I know that PHRF stands for something about performance, but what is it and how does it work?
Dan Dickison responds:
OK, good question. Too few people who are new to the sport of sailboat racing understand the mechanics of the PHRF system, but it's actually very basic. PHRF is the acronym that represents the words Performance Handicap Rating Formula. This is a system used principally in the US by those who organize sailboat races to quantify the performance of dissimilar boats and thereby allow them to compete against one another in the same events. It's a bit like a golf handicap. If you have a three handicap and I'm a 16 handicap golfer, we can play a round together and have our respective scores mean something relative to one another because of the handicapping system.
PHRF ratings are administered on a regional basis around the US. Committees in all the established regions look at performance data (essentially the results from previous races) to see how a particular boat performs, and then they issue that boat a rating for their area. The committee will likely take into account numerous factors including local sailing conditions, etc., but they'll always assume that a boat is sailing to its full potential.
See if you can follow this example. Take a boat like the Olson 30. On the West Coast where there are lots of these boats around, the PHRF committee in San Francisco Bay area has a lot of information to use on which to base the rating it has given to the Olson 30. In this case, the rating is 99 for a boat with an outboard engine, and 105 for a boat with an inboard engine. However, take a place like Chicago where there are only three Olson 30s on the PHRF books. One carries a rating of 108 and the other two carry a rating of 105. The difference between the way these boats rate and the way the ones in San Francisco do may be explained by a number of factors that the respective committees have taken into account.
Now how do these numbers work? Well, that's when you need another boat to put the system into action. So let's take a J/105. Now a J/105 will rate from 81 to 87 in Chicago waters, but for the purposes of this example, we'll use one that rates 81. To see how the J/105 with an 81 rating performs against the Olson 30 with a 105 rating in a given race in Chicago, a race committee simply has to do a little basic math. The difference between those two ratings is 24, which the race committee knows represents seconds per mile. Essentially, the J/105 must give the Olson 30 24 seconds per mile.
Let's say both boats race around a course that is four miles long and the J/105 crosses the finish line a minute and a half ahead of the Olson 30. Which boat is the winner? Well, all you have to do is multiply the rating differential (24 seconds) by the length of the course in miles (four) and you get your answer: 96 seconds. If the J/105 beats the Olson 30 by 96 seconds or more, it wins, but in this case it only beat the Olson 30 by 90 seconds, so the Olson wins.
I hope this rudimentary information helps to answer your question. The best way to gain a better understanding of the PHRF system is to participate in some races and do the calculations yourself. There are lots of little quirks and plenty of politics that surround the PHRF system on any body of water around the US, but for now it's the accepted standard and it only makes sense for racing sailors to be familiar with it. Good luck.