Roll Tacks October 2011

As the winter approaches, for me it's time to focus again on the SailJuice Global Warm-up. This will be the third edition of the series, which this time will encompass five handicap racing events. The series kicks off with the Draycote Dash on 19/20 November, followed by the four events that constituted the previous series earlier this year: Grafham Grand Prix, Bloody Mary, Steve Nicholson Memorial Trophy and concluding with the John Merricks Tiger Trophy.

We'll be using the same scoring system as last year, devised by Simon Lovesey of SailRacer, which does a good job of balancing the scores between different-sized fleets. This seemed to cause confusion early on last year's series but as the series progressed the objections seemed to die down. To my mind, Simon's system makes the best of creating a fair scoring system across a range of events which differ in size and style. Let's see how it goes this time round.
One of the things I'd always hoped would come out of this series is to bring in a fairer set of PY handicaps that give everyone a chance of success regardless of what boat they're racing. This hope took a great step forwards earlier this year at the RYA Volvo Dinghy Show. Chaired by Andrew Craig of Queen Mary Sailing Club, a group of experts from clubs based at large inland waters gathered round a table to thrash out a list of handicap numbers that they felt was the best reflection of their combined race result data, plus an element of informed opinion based on anecdotal observations of what people have seen happening on the race course.

This group has now taken on its own identity, the Great Lakes group, and I hope it continues to analyse race results from club racing and major handicap events for many years to come. The standard RYA numbers work well in many instances, and then fall woefully short in other areas. Under the stewardship of Bas Edmonds, over the past two years we've seen big movements in the official handicap numbers published by the RYA. However, one of the frustrations of the system is that it does not consider the effect of large handicap events of the kind that constitute the SailJuice series. I can understand the reasoning, up to a point, as the RYA system is trying to appeal to a very broad church of club racing. Therefore it sees fit to draw its data from the club returns but not from the grand prix events.

However, as I pointed out earlier this year with the Bloody Mary won by a massive margin by the International 14 of Roger Gilbert and Ben McGrane. These guys may be good, but are they several minutes better than the many other world- or national-class sailors that turned up to compete in other classes? That's very debatable.

Against the majority of 14 sailors, Roger and Ben are in a class of their own. They are so good that their results could show up as an anomaly compared with the majority of 14 data. This is where the Great Lakes philosophy is likely to differ from the RYA handicapping process. From my conversation with Bas, my understanding is the that the RYA number aims to reflect the mean performance of any given class sailed by the average sailor. The Great Lakes group, on the other hand, has decided to handicap to the highest potential performance of the boat - ie if Roger Gilbert and Ben McGrane show a consistent ability to sail a modern, cutting-edge International 14 to a number of 760, that's the number the 14 will be set to, even if the majority of the fleet is racing, say, to a handicap number of 800.
For this very fact, it's the International 14 and other development classes such as the National 12 and Merlin Rocket that are likely to see the biggest change to the numbers, due to the inertia in the RYA system which has always struggled to keep up with the consistent improvement in performance of these hi-tech classes over the years. Andrew Craig comments: "We've used the data from last year's winter championships which do substantiate a significant move for these development classes, but then we've combined that with the way their published handicaps have changed in some cases over the last 40 or 50 years. We used this rate of change to project their likely improvement over the current RYA PYNs, and when we did that, we found that what we were seeing on the water and the projection actually produced very similar numbers. This gave us a lot of confidence for changing the handicaps by a margin which may at first seem rather harsh but in fact has been long overdue."
The idea is not to stop the Gilberts and McGranes from winning, but to create a more level playing field where they can still win, albeit perhaps not by the margin we have seen in recent years. Andrew Craig used my own results in the Musto Skiff in last year's SailJuice series to illustrate the point. In some of the events I finished just a few places behind the leading Musto Skiff sailed by Andrew Peake, the eventual series winner. Yet in a Musto Skiff national championships I am a mid-fleet finisher where Andrew is contending for the title. When the results data from some of last year's events was crunched through the Great Lakes numbers, Andrew Peake's position stayed pretty much the same, but there were more finishers of different classes coming between Andrew and me, shoving me further down the results.

Though it pains me to admit it, that's how it should be! Hopefully we'll see a greater spread of classes represented at the top of this year's major handicap events. Much will depend on the willingness of each club to adopt this more radical set of handicap numbers produced by the Great Lakes group. At the time of writing, Draycote, Queen Mary and Northampton have agreed to adopt the majority of the Great Lakes numbers, with Grafham and Rutland to decide shortly. At the very least I hope all the big events will move away from accepting the standard RYA numbers and start to apply the evidence of their own results.

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