Peter Poland looks at the history of keel design and how the different types affect performance
Keel types and how they affect performance
Having been a boatbuilder for around 30 years until the very early ‘noughties’, I’ve already witnessed – and even taken part in – a lot of changes in the world of yacht design and building.
Yacht design originally evolved as traditional workboats developed into leisure craft.
In his History of Yachting, Douglas Phillips-Birt writes that the Dutch, who gave the name ‘yacht’ to the world, were probably the first to use commercial craft for pleasure in the 16th century.
They created the first yacht harbour in Amsterdam in the 17th century.
When the schooner America visited the UK in 1851 and raced around the Isle of Wight, this led to the America’s Cup and the resulting merry-go-round of race-yacht design that continues to this day.
The creation of what is now the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) in 1875 led to the introduction of handicap rules, establishing the sport in Britain.
These rating rules – and their numerous successors down the ages – have helped determine the evolution of yacht design and keel shapes.
Many early yachts were closely based on workboats, commercial cargo carriers or even privateers and naval vessels.
Initially, the ballast was carried in a long keel and the bilges.
New racing rules of the day taught designers to seek and tweak performance-enhancing features.
Maybe racing did not always improve the breed, but it certainly kept it moving ahead.
The late, great designer David Thomas believed that fishing boats, pilot cutters and oyster smacks had a large influence on the sport of sailing.
Each type of workboat was built to fulfil a specific purpose. And many had to be sailed short-handed while carrying heavy cargoes.
So they needed to combine form and function, sail well and be able to cope with heavy weather.
Proof of the versatility of working boat designs was provided by Peter Pye and his wife, Anne.
They bought a 30ft Polperro gaff-rigged fishing boat (built by Ferris of Looe in 1896) for £25 in the 1930s.
Having converted her to a sea-going cutter, and renamed her Moonraker of Fowey, they sailed the world for 20 years.
It proves how the simplest working boat design can cross oceans and fulfil dreams.
Racing influence on keel types and design
Most early yacht designs were schooners, but during the latter half of the 19th century the gaff cutter rig started to dominate the scene.
Many notable yachts were built at that time and the most important racing design was probably the yawl Jullanar (1875).
Designed and built by the agricultural engineer EH Bentall, she had, in his own words, “the longest waterline, the smallest frictional surface, and the shortest keel”.
She proved to be extremely fast and in her first season won every race she entered. Jullanar became the forerunner of such famous designs as GL Watson’s Thistle (1887), Britannia (1893), and Valkyrie II and Valkyrie III, both of which challenged for the America’s Cup during the 1890s.
In the USA, Nat Herreshoff experimented with hull forms for racing yachts and produced the ground-breaking Gloriana in 1890.
She was a small boat for the times, with a waterline length of 46ft. Her hull form was very different to anything yet seen in the USA.
With long overhangs at bow and stern, her forefoot was so cut away that the entry at the bow produced a near-straight line from the stem to the keel.
It was a revolutionary design, and nothing at the time could touch her on the racecourse.
Herreshoff wrote: “Above the waterline everything on Gloriana was pared down in size and weight… and every ounce of this saving in weight was put into the outside lead.”
Early English rating rules produced the ‘plank-on-edge’ yacht, where the beam became narrower and the draught got deeper.
New rating rules were then adopted to discourage this extreme type and eventually the Universal Rule was introduced in the USA and the International Rule – which produced the International Metre Classes – took over in Europe.
Yet again, racing rules proved to be a major influence on design development.
By the start of the 20th century the big, long-keeled racing yachts like the J Class attracted a lot of public attention, but after World War II everything changed. Yachts built to the Universal Rule fell from favour.
The age of the racing dinghy arrived and the ocean racer became the performance yacht of the future.
To new extremes
A 300-mile race from New York to Marblehead saw the start of offshore racing and the first Bermuda race was run in 1906.
The British were slower to compete offshore, but in 1925 seven yachts took up the challenge to race round the Fastnet Rock, starting from the Isle of Wight and finishing at Plymouth.
EG Martin’s French gaff-rigged pilot cutter Jolie Brise won the race and the Ocean Racing Club was formed.
In 1931 this became the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC), which remains the governing body of offshore racing in Britain.
The early competitors in RORC races were long-keeled cruising boats, many of them gaff rigged and designed for comfort and speed.
