the face of it, that seems fair enough. However in many cases a club will submit exactly the same number for a class on its return as the number issued the RYA the previous year, ie. no change. The statistical likelihood of a club recording exactly the same number as the standard RYA Portsmouth number is miniscule, so this implies that the returning club has actually made no calculation at all.

“The data is tainted by those clubs that don’t adjust, because the data is static,” says Bas. “So if we take the Phantom as an example, we see that with around 50% of the clubs the number is not adjusted.  Where those clubs are adjusted, all of their adjustments are being lost in that large amount of static data.  On the other hand with the website, every single club is showing an adjustment.  Every single result is being adjusted.”

For the past two years the web-based data has running in the background as an experiment, but now they have been brought into play. This year with the Phantom, for example, 15 clubs made paper returns and nine made web-based returns, so the new number took into account two-thirds of the effect of the web-based feedback.

The new official number for the Phantom is 1035. If it had been based purely on the web-based data, the number would have been 1027.

There is a similar pattern with the Merlin Rocket, whose number before the change was 1014. From the paper based returns based on 15 clubs and 66 boats, the range of resulting handicap numbers went from 968 to 1056. For the 38 boats from nine clubs that were recorded on the web system, the range showed a faster spread from 914 to 1022. With the numbers taken purely from the web, the new Merlin number would have dropped to 1003. As it is, the compromise of paper and web data resulted in the new official PN of 1006.

Are E Numbers really bad for you?

So that’s how classes with Primary or Secondary Yardsticks are being handled. There have also been changes to the way that smaller classes with very limited amounts of data are being dealt with. The previously used ‘Trial Numbers’ which have been by definition issued by clubs for rolling adjustment on each race have been replaced with ‘Experimental Numbers’ issued by the RYA.

These ‘E’ Numbers will be based on data coming in from the website only and will allow the RYA to interrogate the data at any point in the season and update those numbers. It will also allow the whole system to be more flexible when looking at new boats coming onto the PY scene.

A good example would be the RS100 or the D1 from Devoti, both of which have already taken part in big events like the Bloody Mary and Steve Nicholson Trophy. Provided that those clubs are submitting data to the RYA via the website, then the RYA will have the option of publishing a number within a matter of months, rather than the couple of years under the previous scheme. This is a very welcome upgrade to the old system, which failed to recognise new classes until there was sufficient data from which to make some real statistical analysis. The thing is, any of us who race against these new boats soon have a pretty good idea as to where they fit into the pecking order. With the glut of new boats that have been launched into the UK market over the past 15 years, it is good that the new system creates a way for these boats to get into the handicap racing system as soon as possible.

‘E’ Numbers also apply to well-established classes that may not record sufficient data to quality for a Secondary Yardstick. So for example this year the Cherub and the International Moth (foiling) have E Numbers of 950 and 690 respectively. This also means that the system now differentiates between a foiling Moth and a non-foiling Moth, whose handicap is a much more sedate 980. So based on the data available, we can see that those T-foils knock about 300 points off a Moth’s handicap.

Now we have seen the Merlin and Phantom move by 8 points, and the International 14 the biggest mover with 10 points. Even then, while it may be that these boats no longer have ‘bandit’ status, my feeling is they still won’t be doing too badly. Bear in mind that the Fireball sits unchanged on 982, though even after its PY punishment the Merlin is still 24 points slower on 1006. From what I could see at this year’s Steve Nicholson Trophy at Northampton, in a moderate Force 3 these two classes were racing around the track almost boat for boat. So given the choice, I’d probably still take the Merlin as the better bet for handicap racing.

This year’s SailJuice Global Warm-Up Series, we went with whatever PY system the sailing clubs wanted to use. In the case of the Bloody Mary, for the first time Queen Mary SC used its own numbers based on historic data from previous Bloody Mary results. The other three events used standard PY numbers, but there is now sufficient data crunching through the RYA system that maybe it’s time these big events venture away from the standard numbers too. Something to consider for next year’s series. I’d like to congratulate Olly Turner who won the Series in a Merlin, crewing for Richard Whitworth in three events and helming for Carly Turner at Northampton, the first time Olly had steered the boat competitively. The Starcross sailor’s ability to sail the boat fast from both ends of the cockpit certainly marks him out as a special talent, although as reigning Merlin National Champion I suppose it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

As to the future of the PY system, Bas wants to make 2010 the year of the big switchover. From currently having 84 registered clubs on the website, with just 46 of these active, he wants to have 150 clubs actively returning data via the website by the end of the year. Clubs who sign up to the program get access to a few goodies that aren’t otherwise available, such as the latest updates on the Experimental Numbers. If Bas’s wishes come true, and the clubs start to plug their data through the system, then the era of the bandit boat could soon be at an end.

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