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weigh in

For anyone who reads about racing in print or online, it is common to find mention of the need to increase participation in our sport. Last fall, certain events at a popular late-season regatta touched off a heated debate about weight limits in PHRF racing, and how these limits may actually serve to deter participation rather than incentivize it. Though most of us go through our racing without much thought to weight limits, the limits do require owners and crews to make difficult choices and leave them to wrangle with potentially unfair results against certain rivals. The following paragraphs explore some of the most compelling arguments for removing weight limits and their insidious Tag-along, weight credits, from PHRF racing on Long Island Sound.

1. Different boats, disparate effects: most PHRF limits, including those employed by YRALIS, are based on the length of the vessel. While this may make sense among a fairly homogenous fleet, it has very disparate impacts in PHRF fleets where boats with asymmetrical kites and smaller, roller furling jibs can easily perform with fewer crew than symmetrical boats with large genoas. Take for example, a J/105 and a J/35, each of whom are limited to a maximum weight of 1620 lbs which works out to 9 people per boat assuming an average weight per person of 180 lbs. a J/35, with its symmetrical spinnaker and somewhat diffuse constellation of winches and clutches, requires more people to sail. A symmetrical kite contemplates the presence of a spin trimmer, guy trimmer, main trimmer, pit person, mastman, sewerman and bowman in addition to the helmsman. A J/105, with its asymmetrical kite, can execute a set, gybe and douse with just a helmsman, mastman, spin trimmer, pit person and bowman. The J/35 cannot easily forgo the extra hands, while the J/105 can shorthand comfortably. This can be particularly unfair where the 105 takes a weight credit sailing underweight with its smaller crew.

The ultimate effect of this limit/credit system is to favor sailing with fewer people, thus decreasing the number of opportunities for sailors to participate. Moreover, young prospective boat owners who may not be able to afford newer asymmetrical boats may discouraged from purchasing older, symmetrical spin designs which would struggle to compete against the lighter boats holding credits.

2. The impossibility of enforcement: The policing of weight limits is a labor-intensive, time consuming and intrusive process. In order to avoid problems like those which arose at the aforementioned fall regatta, where one boat protested another for allegedly sailing overweight, organizing authorities would have to provide a weigh-in on the first morning of the race, if not every day thereafter. This would require the recruitment of additional race committee volunteers (a commodity already rendered precious by its scarcity) to run weigh-ins. It would require crews to arrive earlier, which is an imposition for anyone traveling from other towns or states, and especially for parents who already struggle to balance their young families with sailing. And for regattas that last more than one day, the logistical issues increase. Few crews have the luxury of sailing with the exact same group of people to over two to four days (or two to four months) of a series together. For those who must substitute one person for another day to day, there is some question as to how the race committee will handle such changes. Will race committees be forced to conduct weigh in every morning, or before every Wednesday night race?

If weight restrictions must persist, better alternatives exist. Other PHRF committees have successfully implemented restrictions based instead on number of crew. This is an easily enforced, quantifiable criterion that any sailor on the course can police and credibly enforce through protest. Weight is not.

3. Deterrence in the face of waning participation: for those of us who race regularly and at highly competitive levels, it is neither surprising nor particularly off-putting to weigh in for a regatta or spend weeks or months working out and dieting to ensure we fall under a particular weight at a one-design championship. Those who race for fun, those who are new to the sport, or those who are simply self-conscious about the scale may find the prospect of a pre-race weigh-in to be burdensome.

Even for those indifferent to the subject of their weight, limits may restrict their participation in sailing against their will, as owners whose crew measure overweight are forced to leave crew on the dock at the last moment. This is an uncomfortable decision for owners and a disappointing conversation for crew. For sailors in their 20s and 30s, many of whom live in New York City, sailing in a regatta often means taking the train from manhattan on a weekend morning. Expending the time and money required to arrive at the regatta would become wasteful and odious for those who are then left at the dock to find their ways back to the local railroad station.

For boats like the hypothetical J/35 above, where the number of hands required to race is inflexibly high, there will be a necessary bias toward smaller, lighter sailors. Again, the ultimate effect of rejecting heavier sailors will ultimately serve to deter their participation rather than grow the sport. All of these uncomfortable decisions in crew selection are unacceptable and nonsensical at a time when the sport of sailing is facing declining participation across the country, and owners are complaining that crew is scarce. We should be doing our best to welcome all willing participants to our sport. Leaving an enthusiastic crew member on the lawn against his or her will does nothing to encourage continued participation and forces newer sailors to miss out on vital learning experiences (not to mention thrilling moments on the race course).

4. OA knows best. While one can appreciate the potential economy of centralizing the decision of whether to enforce weight limits within a single regional authority, this is actually a decision best left to each regatta’s organizing authority. No two regattas are alike and each club’s regatta committee seeks to achieve different things with different races. For example, a premiere racing club that runs a well-attended, highly competitive series in the spring and fall, during which weather conditions are historically likely to produce high winds, may find it important to enforce weight limits and may have the requisite number of volunteers to handle weigh-ins and continued enforcement. Competitors at these races are likely used to the weigh-in process and owners at these events are more likely to sail with a consistent group of regular crew.

Races like these are less at risk of losing competitors who feel the barriers to competition are too onerous. As an organizer myself of a noble but struggling little regatta, however, I can assure that enforcement of weight limits for my own event would kill the race for good. We would not have the number of race committee volunteers needed to run pre-race weigh-ins and the loyal following we do have would resent the form-over-substance feeling of such nitpicking at a race that is meant to be wild, fun and festive.

For the organizers of mid-summer regattas where wind tends to be light, the administration of weight limits and credits would leave certain boats perpetually and unfairly disadvantaged while others work their credits and weights to advantage in bringing home all the silver. Yacht clubs hosting these smaller and lighter air races would suffer declining enrollment and eventually abandon the events altogether.

As someone who grew up absolutely thrilled with the Sprint Series and Vanderbilt Cup races and their many competitors, I can assure that the loss of each regatta is a truly sad thing. Each event that ends for good is part of a slow death that we should all seek to stave off. Allow each organizing authority to decide whether or not weight limits will be enforced at each event. This will prevent untimely ends to worthwhile local races and bolster the trust we all have in the committees who run our big, interclub events. – SCOTW Aly.