But everything changed in 1931 when the young American Olin Stephens designed and then sailed his family’s 52ft yawl Dorade across the Atlantic to compete in that year’s Fastnet race.
She won with ease. Then she did it again in 1933, having first won the Transatlantic ‘feeder’ race.
At 52ft LOA, with sharp ends and 10ft 3in beam, some said Dorade looked like an overgrown yawl rigged 6-metre. But her triple-spreader main mast was revolutionary. As were her cutaway forefoot, lightweight construction, deep ballast and 7ft 7in draught.
Dorade took the long keel format to new extremes.
In the USA, the Cruising Club of America (CCA), founded in 1922, played much the same role as the RORC did in Britain.
It introduced its own rating rule which influenced the evolution of yacht design in the USA.
Beam was treated more leniently under the CCA rule, so wider American designs later offered more space for accommodation and a bit more inherent form stability than RORC-rule inspired yachts.
Many famous designers of long-keel racing yachts at this time developed their skills at the yachtbuilding firms they ran, such as William Fife II (1821–1902), his son William III (1857–1944), Charles E Nicholson (1868–1954) of Camper & Nicholsons and Nat Herreshoff of Bristol, Rhode Island.
Around the same time several British yacht designers made their names, including George L Watson (1851–1904) who set up one of the earliest Design Offices and Alfred Mylne (1872–1951), who designed several successful International Metre Class yachts.
Norwegian designers Colin Archer (1832–1921) and Johan Anker (1871–1940) also joined the party.
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In 1873 Archer designed the first long keel Norwegian yacht, but his real interest was work boats – pilot boats, fishing craft, and sailing lifeboats – some of which were later converted into cruising yachts.
Erling Tambs’s Teddy was a classic Colin Archer long keel canoe-stern design in which he wandered the globe with his young wife and family.
He proved the seaworthiness of Archer’s yachts, as well as their speed, by winning the 1932 Trans-Tasman yacht race.
Fellow Norwegian Johan Anker – a one-time pupil of Nat Herreshoff – became equally famous, thanks to his Dragon-class design that still races today.
As a new generation of designers arrived on the scene in the 1930s, hull tank testing became more sophisticated.
Long keel designs became as much a science as an art.
The leader of this new wave of designers, Olin J Stephens, had been a junior assistant to Starling Burgess who designed race-winning J Class yachts, including the iconic Ranger.
Tank testing was then in its infancy but the USA was ahead of the game and Stephens stored away everything that he learned. He enjoyed a head start over his contemporaries.
Keel types: Fin keels
Between the 1930s and the 1980s more fin keel designs began to arrive on the scene and his firm Sparkman & Stephens produced many of the world’s top ocean racers.
He also designed America’s Cup 12-Metres that defended the cup up to 1983 until Ben Lexcen’s winged keel shook the sailing world.
Many S&S fin keel and skeg production boats – such as the Swan 36 (1967), 37, 40, 43, 48, 53 and 65, She 31 (1969) and 36 and S&S 34 (1968) – still win yacht races and are much sought after as classics.
The S&S 34 has several circumnavigations to its name. Stephens, of course, had his rivals.
Among these was the Englishman Jack Laurent Giles, whose light displacement race-winner Myth of Malham had one of the shortest ‘long keels’ of all time.
The Dutchman EG Van de Stadt designed the Pioneer 9 (1959) which was one of the first GRP fin keel and spade rudder racers.
Towards the end of his career, Olin Stephens also came up against Dick Carter, Doug Peterson, German Frers and the Kiwis Ron Holland and Bruce Farr.
The development of new shaped keels went hand in hand with this rapid evolution in yacht design.
The full keel, as still found on motor-sailers such as the Fisher range, gave way to the ‘cutaway’ modified full keel as famously used by Olin Stephens on his mighty Dorade, designed back in the late 1920s.
She still wins ‘classic’ yacht races in the USA. American designer Ted Brewer wrote in ‘GoodOldBoat’ that Dorade’s offshore racing successes proved that the full keel is not essential for seaworthiness.
As a result of its improved performance and handling, the modified ‘cutaway’ long keel caught on quickly and became the standard for around 35 years.
This keel type is found on numerous popular designs such as the Nicholson 32, 26 and 36, Twister 28 and many Nordic Folkboat derivations.
The modified full keel format had a cutaway profile, giving good handling and directional stability while having less wetted surface than the full keel designs.
