How I became a Full-Keel Convert–Part One

 

BenBow-3
A line drawing of Sirocco, a true full-keel boat. Sirocco is a “Ben Bow” designed by William Atkin. 

Over the years that I have been sailing, I have logged miles on a number of different craft from an International Sabot up to a steel schooner of about 200 gross tons.  Most of my time has been in small, shoal-draft centerboard sailboats up to about 20 feet long; racing keelboat designs like the J-29; and the few cruising sailboats that I have owned over the years.  I benefitted from spending time in a broad variety of different sailboats by getting a taste of how different types of boats perform in various conditions.  This has given me the opportunity to compare the merits of the different classes of boats.

Picture of a generic fin-keel boat. It is easy to see how exposed the propeller and rudder are. Having the rudder right near the stern, far away from the keel, contributes to good steering characteristics, though.
Picture of a generic fin-keel boat. It is easy to see how exposed the propeller and rudder are. Having the rudder right near the stern, far away from the keel, contributes to good steering characteristics, though.

When I was younger, I craved performance.  I wanted nothing more than to just go as fast as possible on the water.  My desire for speed eventually led me to become a windsurfing enthusiast, but that is a whole other story.  During my high-school and college years I spent a lot of time in International, and then Collegiate 420’s, a two-person dinghy.  I thought they were slow and longed to spend time in a more performance-oriented dinghy, even though the 420’s could easily plane and give a good ride when the whitecaps showed up.  When I started sailing keelboats, it was mostly the smaller J-boats (24’s and 29’s, mostly), but there was time spent on numerous other designs.  I loved the taste of performance multi-hull sailing that I experienced as fill-in crew aboard a Nacra 6.0.  The boats that I sailed in my teens and twenties were mostly well-regarded classes that taught me what a fun, responsive boat felt like.  They sailed well in a wide variety of conditions with good speed and few bad habits.  There is a reason that the one-design dinghies and keelboats that I sailed in were such popular designs–they were good all-round boats.

Picture of a boat with a cutaway keel. There is a concave shape in the profile up forward, with the keel really beginning under where the second cabin porthole is. The rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel, offering some protection and making it less likely to snag lines and other debris.
Picture of an Alberg-designed Cape Dory with a cutaway keel. There is a concave shape in the profile up forward, with the keel really beginning under where the second cabin porthole is. The rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel, offering some protection and making it less likely to snag lines and other debris.

When I finally had enough money to consider buying my own sailboat I began to consider all aspects of its use.  I couldn’t really justify spending a ton of money on a boat that was only good for racing.  By this time my sights were fixed on the far horizon rather than outright speed.  I wanted to explore the world from the deck of my own sailboat, so I decided to look for a reliable design that could take me anywhere I wanted to go.  What I ended up with was a Pearson Vanguard–a 32-foot racer/cruiser designed to the old Cruising Club of America rating rule.

Buying the Vanguard was a huge step for me in many ways.  It was the first “big” boat that I had ever owned, it was my first home on the water, and it allowed me my first significant experience with something other than a centerboard or fin keel design.

Pearson Vanguard Side Drawing
Side-view of the Pearson Vanguard, showing the cut-away in the forward part of the keel.

The Vanguard has a “cutaway” keel with the rudder attached to the trailing edge.  Looking at the profile of the boat, there is a lot of area that has been cut away, or hollowed out, making the deep part of the keel start a long way back from the bow.  This is done in an effort to reduce the amount of boat in contact with the water, or wetted surface, to make the boat faster when the wind is light.  This design achieves its intended goal of reducing wetted surface, but pays the price of introducing a couple of undesirable handling characteristics.  The one that I remember most is how the bow would blow downwind when trying to maneuver at low speed.  The high bow and long forward overhang on the Vanguard would catch the wind, turning the boat broadside to the wind very quickly.  There was no underwater surface to counteract this tendency, and the rudder was way under the boat at the end of the shortened keel. This reduced the rudder’s effectiveness by giving it a shorter lever arm for turning the boat.  Fin-keel boats don’t have a surface underwater up forward to stop the bow from blowing away from the wind either, but their rudders are placed farther back on the boat, which gives a stronger turning force and allows better control in low speed situations (especially in reverse) compared to the cutaway-keel boat.

