When Terry Abel repairs the keel of his 40-year-old swing-keel yacht he's astonished by what he finds
Photo: Enya being lifted out to inspect the swing keel
Sailing is full of compromises and boats with swing keels are one of them. They will never be as fast or agile as their fin-keeled cousins, but how gratifying it is when you are running out of water to have the ability to reduce your draught by a couple of feet! Here, on the Essex coast, amid the Thames estuary sandbanks, it feels less of a compromise and more of a godsend.
However, I have learned – after an alarming experience where the keel fell off – that there are a couple of things I need to keep an eye on.
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If you have bought or owned a sailing boat of a ‘certain vintage’ in the last 20 years, you will almost certainly have spent hours scouring the internet for articles about your latest craft. This is what I did in 2016 when I bought my swing-keel Pandora 700. She was built around 1980 by Rydgeway Marine and had a somewhat chequered history.
Keen to find out as much as I could about the class, history, performance and construction, I went online searching for Pandora. I found a few for yachts for sale and lots of jewellery adverts, but little else until I came across pandorasailing.com, a brilliant site run by the South Caernarvonshire Yacht Club in Abersoch, North Wales. They race a good fleet of Pandoras (fin keelers) and there isn’t much they don’t know about sailing, rigging and fixing them.
To my surprise, however, I came across a photo of a very neat Pandora 700 called RedStart. She had the same sail number as mine: 799. Was it a mistake? On a map, Abersoch is diametrically on the opposite side of the UK from Maldon in Essex. The two boats were about as far from each other as they could possibly be on mainland UK, and as I don’t race I didn’t really see a problem. But I was intrigued!
I made some enquiries and was put in touch with RedStart’s owner, Ian Curnow. It turned out that the original (blue hulled) fin keeler was built in 1980 but sank on her mooring. Her first owner sent the boat back to Rydgeway Marine in Kessingland, Norfolk, and a new fin-keeled, red-hulled Pandora 700 (hull number 823) was shipped to Abersoch as a replacement. In the change-over, the owner had kept the original sails and when his nice, shiny, new red hull arrived, he naturally did what any red-blooded Welsh sailor would do: he bent on the sails and went sailing. Four owners later, RedStart still races under hull 823 and sail number 799.
“It worried me when I first bought RedStart,” admits Ian, “hence, I explored what had happened; it was like buying a car with duff documents! But in my view 799 is a nicer number on the eye.”
What became of the original hull?
But what then became of the original hull? I suspect (but don’t know) that the reason she sank on her mooring was due to a leak around the fin keel bolts. I only suggest this because I once owned a brand new ‘twin finned’ (bilge-keel) Hunter Horizon 21. Freya, hull No3, was the 1991 Southampton Boat show exhibit. Within weeks of taking delivery just after the show, she developed a leak (well a weep really) around the port side bilge keel bolts following a lively October sail up the Essex coast to Harwich in a good Force 5 easterly. Hauled out and sat on her trailer she was returned to the Hunter factory in Rochford, Essex, where it was arranged for the keel to be stripped off and rebedded. Within a week the problem was resolved. Back in the water, Freya and I had a good few years together.
However, whatever the problem was with Pandora 799, Rydgeway Marine decided it was best fixed by changing the keel configuration from fin to swing keel.
Anyway, 36 years later, Aphrodite – as she was when I bought her – was languishing in a corner in one of the yards in Maldon. She had been raced a bit judging by the twingers and tweaks she sported but now had a decent set of cruising sails with a roller reefing headsail. Her mast had been broken when her owner had lost control while lowering it and although the insurance company had sportingly paid out for a new mast and a set of standing rigging, I think her owner just lost heart and walked away. She had been standing, neglected, for a couple of years when I first saw her.
Adrian, the yard manager, told me that the new mast and standing rigging, were in the mast rack still in their transit wrapping. The deal looked good so I bought her for a very modest sum and set about sorting her out.
Spark of life
The first thing to go had to be that name! Can you imagine spelling Aphrodite phonetically in an emergency? I renamed her Enya, which is a Celtic name, meaning something like ‘spark of life’. Echo November Yankee Alpha – much better!
I stripped her out, replaced the tired old upholstery, re-rigged her, repaired and reinstalled the roller reefing spar (broken when the mast came down), replaced the running rigging and rewired her.
It was while antifouling that I noticed that the bronze/DZR skin fitting on the centreline, just aft of the stub keel, was worn. The fitting guides the swing keel uphaul rope through the hull, up a hose to the cockpit cleat. The action of the rope, aided by some nice East coast mud acting as a cutting compound, had worn a groove in the fitting. I made a mental note to replace it the next season.
The keel fell off
The spring and summer of 2017 I sailed her up and down the Essex/Suffolk coast, making small adjustments and improvements to the rig, such as lazy-jacks and running control lines to the cockpit, to suit my (mostly) single-handed sailing.
Then, early in May 2018 I set out for a short ‘shakedown’ sail. With the old, bombproof 5hp Johnson 2-stroke running, I slipped my mooring, hoisted the main, unfurled the genoa then killed the outboard. Halfway along the Maldon fairway I noticed that she seemed to be handling ‘oddly’. Sort of ‘edging’ sideways instead of tracking straight. I’d forgotten to lower the swing keel, but that should not have made such a difference. I uncleated it anyway. The uphaul rope roared away through my hands, leaving a nasty rope burn right across my left palm and reminding me why we never wrap a loaded rope around our hands! The rope was halted at the cockpit sole by the appropriately named stopper knot! Staring stupidly at the straining knot, I realised, with horrible clarity, what was amiss…. The 90lb cast iron swing keel had fallen off! Only the 10mm uphaul rope was keeping that great lump of iron in touch with the boat.