These yachts can perform well in all conditions and have a comfortable motion.
Their main drawback is a wide turning circle ahead and reluctance to steer astern when under motor.
Keel types: Increased stability
The modified full keel was subsequently cut away more and more for bluewater and inshore racers in an attempt to reduce wetted area until, finally, some designers took it to extremes.
As a result, much-reduced directional stability produced craft that were difficult to steer in breezy conditions, broaching regularly.
Whereupon the fin keel and skeg-hung rudder took over, reinstating increased directional stability, improving windward ability, reducing drag and restoring – when under power – control astern and on slow turns.
This fin and skeg format was later followed by the NACA sectioned fin keel with a separate spade rudder.
Soon, many performance cruisers followed this race-boat trend.
Many builders now also offer shoal draught fin keel options and shallower twin rudders.
Some, such as Hanse, incorporate L- or even T-shaped bulbs on some Hanses and Dehlers at the base of finely shaped cast iron fins.
A new international competition had encouraged the initial development of modern fin keel yacht designs.
The revamped One Ton Cup was launched in 1965 for yachts on fixed handicap ratings (typically around 37ft long).
This spawned later fixed-rating championships for Quarter Tonners (around 24ft), Half Tonners (around 30 ft), Three-Quarter Tonners (around 33ft), and finally Mini-Tonners (around 21ft).
All these yachts were eventually handicapped under the International Offshore Rule (IOR) that replaced the old RORC and CCA rules.
Countless production fin keel cruisers designed and built in the 1970’s to 1990’s boom years were loosely based on successful IOR racers that shone in the ‘Ton Cup’ classes.
The IOR handicap system’s major drawback was its Centre of Gravity Factor (CGF) that discouraged stiff yachts.
Once the international IRC rule replaced the IOR, more thought was given to increasing stability by putting extra weight in a bulb at the base of the keel.
GRP production boats followed suit. The keel foil’s chord needed to be wide enough to give good lateral resistance (to stop leeway), yet not be so wide as to add unnecessary drag.
Exaggeratedly thin foils are not suited to cruising yachts because they can be tricky upwind.
Tracking is not their forte and they can stall out. A bonus was an easier ride downwind thanks to wider sterns.
Keel Types: Lead or iron?
And then there is lead. Almost every production cruiser has a cast iron keel for one simple reason; it is much cheaper than lead. But it’s not as good.
Not only does it rust; it is ‘bigger’ for the same given weight. A cubic metre of iron weighs around 7,000kg, while the same cubic metre of lead weighs around 11,300kg.
An iron keel displaces far more water (so has more drag) than the same lead weight. We had always put iron keels under our Hunters – as did our competitors.
But when we came to build the Van de Stadt HB31 cruiser-racer, designer Cees van Tongeren said “No. We use lead.” “Why?” I asked. Cees replied: “If we use iron, the keel displaces more, so the boat sails worse.”
Which explains why top-flight race boats have lead keels – or at the very least composite keels with a lead bulb or base bolted to an iron upper foil, thus lowering the centre of gravity (CG).
Some modern production cruiser-racers offer high-performance lead or lead/iron composite keels – but at a price.
Many Danish X-Yacht and Elan race-boat models, for example, have a lead bulb on the base of an iron NACA section fin.
Rob Humphreys, current designer of the popular Elan and Oyster ranges, said: “The T-keel is good if you have sufficient draught available. If not, the fin element has too short a span to do its job. This is because the T-bulb doesn’t contribute as usefully to side force as a ‘filleted L-bulb.’
“I developed and tested this shape (a blended-in projection off the back of the main fin) for the maxi race boat Rothmans in 1988/9, and have since used it on the Oysters and Elan Impressions. The ‘filleted’ keel we tested for Rothmans had slightly more drag dead downwind (more wetted area) but was significantly better when any side-force occurred; and side-force goes hand-in-hand with heel angle – which is most of the time! When the model spec allows for reasonable draught, the keel option with the lowest centre of gravity will invariably be a T-keel, with a longer bulb giving the greatest scope for a slender ballast package. An L-keel is a compromise and doesn’t suffer from the risk of snagging lines, mooring warps, and nets. [many modern production cruisers have 100% cast iron L- or T-shaped keels]. A lead bulb is preferable to a cast iron keel in terms of volume and density, but it costs more. However, a lead T-keel in a production environment will almost certainly use a cast iron or SG Iron fin, which may rust.”
