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RYA Portsmouth Yardstick (PY) Online System

For many handicap racing is the mainstay of their sailing, so it is great to see the RYA throwing its efforts behind moving this sector of the sport forward through the use of the web. SailRacer is proud to be at the heart of this new online iniative. This article recently appeared in Yachts and Yachting and gives an excellent background to this exciting project.


Let’s face it, we all enjoy a fair race and if you are looking to mix it with different classes, then most sailors look no further than the Portsmouth Yardstick Scheme (PYS). Over the years it has set, well... a yardstick in producing a fair handicapping system for racing between different classes; whether dinghies, multihull or cruising yachts.

In recent years though it has also come in for a fair amount of flak, people argue that it is dated, inflexible and in this age of foiling, asymmetric kites and myriad new classes, PYS no longer produces a fair and accurate handicap.

Everyone has their theory on how the PYS can be improved, but the man actually tasked with dragging the PYS into the 21st century is the RYA’s Bas Edmonds. He’s spent the last year or so looking at ways of improving the system, and his solution looks set to revolutionise the much maligned system.

A brief history of PYS

In order to understand where PYS is now, it’s important to understand where it came from, and the Scheme really does have a marvellous history behind it. The system was pioneered, unsurprisingly, in Portsmouth harbour and was the brainchild of one Zillwood ‘Sinbad’ Milledge.

Milledge was noted as a brilliant eccentric, famed for permanent pipe smoking and wearing open toed sandals and no socks year round. He first started tinkering with the yardstick in the 1930’s and the system was eventually adopted by the RYA in 1952.

Bas Explained: “The point is that back in the 1950’s, classes were fewer and more straightforward: A Firefly was a Firefly, you didn’t have to worry about whether it was in one man or two man configuration, whether it was in spinnaker or no spinnaker configuration and so on.

“As boat design has developed, so too has the PYS and there have been numerous minor adjustments to the system in order to move with the times and take into account the latest developments, however recently it has become clear that we need to make some radical changes in order to keep the system relevant to the pressures of modern racing and the demands from those sailors.”

Current Issues and solutions

In 2007 the RYA polled over 300 clubs around the UK to ask them, the users, what they thought the PYS was doing right and, more importantly, what it wasn’t! It was from this that the RYA identified two main issues with the current system; these are: accuracy of data, the flexibility of the system in dealing with developments within classes.

Speed and flexibility

In the past data has been collected via club returns, which are posted to the RYA at the end of the season, this means there is an inevitable delay in adjusting numbers which can be frustrating.

It also means that PYS is vulnerable to sudden developments in classes which dramatically increase the speed of boats. Foiling is the obvious one, and while the RYA is more than happy to issue a trial number for a new type of boat, without the returns this is difficult and inaccurate.

The classic example of this could be seen at 2008 Bloody Mary pursuit race, where Graham Vial’s foiling Moth sailed to a comprehensive victory, only to be disqualified because his boat did not have a permanent Portsmouth Number.

This was in part because data on these new boats simply could not be collected quickly enough to formulate a stable and accurate number.


Bas explained: “Traditionally, every March boats are issued with a Portsmouth Number for the season ahead. At the end of the year, clubs are asked to send in their returns where part of the data collated includes recommending any adjustment to the numbers used from their experiences of regattas that season.

“If clubs consistently recommend that, say, the GP14 needs a more favourable Portsmouth Number, the Portsmouth Yardstick Advisory Group will adjust it accordingly based on the data received.

“On the same note, if a club only uses the numbers as published by the RYA, and recommends the same numbers for the following year, then again this lack of adjustment is registered in the PN list published.”

For a PN to be raised or lowered there needs to be consensus across clubs over the year in order for a number to be adjusted. For example: The PN for the GP14 is 1106, if 80% of clubs returned 1106 as their recommended PN for the following year, then those clubs that have carried out a number adjustment and recommended either higher or lower than 1106 would absorbed into the mean average.

“Now, the problem is that adjusting numbers can be a very subjective matter. You need someone within the club who is completely neutral to suggest adjustments, but there is every chance club politics will get in the way. This leads to a general lack of adjustment” Bas continued.

“It’s also very complicated for the average sailor to sit down and actually work out what the adjustment should be. This means that generally clubs are not recommending any adjustment to numbers at all, so the whole system is remaining static.”

RYA Portsmouth Yardstick Online Project

The Solution

The RYA has been looking for a way of removing this subjective element from the equation and take the pressure off clubs when it comes to making adjustments.

The answer to this is to head into the digital age and let a computer do the number crunching.

Bas explained: “By working closely with Simon Lovesey of SailRacer Database Technology, what we have done is link the Portsmouth Yardstick in with a dedicated race analysis website which is simple to use and leads the clubs through the results process with a minimum of fuss.

“In order to stay on the theme of keeping it simple, we have tried to keep the whole race analysis process to between 3 and 4 minutes per race which was important to us to get clubs involved.

“In order to do this we have introduced an automatic upload from a number of popular race results packages; such as Sailwave, HAL, Sail 100, meaning that we get results back on a week to week basis.

“Under the old system of annual returns, the RYA only collected four very basic items of data, all of which could not be validated by the RYA. By actually having the raw data of a race result, this allows for much more detailed analysis of results, and far greater flexibility and speed.

“It also means that the Portsmouth Yardstick Advisory Group has much more confidence in the data being returned by the clubs using the system.”

Once clubs have entered their results, the website tabulates all the results on a day to day basis. This means that developments within a class can be picked up almost immediately and real time numbers can be recommended for a specific event if required.

This means that instead of having to wait 2-3 years for a new class to generate enough data to be included onto the PN list, it could be given an accurate number within 2-3 months depending on the popularity of the class.

Another criticism which is neatly dealt with under the new system is the performance difference of boats racing in different water conditions. Everyone knows that some boats are suited to certain water conditions and that within some clubs there is the stigma that you, ‘have to own an XX boat to win there!’ The new system is sophisticated enough to pick up on this.

This would mean that the club rating for an Optimist racing in rough seas off Brighton would be different from one sailing on a small lake in the Midlands. The programme would be able to calculate an accurate adjustment within minutes.

The programme can then give you a recommended adjustment of numbers race by race if you so desired. This means that club officials don’t have to make a subjective adjustment of Portsmouth Numbers.

The new scheme is still in its infancy, but the potential is clear to see. Factors such as weather conditions and crew skill can be brought into the calculation and handicaps can be issued on a much more site specific basis.

In addition to this, participating clubs will have a readymade results programme where they can post race reports and pictures.

Bas is excited about the developments, but sounds a note of caution: “We are taking a softly, softly approach to introducing the scheme, there is bound to be teething problems and niggles that we need to iron out.

“The programme goes live in January, but we are taking things one step at a time and for the first year the onus will be on getting a better quality and volume of results, after that we can start really maximising the potential of the programme.

“As always, the success of this is also down to the clubs themselves. Whatever new technology we introduce, we can’t do anything without regular results coming in from clubs.

“We need them all to get onboard to ensure that the Portsmouth Yardstick continues to flourish.”

Stirring words to all those critics of the venerable yardstick. To paraphrase the legendary Zilwood Sinbad Milledge: ‘Stick that in your pipe and smoke it’ seems to be the absolute mot juste on this occasion.



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