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cb, the PHRF numbers represent a specific speed difference, over a specific course, in a specific locale which has specific wind conditions, with a specific crew and sails in use. Among other factors, which I'd bet your local PHRF committee members would enjoy spending an hour explaining to you, in person or on the phone. The USSA.ORG webs site probably also has a good explanation of what the phrf numbers are based on.
You can shortcut it somewhat to just mean "a lower number generally means a faster boat" and if you ignore anything within a 10-point spread as being "the same, really" they become more meaningful.
Among the finer points...Bubblehead mentioned an Ohlson 911s. What you won't see in the PHRF numbers is that in order to hit those numbers, that boat requires some fine sail handling and it is very easy to be unable to hit them. While other boats with a wider tolerance for sail trim, are easy to sail "to the numbers".
Like EPA numbers for MPG on cars, they're just one part of the whole story. And when you get into real purebred racing boats with low PHRF numbers? You may also find they have puny little engines, to keep the weight down. Or delicate rigs, that can break in rough weather. Even the America's Cup instructions may specify no racing in over 10 knots of wind--because they don't want to break boats.
Its just numbers, just one way to compare the speed of boats, in specific limited conditions. Not fair, not complete, just a place to start handicapping for racers.