The tide was still flooding with half an hour to run and the swing keel was dragging along in the mud under the boat! I couldn’t lift it and didn’t want to cause any more damage with it swinging around beneath the boat, so I started the outboard, rolled away the genoa and dropped the main. Then using the last of the flood and most of the Johnson’s horsepower, we limped, painfully slowly back up river to the yard.
We lurched and jolted along as the swing keel alternately dragged through the mud and bumped across gravel patches on the bottom. Eventually, back at the yard, I tied up to the long pontoon and waited for the ebb. After an hour or so, with the swing keel cushioned in the mud, a bit of slack became available on the uphaul rope. I eased Enya forward to prevent her sitting on her detached casting.
Thank goodness for the stopper knot
The tide finally left us and the swing keel could be seen three feet behind the transom, half submerged in the mud. I gave thanks for that stopper knot as I untied it and, using the boat hook, I fished the line out and tied it off to a mooring cleat on the pontoon. Between us, Adrian and I heaved the great, mud-covered, metal lump out and up onto the pontoon.
I hosed the mud off expecting to find hole where the pivot bolt should have been – before it had corroded away and caused my current predicament. But there was no hole! No fragments of broken pivot bolt; nothing. Just a nicely cast aerofoil shaped lump of cast iron with cast-in trunnions on each side (trunnions are ‘protrusions’ commonly seen on old navy and military gun barrels which allow the barrel to pivot around them on the gun carriage to change the elevation of the gun).
Adrian offered to crane the boat out the next morning so I could investigate this curious arrangement. That night, yet another internet search yielded nothing!
On the Pandora 700 swing keel variant a massive stub keel with a central slot is bedded to the hull with keel bolts in the usual way. The swing keel casting fits into the slot. The trunnions slide up into port and starboard ‘chimney’ slots which are cast into the interior sides of the slot in the stub keel. Once in position the swing keel is held by two trunnion plates, which close off the chimney slots beneath the stub keel. Over time the trunnions had worn and corroded their way through the retaining plates. Adrian and I managed to clean up and unscrew the three stainless steel M8 retaining screws securing each plate to the stub keel and remove them for inspection. They were not a pretty sight!
The next day, using the old plates as a guide, I fabricated two new plates out of 10x40x125mm mild steel bar, and set about repositioning the swing keel.
I should add this point, this is just an account of what I did, not a recommendation on how to do it. The swing keel is very heavy and could cause serious injury if it slips or falls. Anyone who attempts to replicate this should do so at their own risk.
I used blocks of wood and a car jack to raise alternate ends of the swing keel casting until eventually the swing keel was positioned in the slot of the stub keel with the two trunnions in their respective port and starboard slots. The two new trunnion plates were bedded on linseed oil putty and screwed into the plate recesses in the bottom with six stainless steel countersunk machine screws blind tapped in the underside of the stub keel.
The stainless M8 machine screws were coated with water pump grease prior to refitting and I ran an M8 tap into the tapped stub keel holes to clean the threads.
When free, the swing keel trunnions bear down on the port and starboard trunnion plates allowing the swing keel to pivot as the uphaul rope is hauled or released.
While I was down there I thought I’d check on that bronze/DZR uphaul skin fitting. It soon became apparent that this was a very timely move because the internal threaded collar disintegrated when I tried to unscrew it! DZR or brass? Either way it had dezincified and become brittle. With a pipe wrench I unscrewed the body of the fitting from the outside and saw that the uphaul rope had worn right through the fitting. There was a pinhole which I could see daylight through and only a bit of old, set sealant had been keeping the North Sea out of my boat! The Gods of sailing must have been smiling on me – if not actually falling about laughing.
I cleaned up the hole through the hull, inside and out, then fitted a new, good-quality skin fitting bedded on good marine sealant and replaced the hose connecting the hull fitting to the cockpit outlet. Double jubilee clips finished the job. It wasn’t challenging, it wasn’t difficult, but I think this little bit of maintenance saved my boat.
Essentials for my annual haul-out
So there you have it; for what it is worth, my acquired wisdom of how to keep a Pandora swing keeler floating the right way up and on top of the waves; although I’m sure a lot of this applies to any swing keel design. Now, my annual haul-out/ maintenance list includes two new essentials:
• Remove at least one trunnion plate for inspection. If worn, check the other and replace as necessary (I reckon every three years in my area with Enya sitting on a half tide mud berth).
• Check the uphaul hull skin fitting (and rope) each year and replace at the first sign of wear.
Through 2019 and 2020 Enya and I sailed many miles up and down the Essex and Suffolk coast, across the Thames Estuary to Ramsgate, where only a change in the weather prevented a pre-COVID crossing to Boulogne. We’ve been through the Swale and around the Isle of Sheppey and across the Buxey Sands via the Ray Sand Channel to explore the river Crouch. This capable little boat will take me anywhere provided I do my bit, keep her well maintained and sail prudently.
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