How to find a PHRF racer with a “cupcake” rating

A “cupcake” boat is described as a second- or third-hand boat that has a favorable PHRF handicap even if it has been restored to its first-generation capability. Several good examples of this kind of boat are the Olson-30, Pearson 10M, O’Day 30 and Ranger 30.

Every year, a number of new designs join the PHRF racing scene. They tend to be “high visibility” and attract talented sailors – the type who invests the time and money needed to extract the full potential of their machines. After a few years the luster usually wears off, and the hotshot sailors sell their boats and move on to the latest hot designs.

The next owners typically have a racing program of lesser intensity than the original owners. The sails have aged and are not replaced as often as they should be. The boat is gradually laden with extra “stuff” – you’d be amazed at the “stuff” that a boat can accumulate. The new owner’s crew often isn’t as sharp as the first-year crew. The result is that the boat can no longer win. Could the PHRF handicap be wrong?

By the time the boat has a third owner, an appeal is often made to the local PHRF committee for relief from what now appears to be an onerous handicap. The PHRF Committee, being nice guys, will usually decide to help out. A six second per mile adjustment is common under these circumstances.

With the extra six seconds per mile, the third owner is now happy. He or she has been the beneficiary of what I call the “nice guy syndrome.” In the end, however, that time credit will not make any difference. The typical “third owner” has a racing program so flawed that much more than this is needed to make the boat a winner.

However, the nice guy phenomenon creates wonderful opportunities for the knowledgeable sailor to pick up a boat with a favorable handicap. If you take that third generation boat and restore it to its first generation splendor, you have a winner – in other words, a “cupcake.”

In your search for such a cupcake, don’t be greedy. You don’t want an old boat with too favorable a handicap. After your restoration, if the improved performance is too obvious, corrective action will be taken by your local handicappers. So how do you find the right cupcake?

If the boat is built locally, it’s likely that a number of them are being raced in your PHRF region. Odds are that at least one of these boats will be raced well, so the handicap for that design will be “fair,” not “favorable.” You won’t find a cupcake here; avoid locally built boats.

Instead, what you want is a boat that has few sisterships racing in your area but many racing in another area. Check the US SAILING PHRF Handicaps Book and look for boats that have low handicaps in regions where a significant number are raced. Then see if the boat is scarce in your region. Finally, compare handicaps. If the boat is scarce locally, it should have a higher rating – the nice guy syndrome. You may have found a cupcake, frosted and ready to eat.

The Olson 30 is a good example. It’s a boat on which I have raced in my home waters of New England. While the previous owner of the Olson was a back-of-the-fleet sailor, we were able to sail this boat well enough that we were rounding the windward mark in the middle of the fleet that started in front of us. Unfortunately, the owner sold the boat before we could race it in an important regatta.

The California-built Olson 30 has a 96 handicap (outboard version) in the local fleets where it is popular. The Olson 30 is also raced as a one-design in California, which tends to bring out the best in the boat. In other regions of the country, the Olson 30 is less common, and so some PHRF fleets have significantly higher handicaps. For example, our handicap in New England was 108. If you’re in one of these nice guy areas, put the Olson 30 on your cupcake list.

Another favorite of mine is the Pearson 10M. This is by no means a racing machine. Rather, it is a solid boat with a rig that is indestructible. But, with preparation, it can be made to go. Note that the New England handicap, where the boat was built, is 141 and that the handicap is higher everywhere else. In my area it has been shown that the boat can win at 141 if properly prepared. Any higher handicap is a gift to you. Look for the tall rig version, as it’s better in light air.

The O’Day 30 and Ranger 30 are also on my cupcake list. (The Ranger 30 is really a tall-rigged O’Day 30.) The fleets that have well-sailed boats use ratings of about 174 for the O’Day 30 and 168 for the Ranger 30. There are fleets that have these boats up to 12 seconds per mile higher than these handicaps. These are good boats for the person looking for an econo-racer. A good keel fairing job is essential as the factory keel was a bit uneven.

Another boat to consider is the S2 9.1. Well-built and a good all-around performer, the handicap for an S2 9.1 can be as low as 123. Many of the other fleets have this boat at 132 and several are at 135. Any handicap above 131 makes the boat a cupcake.

A classic cupcake is the Cal 40. Where hotly raced, they often have a handicap of 114. However, other areas have handicaps up to 126. While this boat can be a little sticky in light air, a properly prepared Cal 40 can be a real winner in a breeze.

I have just touched on my favorite cupcakes. There are many others, of course. Just study the US SAILING PHRF Handicaps Book and you might find the perfect boat for you. A word of caution when comparing handicaps in the US SAILING Book. The handicaps for the Northwest and BC Sailing should be multiplied by 0.9 to bring their handicap scales in line with the other fleets. Also note that all the YRA of Long Island Sound handicaps tend to be slightly higher than the national average. Once you understand these variations, you can make better comparisons.

Also, keep in mind that a cupcake handicap doesn’t make a boat an automatic winner. It took years of neglect to get that rating. You’ll have to restore it to top condition if you want to win. This means getting new rags, fairing the bottom and the appendages, and getting the junk out of the boat. Once you have done this, you are ready to put a good crew aboard and go after the trophies.

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