drop the drops

Why do we have discards? In a standard club Spring and Summer point score championship of, say, 25 races, up to 5 are discarded as “drops”. Why is it considered fair and reasonable to have a cumulative scoring system in which around 20% of the season’s results don’t count? What is so special about sailing as a sport that allows us to discard our worst performances but retain out best?
The most common reason offered for the drop system is that it is a fair way of responding to misadventure. A boat should not be unduly penalized (the argument goes), if it suffers major equipment failure or is impeded in some other way that is presumed to be beyond the control of the skipper or crew.
This sounds plausible – even gentlemanly – but is inconsistent with how we score other sports. No driver in Formula One is promoted up the starting grid after a tyre blow-out ruins his qualifying lap. No golfer has a bogey reduced to par because a sudden gust of wind carried his ball into the rough.
Part of the sport of sailing is looking after your boat and equipment. If a sail tears or a halyard breaks, then that shortcoming of maintenance should be reflected in the result. Likewise for reckless or incompetent crew work. They don’t re-sail races in the America’s Cup if there’s an over-ride on the mainsheet winch. In any case, the element of luck – good and bad – is a factor in just about every sport other than chess. Cases of genuine ‘no fault’ disadvantage during a race (when a boat is fouled, or stands by to render assistance) are adequately covered by the redress rule.
Another argument proposed in support of drops is that they provide a closer, more sporting contest by evening out the results. That is the rationale behind the common practice of discarding the highest and lowest individual judge scores in figure skating, diving and gymnastics.
But the results of those sports are based on subjective assessments, not measurable elements such as time or distance. It is reasonable to discount the outlying top and bottom scores in judged sports as a way of minimizing personal bias. Yet in sailing we choose to discard the lowest scores but retain the highest.
Another justification put forward for discards in club racing is that it accommodates a reasonable number of days on which the skipper may not be available to sail, or cannot muster sufficient crew. Well, tough. If you entered your boat for the whole season then it should turn up to race – with you or without you. In cases where unforeseeable last-minute circumstances intervene, then a skipper can always apply to the Race Committee for average points – a much fairer option.
But the most worrying aspect of the discard system (at least to my mind) is its potential to encourage cheating.
Championship racing relies on the week-by-week adjustment of handicaps. The underlying principle of all performance handicap systems is simple enough: sail well and you are penalized for the next race; sail poorly and you will be awarded a more favorable start time or TCF. As a rough rule of thumb, the pivot point for those adjustments in an average-sized fleet is usually around third or fourth place.
Now consider this scenario. A skipper – let’s call him ‘Larry’ – has been doing well over the past month with a string of podium finishes. But this week, after a few tactical blunders and some sloppy crew work, Larry finds himself in fourth place with only a couple of legs in the race to go.
So what does Larry do? He does a bit of quiet sandbagging. He mysteriously slows his boat down just enough to let a few competitors past, ensuring that when he does eventually cross the line he will be low enough in the finishing order and elapsed times to guarantee a better handicap for next week.
And it gets worse. To compound that encouragement to game the system, Larry’s deliberately bad result won’t hurt his overall points standing because it will soon be discarded as one of his “drops” for the season.
For all of the above reasons, my view is that club racing would be fairer if we dropped the drops. What think you?
– Anarchist David