When were yacht racing handicap rules invented?

This article by Dave Proctor was recently posted on the Global Solo Challenge website and makes a very interesting read. Enjoy:

One of the biggest problems the World’s yachting race organisers have faced is, how can you devise a system where yachts of different sizes and profiles can race against each other, on an equal footing.

The problem is made even worse, with different countries having used different measurements and concepts on how to provide a handicap ‘rule’ system.

Way back in 1790, the Custom House Rule, which was based on a yacht’s bulk, volume or tonnage was introduced to create different classes of boats.

In the United States, The Seawanhaka Rule of 1883, developed this further and combined this with the equation of the waterline length of the boat added to the square root of the sail area.

To understand the context of this rule, it should be understood the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht club dates back to 1871. Based in Oyster Bay, New York, it was set up to counter the vogue, that the richest owner (who generally never sailed) would win all the honours.


This was what had happened and was happening in the sport of horse racing, which was still called the Sport of Kings, even though Kings had stopped taking part many years before.

So the club was set up as a ‘Corinthian’ club, which dictated that the members actually sail, and whilst doing so, upheld the highest standard of sportsmanship. (Incredibly past members of this club have included names like the Morgans, Vanderbilts and Roosevelts).

This club’s own rules were adopted in the U.S. and were in place until 1893 and an evolved system was in place up until World War I.

After this war, the rules actually developed in a different form on either side of the Atlantic, with the British using girth stations to determine length, while the American Rule used buttock length. Now I can assure you that these are legitimate boat measurements.

After World War II, the rules as formulated in the US and Europe diverged even further, but over time, there developed a demand for a truly international racing rule that could be truly applicable to multi-national teams and events.

Such events that were started in this post-war period were The Onion Patch, Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SORC) and the Admiral’s Cup.

By 1961, it was clear that there were two totally separate rules; Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) for Europe & the Antipodes, and the Cruising Club of America (CCA) rule for America, so during this decade, the Offshore Rules Coordinating Committee (ORCC) was formed to align the different systems.

In 1967 at the request of the International Olympic Committee, the International Technical Committee was formed and the new International Offshore Rule (IOR) was drafted. Based predominantly on Europe’s Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) rule, the measurements of the yachts as regards, length, depth and freeboards were formulated and incredibly for this period, the system was computerised.

In parallel to this, a further committee set some standards for safety at sea.

Despite some unhappiness at the way the rule was formulated, and that designers could develop specialised racers that took advantage of the system, (the American sailors were against these racers as they seemed keen to develop the notion of pure racers as opposed to cruiser/racers, which they preferred). The IOR Level Rating Classes (Ton Classes) were popular at the leading edge of IOR racing and indeed this system lasted for over two decades.

Given the development in materials and yacht design, in 1985 the ORCC decided to adopt the International Measurement System (IMS) where the yacht can be comprehensively measured, including the hull shape stability, rig and sails. This system had been developed in the USA, as an alternative rule to accommodate traditional yachts, while continuing to follow IOR for the leading events and for the many other fleets which preferred to continue under that Rule.

By 1990, the IMS had become well established in various countries – notably the US, Netherlands, Finland, Germany and Australia – and thereafter continued to grow steadily throughout the world, and this system developed as the old IOR rules fell to the wayside and were completely replaced by IMS in the mid-1990s

It perhaps should be mentioned that many designers and indeed sailors, look back on the IOR days from the 1970s and 1980s of yachting design, development and sailing, with a degree of fondness, and indeed I have heard those days called the Golden era of Yacht Design.

The IMS rule has been developed further, and indeed a simplified version is now available to sailing clubs, called the “ORC Club”, which has proven to be immensely popular.

Throughout this period, the Offshore Special Regulations have been developed further as new developments and research as to safety are implemented.

One departure from this, was that in 1983, as participation in the IOR races declined, the RORC in the UK and the Union Nationale pour la Course au Large (UNCL) in France, developed the Channel Handicap Rule, in the hope of developing racing for club sailors, who might have then gone on to IOR or IMS racing.

This simplified rule, which uses a minimum amount of measurements and permits owners to measure their own boats, became extremely popular, and in 2000 was renamed the International Racing Certificate (IRC).

One interesting thing about the IRC, is that the exact formulation of the certificate is not published, and so inhibits designers trying to beat the system and design to gain maximum advantage, designing for their boat to be the best in any particular category.

For the Global Solo Challenge (GSC), the organisers can look at any handicap certificate held by the boat, or any performance data, alongside the IRC Certificate (if it the boat has one) to determine the groupings of the boats in the fairest and most equitable possible way.

The GSC strongly discourages optimising boat to a handicap rule and final groupings will not be communicated until close to the start.

The GSC will also apply the handicap at the beginning of the challenge so that the boats will set off from La Coruña in Spain, in groups over an eleven-week period.

One thing I would personally add, is that, it seems that the Global Solo Challenge (GSC) embodies the Corinthian spirit aspired to when the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht club was formed and that this challenge will not be dictated by monetary investment and, hopefully, the event will be held in the highest spirit of sportsmanship.

Original article posted here.

Jeanneau JY55
Race Yachts
Cyclops Marine
M.O.S.S Australia
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West Systems