On the positive side, I really came to appreciate some of the good qualities of the cutaway keel on the Vanguard.  The keel on the Vanguard is molded with the boat as one unit.  The shape transitions smoothly from the hull to the keel, which prevents the front part of the keel from loading up with seaweed when sailing–a real plus when there is a lot of weed in the water!  The shape of the keel also helps reduce shock loads in some grounding situations, such as when running onto a sloped sandbar.  Not having a long fin keel sticking out of the boat also reduces structural loads when running aground–in particular eliminating the point-loading at the trailing edge of the fin keel that can cause it to push up into the hull and cause a lot of damage.  Having the rudder attached to the trailing edge of the keel helps prevent seaweed, lobster and crab pot floats, and other fishing gear from getting trapped on the rudder. The keel shields the propeller as well.  I never once had a pot or fishing line caught on my Vanguard, though I often sailed in waters thick with fishing gear.  Besides making my life easier, fishermen don’t exactly appreciate having yachtsmen cut their floats from props and rudders, either…

A cutaway-keel boat tracks better than a fin-keel boat.  The Vanguard didn’t need constant, minute attention to the helm.  I could count on her to track well if I needed to adjust a sheet or otherwise divert my attention for a moment.  This is a great characteristic to have in a cruising boat.  I could balance the boat and let her sail herself for a while if I needed to go forward to attend something or use the head.  I have had some luck locking the helm down on a fin-keel boat to keep them going straight for a short while, but this technique is not as effective as when used on a cutaway-keel boat or a full-keel boat.

Overall, the cutaway-keel Vanguard was a surprisingly enjoyable boat.  I didn’t feel too handicapped by the speed penalty that I paid for the extra wetted surface of the cutaway full keel.  She still had good speed even in light airs, and offered a more comfortable motion than most fin-keel boats that I have been on.  The comfort was due in part to her keel design, but also because the Vanguard was heavier, deeper, lower in freeboard, and had a more moderate beam than the other cruising sailboats that I had experienced.  I don’t want to contribute to the myth that there aren’t any comfortable fin-keel boats out there!  Those boats do exist. They are just more difficult to find (it’s not fashionable to build relatively narrow boats with easy bilge sections these days) and still won’t offer the other advantages of a keel with an attached rudder, like weed-shedding, or a rudder that doesn’t rely solely on the stock for attachment to the boat…

Contessa 26
The Contessa 26 has a cutaway keel, but it is much longer than the one on the Vanguard–closer to a full keel.

When I went searching for a small, versatile cruiser a few years ago I settled on the Contessa 26.  This design is based on an older design than the Vanguard, and has a much longer cutaway keel.  It is getting pretty close to a full keel, but still has a concave shape to the forward end.  The longer keel eliminated some of the poor handling  characteristics of the more dramatically cut-away keel on the Vanguard.  Having a longer keel gave the rudder a longer lever arm and actually improved steering, even though there was a much longer keel to drag through tight turns.  She tracked like a dream and worked very well with her self-steering gear in all conditions.  I loved sailing this boat.  The Contessa 26 design was close enough to a proper, old-school full-keel boat that it seemed only a small leap to go all the way to a full-keel the next time that I went boat shopping…

Continue reading Part Two here. 

2 thoughts on “How I became a Full-Keel Convert–Part One

  1. Great article! Maybe you can help me with something about locating and deciding
    on the boat I want. Any suggestions about what years or manufacturers
    or actual sailboats that have full keel rudder systems? It’s not something that
    is openly stated in most of the classifieds of used sailboats unless there is a
    photo included. I’m thinking about a 39′-50′ sailboat.

    Thanks John

    1. Hi John- There are a huge number of full-keel boats out there. I would suggest that if you find a boat that seems interesting to you as far as size, condition, and price go, that you then check out the specs available on and do an image search looking for a line drawing or a picture of that type of boat out of the water. I prefer to look at line drawings myself, but they are not always easy to find on the web, so the pictures are helpful there.

      I am not as familiar with boats in the size rang that you are looking at, but you will probably find that there are fewer full-keel boats in that size range. Yachts larger than about 45 feet have only become common in large numbers relatively recently, and the true full-keel boats are mostly older designs. There are some great designs out there in your size range, though. “Little Ranger” by William Atkin comes to mind on the traditional end of things. See for drawings. There was a fiberglass one for sale a while back in Massachusetts… The Westsail 42 and 43 appear to be well-proportioned, more modern production boats that would be easier to find.

      Looking in your size range, especially if you would consider modern-looking boats, I would not ignore boats that have a rudder hung on a heavily-built skeg, as that will greatly expand the number of designs available for consideration. There are some modern designs that have reputations for strong rudders, such as the Amel “Maramu”, the Pacific Seacraft 44, or the Valiant 42, or 47.
      –Barry

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