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pole dancers

What’s the difference between a spinnaker pole, a jockey pole, a whisker pole, a reaching strut and a jib stick? If you thought defining those distinctions was no more than yachting pedantry then think again. Using a whisker pole could now cost your boat up to a half-point penalty on IRC handicap. 

The IRC published a Q&A paper in late April backgrounding that decision and say there was no negative reaction from Northern Hemisphere owners. But it seems to be a different story Down Under where the ruling comes into effect on June 1. A forum of owners convened yesterday by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia heard some powerful arguments against the rating change.   

There was rebellion in the air, and this disquiet among the owners of competitive offshore yachts in Australia may even lead to a push for the overall prize in the Sydney-Hobart race to switch from the prevailing IRC rating system to ORCi.

The background to the whisker pole controversy is quite technical, and has largely been prompted by the rise of bowsprits in offshore racing boats. Here’s how the IRC explained their decision:

“In 2020 IRC received feedback that a boat with a bowsprit only was paying heavily to use a whisker pole, while a boat rated with a spinnaker pole saw no change in rating to use a whisker pole. We agreed that this was not equitable as any boat will benefit from being able to pole out a headsail under varying circumstances – be it to leeward when reaching, or goose-winged downwind in breezy conditions. 

Therefore, the majority of boats that wish to have the option to pole out a headsail will see a small rating increase. The effect will depend on the individual boat and configuration, but you can expect a rating increase between +0.002 and +0.005. The exception is if in 2020 you had a bowsprit and a whisker pole so were rated for bowsprit & pole(s); in that case with a bowsprit only plus a whisker pole the rating will reduce slightly.” 

Everyone clear on that? Some of the confusion arises from the fact that, in practice, a spinnaker pole can also be used as a whisker pole (defined in the ERS as “A spar attached to the mast spar and connected to a headsail clew”). The spinnaker pole is already rated but if it is also to be used as a whisker pole it must now be separately declared.

The immediate difficulty with this ruling is that it is retrospective. Boats that have competed for years using their spinnaker poles to pole out their jib – without penalty –must now either reconfigure their rigs to avoid a rating increase (at considerable expense) or simply accept a worse TCF. Over the average Sydney-Hobart race that rating change could increase a boat’s corrected time by up to 20 minutes. 

The push-back from Australian owners has been so strong that the CYCA arranged for Jason Smithwick, an IRC rating office representative in London, to address the forum via Zoom and answer questions. 

The majority of concerns he responded to related to issues of safety and seamanship. 

Conditions in the Northern Hemisphere are predominantly benign but in Australia yachts commonly race offshore in 30-40 knots. Why, Smithwick was repeatedly asked, should boats now have to take a rating penalty for adopting the sensible tactic of poling out a jib when the wind was too strong for spinnakers? Some skippers went so far as to allege that the IRC was, in effect, encouraging un-seamanlike sailing.  

Smithwick understandably deflected that allegation by reminding the meeting that every decision as to how a boat should be equipped and sailed was made by the owner and that there are a multiplicity of factors that then go into determining a rating.

It was at this point that Carl Crafoord, a prominent skipper with a long offshore racing record, rose to present a detailed case as to why the CYCA should discontinue its relationship with IRC and switch to ORCi as its main rating system. 

The proposal was not debated or put to a vote. But those in attendance with long memories recalled a similar meeting 20 years ago – in the same room – at which owners had urged the club to transition from IMS to IRC, a move that duly transpired soon after. 

History looks like it might be about to repeat itself. Jump in the thread to discuss.

anarchist David