PHRF Racing Guide: Part 1

by Jim Schrager

(This story can be found in the June issue of Spinsheet)

While we can all thrill watching, reading, and learning about racing at the Grand Prix level, most of us spend our time participating in local PHRF Screwpile 2012fleets, the heart and soul of sailboat racing.

Don’t despair if you haven’t been brought up racing in small boats. The first time I skippered a race was at the ripe old age of 28 on our C&C 35 Mk 2, and I had only crewed occasionally prior to that. You can win in PHRF if you lay out a plan, understand the challenges, and work diligently to improve.

In this four-part series, we’ll cover the steps to get you started. First, realize that the boat you race matters. Next, simplify the myriad of tasks you must master by concentrating on boat speed as the place to start. Third, begin to train yourself to remember the massive amounts of knowledge required to compete at the top of the fleet.

Boat Selection. In theory, every PHRF rating adjusts for the actual performance of sisterships racing all over the United States so that every boat has an equal chance to win. In practice, PHRF does this well and is one of the most effective rating systems ever devised. This is because it is not a “design rule” where clever naval architects create boats that conform to a particular mathematical formula. PHRF, based on race results, rates actual performance rather than theoretical speed.

But even so, different conditions treat different boats in varying ways. Some boats do especially well in heavy air, such as the 1971 Morgan 41 Cynthia in our harbor, which won her division in the 2011 Chicago Mac despite her age, weight, and prodigious cruising accommodations. Others are great in light air, such as the Soverel 33 Zot always in contention in our program. Each boat has conditions when it excels, and other times when it becomes a challenge to sail to its rating.

The key is to select a boat that matches the conditions for your area. We rate three factors to arrive at an understanding of when our boat will perform best, and when we’ll struggle: wind speed (light, medium, and heavy), point of sail (beat, reach, run) and sea state (flat, lumpy, rough). We watch when we are naturally fast in each of these combinations and compare that to the conditions we face most race days.

Much like the Chesapeake, we sail in a mostly light air region with flat water, Southern Lake Michigan. So, we need a boat that excels in those conditions. If we were in San Francisco Bay, we would want a great heavy air boat.

Also watch the type of courses your club is using. In the old days, we always tried to run triangle courses, with a beat and two reaches. Then everything went upwind/downwind, with beats and runs. Now, the trend is back to triangles. Many IOR designs were fantastic up/down racers, but as newer boats make their way into fleets, triangles allow for more interesting courses.

If you don’t have a boat and are looking to get into PHRF, do your homework. If you have a boat, by all means, first try to make her go fast before buying something different. As we look at PHRF fleets all over the country, it’s clear that a wide variety of boats, of all types and ages, can be winners. A huge deciding factor is skill, and that brings us to boat speed.

Boat Speed is Key. We like to say if you have boat speed, everything else is easy to add. Without boat speed, all the racing tactics you learn won’t be of much use.

Boat speed starts with the best sails you can afford and your ability to trim them properly on each point of sail. Find a local sailmaker you enjoy talking with and have him or her race with you. When the sailmaker is on your boat, he or she will be brimming with ideas. Listen carefully. If you need new sails, rank the list based on those you’ll use most frequently. But how to judge when you have reached the elusive goal of “boat speed?”
The only way to do this is when racing. While it is useful to practice setting the spinnaker, changing sails, and doing mark roundings, you will best test—and improve—your boat speed by racing. Boat speed, like magic, at times will mysteriously appear, and at other times, you’ll be dog slow. The key is to understand why in both cases, so you can repeat the fast performance and work diligently on improving the slow times. How do you store and recall the vast compendium of knowledge when in the heat of battle?

That brings us to building expertise... Stay tuned to part two

Find all four parts of this series here.