SI Vault
The great equalizer
Ezra Bowen
June 16, 1958
When the fleet heads for Bermuda, every good boat in the race has a fair chance to win, thanks to a remarkable document known to yachtsmen as the Rule
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 16, 1958

The Great Equalizer

When the fleet heads for Bermuda, every good boat in the race has a fair chance to win, thanks to a remarkable document known to yachtsmen as the Rule

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The Bermuda Race, which starts June 14 off Newport, R.I., is considered the toughest all-round test in the world for ocean-racing yachts and yachtsmen. Between the start at Brenton Reef and the finish off St. David's Head, there are 635 miles of ocean filled with headwinds, flat calms, sudden squalls and the constantly changing currents of the Gulf Stream. The competing boats—120 entries in this year's record fleet-are the best in the world; and so are the men who sail them.

But the reason this race is so good is not only the course the boats sail or the quality of the fleet. It is, rather, the remarkable little rule book shown in the middle of this page, the Cruising Club of America Measurement Rule, which, through a labyrinthian handicapping formula, equalizes all competing boats just as surely as the Colt revolver equalized all men. In fact, without the Cruising Club Rule, known more simply as "The Rule" to thousands of yachtsmen who live under its austere domination, the Bermuda Race would not be a race at all. Neither would most American distance races, since they are now handicapped by the Rule or a derivative of it.

There is an axiom in sailing which says that the speed of an ocean-going yacht can be no more than 1.3—or at most 1.4—times the square root of its waterline length. Boiling this down to a dangerously simple generality, big boats will beat little boats. Besides size, there are literally hundreds of other factors that control speed. Given two boats the same size, the thin one usually beats the fat one. The tall mast beats the short mast. The deep, heavy keel beats the shallow keel. And so on. Therefore, without some sort of handicapping, boats like Irving Pratt's 57-foot sloop Caper (opposite) would simply clobber boats like Carleton Mitchell's 38½-foot Finisterre. The final standings of every race would look like an Army platoon, with the tall rangy men up front and the short fat men straggling along in the rear; and the race would die.

It did die once, after the 1910 race, just because there was no fair kind of handicap. It stayed dead until 1923, when the bare bones of the present Rule, based mostly on waterline length, were laid down. But water-line length was obviously not enough. A rule which would encompass all the subtle factors affecting speed was needed, and through the heroic calculations of a genius named Wells A. Lippincott it was supplied. Since 1934 the Rule in its present massive form has stood sternly astride sport of ocean racing.

The Rule is a miracle of compromise and foresight—27 pages of measurements, formulas, fractions and whereases that rate the speed-giving potential of almost every screw and splinter on a boat. As soon as the owner of a new boat decides he wants to enter the Bermuda, or any other race held under the Rule, he has to get his boat measured for a rating which henceforth and forever fixes his racing relationship with other boats unless he changes his boat or protests his rating. Many yacht clubs have an official measurer, but for big races like the Bermuda a good percentage of the calculations are made by specialists like the Cruising Club's own measurer, Bob Blumenstock of Scarsdale, N.Y., who started in business as a naval architect but now spends half his life being harried and pursued by racing yachtsmen who want a new measurement.

"There's not a one of them," said Blumenstock one weary night last week as he plowed through a stack of last-minute measurements, "who wouldn't give his eyeteeth to get an other 10th off his rating."

Since the boat's theoretical top speed is governed by her waterline length, the measurer begins by making a waterline calculation. This if not as simple as it sounds. The measurement he comes up with, after many minutes of stooping, stretching, taping and calculating, is not the waterline you see when the boat is resting quietly at her mooring. It is the average waterline the boat uses in sailing around a triangular course, with the actual waterline constantly changing as the vessel heels over, sinks into a trough and rises on a crest.

Once this waterline has been established, the measurer accounts for everything else on the boat that tends to make it go faster or slower. The weight of the keel, the edges and angles of each sail, the length of the mainsail along the mast and boom, the diameter of the propeller, the length of the spinnaker pole, all come under his scrutiny. These measurements are compared to those on a theoretical, average cruising boat of the same type. If the mainsail is proportionally taller than the mainsail on the phantom average boat, a fraction is added to the rating of the boat being measured. If the beam is wider, a fraction is subtracted.

The total measuring and calculating operation takes about four hours and $40 to $60 of the skipper's money for each measurement certificate. When all the multiplication tables are cleared away, the boat is officially given its final rating. Then, to figure a boat's time handicap for a given race, this rating is multiplied into a table of time allowances and corrected for the length of the course. When all the figures are in on all the entries in the race, the boat with the highest rating is made the scratch boat. All boats rating under the scratch boat get a time allowance, and the lower the rating, the more time a boat is allowed.

In the last Bermuda Race, for example, the Naval Academy's 69-foot yawl Petrel was the scratch boat. Her rating was 58.4. Finisterre, with a rating of 26.2, was the lowest rated of the serious contenders. With her rating, Petrel would have had to beat Finisterre by 26 hours, 25 minutes and 55 seconds to win the race. The Bermuda is a four-day race, on the average, and Petrel didn't make it. Nor did any of the other boats get there soon enough to beat their handicaps, or save their time on the little boat.

Continue Story
1 2