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Damned if you do, damned if you don't: We speak to Bas Edmonds about the PY System

by Mark Jardine 15 Jan 13:00 GMT
Blithfield Barrel Winter Series 2017-18 Round 2 © Iain Ferguson

Back in 1947, Stanley Milledge at Langstone Sailing Club invented the Portsmouth Yardstick system, which has been the mainstay for handicap dinghy racing in the UK ever since. The Royal Yachting Association have administered the PY handicaps since 1960, and the system is always a point of discussion amongst racers. We spoke to Bas Edmonds about the challenges faced.

Mark Jardine: When did you first become involved with the PY System?

Bas Edmonds: I joined the RYA about ten years ago when the Portsmouth Yardstick had been through a very static and controlled phase, and there was a lot of bad will around it, with many clubs losing confidence in it: numbers weren't being adjusted, the data was relatively static.

Mark: The last decade has been a dynamic time for dinghy sailing, with development classes such as the Merlin Rocket, or on the extreme end the foiling Moth, changing in speed considerably. How can you cater for boats which go through such changes?

Bas: The only way is to try and gather the data from races in real time. We've changed how we collect data from clubs, which has been the most important change to the Portsmouth Yardstick over the last ten years. We used to send out an annual returns form, which was a paper copy, asking them to fill in a limited amount of data. We're now collecting elapsed times and corrected times for every single boat in a race, and therefore the data we have is far broader, allowing us to be much more reactive.

We're encouraging clubs to upload their results to us as soon as practical after racing, so if a new boat starts handicap racing in club races, as those races are held we can analyse performance and start to suggest revised Portsmouth numbers on a monthly basis, rather than waiting for five year's worth of data which we would need before to be statistically happy.

Equally a club has the option of producing its own number as well, so some of the anomalies of the past are being ironed out by the data coming to us in real time.

Mark: So, you are using technology to allow the PY system to react faster?

Bas: Correct. It's always dampened by the volume of data, as we have thousands of races for the Laser, but far less for some other designs, but with real-time we can start to give an accurate number for new designs far more quickly.

It's an empirical system, based on statistics, so the more results we get in, the more we can trust the data and justify the numbers we're pushing out. We have over a thousand clubs in the UK and I believe the Portsmouth Yardstick system is one of the key tools for those clubs. It is owned by the clubs, so if they don't use it and support it, then it will fall down. 244 clubs are currently registered for our online system and the amount of data is growing year-on-year, so it's very healthy at the moment – yet there remains lots of opportunities for growth and development of the scheme.

Mark: If a club is running racing under the PY system, but isn't submitting the results to you, how can they go about joining up and adding their results to your database?

Bas: www.pyonline.org.uk is our data collection and race results analysis website and the uploads here form part of your RYA Club Return as well. There are two scoring programs which support an automatic upload - Sailwave and HAL - both of which are free to download. If you're an RYA-affiliated club you just need to register, receive an email with their Club ID and then you can just use that ID number within your scoring program and upload results directly to the website that way. It has been designed to be as simple as possible.

Mark: With so many clubs having their racing run by volunteers, this isn't an onerous extra step for them?

Bas: No, they are producing the results anyway, and in the same step within the scoring programme you can click the button for 'Send to RYA' and - provided you've collected all the right data in the results file - it's then with us.

Mark: The job for the RYA PY Committee must at times be a thankless task, as everybody has their opinion on the PY system. How does it feel sometimes?

Bas: As RYA Staff we don't sit on the committee, we support them. It is a thankless task and they are volunteers who are really important for the sport. They put a lot and time and effort analysing the data, and we have some very clever people that look at performance trends, club data, class data, comparing lakes to the sea, and there are a lot of ways that we can slice the data up. We need to be reflective in what we publish to make sure it isn't confusing for clubs.

Mark: I understand you currently have a couple of vacancies on the committee. Would you welcome some of the more opinionated people to apply?

Bas: Yes! The Portsmouth Yardstick has evolved, and that evolution has come from both technology and good ideas coming from our volunteers and their own experiences. Our challenge is finding the path of best fit and making a simple system that can be used around the country. We need people who are passionate about the Portsmouth Yardstick, whether that be in a positive or negative way, and we would welcome them to help support it and contribute with their ideas. We are very happy to explain what our challenges are, and what we're trying to move forwards on as well.

Mark: Is there flexibility in the PY system?

Bas: We are trying to encourage clubs to adjust their PYs locally, as we know that the national list will not tick all the boxes and provide perfect, fair racing everywhere. There are so many local factors, such as the shape of the lake and the type of courses that are set, which can make a huge difference to a boat type's perceived performance. We are encouraging clubs to use the website to create their own PY list.

Our biggest challenge is persuading clubs to adjust away from the numbers that we publish. It's a simple thing to do, and the website can create a PDF with locally adjusted numbers, but we're finding persuading clubs to do this really challenging.

Mark: With dinghy sailing, there is nearly always a point where a boat will change speed dramatically, the planing point, and this has become more pronounced with the foilers. Is it time for there to be two numbers for a type of boat, either side of their planing point?

Bas: That's a very good question. We have to come back to the fact that we need a simple system. Creating two numbers potentially adds another layer of conflict and complexity, and brings in new questions such as how to record the windspeed accurately, where is the wind speed recorded, and how can consistency of wind speed recording be achieved. It is possible on the website to record windspeed, and the uploads will accept it, but I don't think clubs are ready for it yet.

Mark: If you're collecting windspeed data, could you publish some experimental number pairs and a planing point for boat types and try it at an event with dual scoring?

Bas: Yes. At the moment, very few clubs are uploading windspeed, but the function is there. It would be a two-step process for us; we'd first need to promote the fact that you can upload windspeed, with more guidance as to how this windspeed should be recorded so that we had some confidence in the data, and then look at whether we can slice that data out and use it at an event. We'd be very happy to do that but the challenges in collecting that data and having confidence in it are quite significant.

Mark: Do you work at all with the Great Lakes Committee and the handicap system that's being used for the GJW Sailjuice Winter Series?

Bas: Yes. They use PY Online to analyse their race results data, and they use the same methodology that we use to collect and crunch data, and their data runs inside our system. When they first started we participated and advised them on some of the difficulties of running a handicap scheme, but they have a very different aim as to what they want to achieve compared to what the RYA Portsmouth Yardstick is trying to achieve.

Mark: So effectively the Great Lakes Committee are doing exactly what you're encouraging the clubs to do, in moving the PY handicaps locally for their events, but on a bigger scale than a single club would?

Bas: Yes, but I think sometimes they go outside of the parameters that we're constrained by. Every RYA Dinghy Show we have to be able to justify why we've made any changes, show the data, and demonstrate what we've done and why we've done it. The Great Lakes system is much more subjective in how they apply the numbers and can move handicaps much more aggressively.

Mark: So, if someone has read this article and wants to get involved in the RYA Portsmouth Yardstick Committee, how should they apply?

Bas: We have a great chap called Rob Taylor who looks after the day-to-day aspects handicap racing in the UK, covering both the Portsmouth Yardstick Scheme and the National Handicap for Cruisers. Contact Rob ( / 023 8060 4236) and he'll put you in touch with the chairman, Chris Gandy, and we'd love to get you involved. It is definitely a committee where more input strengthens the scheme moving forwards.

Mark: It's always going to be a controversial subject, but I hope that this has explained a little bit more to people as to what goes actually happens behind the scenes. Thank you very much for your time.

Bas: My pleasure!

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