Blueprint for a Club Competition Using Individual Handicaps

This is a blueprint for a successful club competition using individual handicaps as part of the qualifying system. The idea is to increase engagement and participation for all sailors, and add a great social occasion to the club's calendar too.

In the last post I put up I promised to describe how we tried to leverage the handicap system to generate participation at our club. I realise that for some people this is a bit like teaching my grandma to suck eggs, but I'm writing it in the interests of sharing ideas that have worked in terms of increasing participation and engagement.

At the time we came up with this idea our club didn't have a Club Championship, so it was decided that we should add one to the club's calendar. We'd also just purchased some club boats and a plan was formed to use the new boats in the club championship.

The main event is still going strong at the club, but the qualification system isn't. I think that this is because the reasoning for having any qualification got lost in the mists of time, but, for me anyway, it is an important part of the whole competition.

The Qualification

Qualification Method

The first part of the idea was that sailors would have to qualify to take part. The first two sailors in each normal club race would qualify to take part in the club championship. If one of the top two had already qualified then the person that finished third would qualify. If they had already qualified then the person that finished fourth would qualify. And so on.

Reasoning for Qualification Method

The main reason for making this a qualification event was to get boats out on the water early in the season. As you had to qualify for the event, you needed to get out racing. Often it can take a little while to get some sailors out on the water, as they wait for summer to really kick in, or they finally get round to fixing the bit on their boat that the broke at the end of the last season, so stressing the importance of the need to qualify meant that people would be motivated to hit the water earlier in the season. Also, you may have to sail several races to qualify, leading to multiple turnouts early in the season.

By making the series a qualification only event there was a sense of achievement for those that qualified, and it also suggested a scarcity of places available. Things that are scarce are more desirable, so more people would want to qualify and take part.

Importantly, it wasn't the sailors that finished first or second on Portsmouth Yardstick that qualified. We made it the sailors that finished first and second on club handicap that qualified. The reasoning here was three-fold:

  • Firstly, we knew all the hot-shots would eventually qualify, so it didn't matter too much when that happened.
  • Secondly, the guys that wouldn't normally get recognition for their positions in the handicap race would now be among the first to qualify - something really motivating for the mid-fleet sailors.
  • Thirdly, it raised the profile of the club handicap results, making them more important, and therefore making the successes of the mid-fleet sailors more relevant.

Finally, we rang around the qualified sailors in the couple of weeks before the event, to make sure people could make it. Some had other commitments on the day, leaving us the nice bonus of being able to offer wildcards to people that hadn't qualified, for whatever reason. Essentially, anyone that wanted to take part would be able to do so.

The Main Event

We would have a knockout tournament, with all the races sailed on one day.

Everyone would sail in the same type of boat - for us it was the single-handed Topaz boats that we had just purchased, but another club could use any single-hander that they could get 5 or 6 of.

The competition format can be found in PDF format here. The sailors would be separated into groups of 6, and each group would race once. The top two in each race would progress to the next round, while the remaining 4 would go into a pool and race again. The top two in these races would also progress to the next round. By doing this each sailor has at least two races, so no-one turns up, does one short race and is eliminated.

There were then four quarter finals, two semi-finals and a final. Time permitting, the final should be three races, and why not make the last race a double-pointer medal race?

That's a lot of races, but it is quite manageable if the following are done:

  • Make the start sequence short: 2 mins - 1 min - Go
  • Make the races short - 10 to 15 minutes for the leader is plenty
  • We used a windward-leeward course to keep it simple - you don't want to be moving lots of marks if the wind is unsettled
  • Sail the races close to the shore. If this is not possible then you need a boat or boats big enough to have all the competitors on the water near the racing, so there is a quick change-over after each race.

Some Final Points

  • Have a range of prizes. One mistake we made was that we only had prizes for the overall winners. In hindsight we should have had some other prizes so that lots of people got something. It would have been nice to have a prize for first female (or male, if a female won); a prize for best capsize; a prize for first Junior sailor; a prize for stupid comment of the day; etc.
  • Share the duties. The OD duties should be shared out so that everyone at the club can take part. Nominate half a dozen people that are capable of running races. You then have plenty of people to run the races that they aren't taking part in, and when it is their turn to race there are others ready to take over.
  • Have a barbeque going and the bar open once the first sailors are eliminated. This keeps as many people at the club for the whole day, making it a really social event. This is especially good if the racing is close to shore - everyone can watch the racing while having a drink and a bite to eat.
  • Remember why you're running an event in this way. It is about participation and enjoyment - it isn't meant to be excessively competitive. Try to create an atmosphere of fun and involvement around the event.
  • Communicate well. In the build up (i.e. during qualification) make sure that an email goes out to the membership after each race day letting them know who has qualified. This creates awareness of the event long before the day itself, creating a buzz about the event and reminding people to keep the competition day free.

Any thoughts or suggestions on this idea, or other similar ideas that have worked would be great. I'd love to hear about other ways to use handicap systems to engage sailors and increase participation.

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