Rustler Yachts also uses lead instead of iron for their keels.
The Rustler 36 long keel (designed by Holman and Pye and winner of the 2018 Golden Globe Race) has a cutaway forefoot to improve responsiveness and manoeuvrability.
The long keel creates more drag but, as with the Rustler 24, the cutaway forefoot makes the 36 more nimble than a full long keel boat, which are more difficult to manoeuvre in reverse under power.
The rest of Rustler’s offshore range – the Rustler 37, 42, 44 and 57 – designed by Stephen Jones – have lead fin keels.
As does his Mystery 35 built by Cornish Crabbers.
These offer an excellent combination of directional stability, performance and lateral stability. The yachts track well, are comfortable in choppy seas, and have good manoeuvrability, all without the flightiness of shorter chord fin keels found on many production family cruisers.
A digital future
Influential designer David Thomas said: “When I started designing, I integrated sharp leading edges to the keel; until someone told me a radius was better. Then we were all taught that an elliptical shape was better still. With the advent of computers, designers could better visualise the end-product; and clever ‘faring programs’ speeded this up.”
So where next? A combination of lighter and stronger materials, rapidly developing computer programs, a desire for maximum interior volume and low costs has led us to today’s production yacht.
Twin rudders improve the handling of broad-sterned yachts when heeled.
The IRC rating rule permits low CG keels, wider beam and near-vertical bows and sterns.
And designers now have an array of new computer tools at their disposal. But maybe there’s still that element of black magic?
As David Thomas so succinctly said: “You can design a yacht 95% right, but the last 5% can be down to luck.”
Keel types : the pros and cons
Full length keel
Pros: Directional stability. Heavy displacement leading to comfort at sea.
Cons: Poor windward performance. Large wetted surface leads to drag. When under power at low speeds, the turning circle is wide unless fitted with thrusters. The same applies to manoeuvring astern.
Cutaway modified long keel form with keel-hung rudder
Pros: Reduced wetted surface area leading to increased boat speed. Better windward performance and handling than full length keel. Rudder on the aft end of the keel improves self-steering ability on some designs.
Cons: Under engine, this keel form has a large turning circle ahead and poor control astern. Since the rudder is not ‘balanced’, the helm on some designs can feel quite heavy.
Fin keel with skeg-hung rudder
Pros: The further reduction in wetted surface area leads to more boat speed. Directional stability and close-windedness are also improved. If full depth, the skeg can protect the rudder against collision damage.
Cons: When combined with a narrow stern, this keel format can induce rolling when sailing dead downwind in heavy winds.
Fin keel with separate spade rudder
Pros: The fin and spade rudder mix reduces wetted surface and gives a more sensitive helm – especially if the blade has ‘balance’ incorporated in its leading edge. Handling under power in astern is precise and the turning circle is small.
Cons: The rudder is fully exposed to collisions. There are no fittings connecting the rudder to a keel or skeg, so the rudder stock and bearings need to be very robust.
Shallow stub keel with internal centreplate.
Pros: When lowered, the plate gives good windward performance. The plate can act as an echo sounder in protected shallow water. There is normally no internal centreplate box to disrupt accommodation. With the plate raised, off-wind performance is good.
Cons: The plate lifting wire needs regular inspection and occasional replacement. Windward performance with the plate raised is poor.
Lifting or swing keel
Pros: Shallowest draught so more cruising options; can also be moored on cheaper moorings. Surfs early downwind. Small wetted surface so can be fast.
Cons: Reduced living space due to internal keel box. With a raised keel, poor directional control. Susceptible to hull damage if grounding on hard material.
Twin or bilge keel
Pros: Can take the ground in a level position. Modern twin-keel designs with around 15º splay, around 2º toe-in and bulbed bases perform well upwind. Good directional stability due to the fins. Modern twin keels with bulbed bases lower the centre of gravity.
Cons: Older designs do not point upwind well. Slapping sound under windward keel when at a steep angle of heel on older designs. Antifouling between the keels can be tricky. Can be more expensive than fin keels.
Pros: Low centre of gravity means good righting moment. Shallow draught. Sharper windward performance.
Cons: Larger surface area means it is more likely to pick up fishing gear, like lobster pots. Difficult to move once it is grounded. And difficult to scrub keel base when dried out alongside a wall.
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