Handicap Systems and the Art of Not Losing Members

A few weeks ago I read this article on why people quit sailing. Essentially the author had quit racing because the same people were winning all the time, and he felt that he was just there to make up the numbers - to give the others someone to beat.

Firstly, this is the kind of feedback that sailing needs. I talked about it a little in my post on the problems clubs have with retaining sailors so I won't repeat myself, but the more reasons we can collect as to why sailors leave sailing, the better equipped we are to create an environment that will help sailors want to stay.

Secondly, I have a lot of sympathy for the author's point of view. In a recent post, Tillerman asked a simple question - what kind of fleet do you prefer to sail in:

  1. one in which you almost always win
  2. one in which you and lots of other sailors have a chance to win
  3. one in which you're racing sailors that are better than you and you never win?

It is an interesting question, and from the comments people prefer the latter two.


What if you don't have any choice but to sail in a fleet in which you are racing sailors that are better than you, a fleet in which you always finish in the back half of the fleet (like the author of the original article)? This is an issue for all new sailors, and also for quite a few sailors that have been racing for a while. We don't all have choices in terms of which club we join, and for weekend warriors that can only sail once or twice a month, it is difficult to move up the fleet.

So what can be done?

The author of the original article had two suggestions, the second of which was to have a handicap system similar to that used in golf. Our club uses a variation of this system - each sailor is given a handicap based on the Portsmouth Yardstick (PY) of their boat and their previous performance. I really like this system, but it has to be used properly. By this I mean that the results have to be given weight. Our club is excellent at publishing the normal (PY) results straight away - within 24 hours you know how you did in the race. This is impressive, because it is all voluntary work (like a lot of small clubs), and for people to give their time to do this kind of thing so quickly and efficiently is wonderful.

But the handicap results are a bit more sporadic. They may be updated two or three times in a series, and they are rarely commented on in any communications. I understand why - there is more work that goes into producing the results, and people tend to care less about them because they aren't seen as an indicator of who the best sailor is.

However, I think they are arguably the more important results from a club's perspective. Essentially, if the system is working well, everyone has a chance of winning on corrected time. This means that everyone has an interest in how they did, especially as these results are an indicator as to who is improving the most. The person that wins the series is the person that has improved the most from the last series. We'll always be more interested in who was the best, but this handicap series is a really nice add-on to the main results.

If a club can get its members interested in the handicap results, generate some excitement around them, then the guys who finish at the back of the fleet not only stand a chance of winning something, they also get kudos for improving.

It also helps boost participation. Other than the feel-good factor described above, people that are doing well in the handicap series are more likely to make an extra effort to turn up and race, rather than skip a day and use up a discard (or worse, have to count a DNC). More participation generates a buzz, a better social scene, a more engaged membership, and a positive cycle is started.

We tried to leverage this at our club by creating a competition that would utilise this system, and it worked pretty well but drifted out of use. I feel a bit responsible for this because I helped come up with and implement the idea, and I should have followed on with it until it became established. I'll describe the idea in a future post (update: the description can now be found here), with how to implement it and the positive impact it had.

It is great to get honest feedback on what we could be doing better as a sport, and I'm grateful to Peter Ilgenfritz for taking the time to write about his experiences. There is a lot of talk at the moment about making sailing more fun, but it seems to me me that perhaps what we really mean is that we should be making sailing more rewarding. Fun experiences are great, but rewarding experiences generate life-long memories.

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