A Little More Freeboard

Contessa 26 sailing upwind
Life on a Contessa 26 is always close to the water.

One of the things that I miss about my Contessa 26 is being able to easily reach over the side and put my hands in the water.  I can reach the water from the deck of Idle Queen, but it is a bit of a stretch, and I have to put an uncomfortable amount of my body over the side of the boat, so I don’t do it.  Instead, I use a bucket attached to a line to haul water to the deck of Idle Queen.

Dreadnought 32 Idle Queen
Idle Queen.

Besides making washing things over the side a little less convenient, there are other disadvantages to all that extra freeboard–like sluggish windward performance; more hassle getting out of the dinghy; and handling issues when the wind gets up.  No matter how you look at it, anything that increases windage is a bad thing, and more freeboard increases windage in a big way.  This has been known to designers for a long time, and is part of the reason why many old-school sailboats were so low to the water.  When Sirocco had to ride out the remnants of hurricane Irene on an exposed mooring, she sat quietly despite the whipping gusts largely thanks to the fact that she sat so low in the water.

Atkin Ben Bow Sirocco
Sirocco charging down Long Island Sound.

I have heard it said that higher-freeboard boats are drier, but that isn’t necessarily true, especially if you are interested in actually staying dry.  Once the wind gets over about 20 knots, it will drive spray a long distance into the air–much higher than the deck on just about any small boat.  There are other aspects of the hull design that make a bigger difference in how much spray gets thrown about, like the amount of flare; sharpness of entry; and whether there is a significant rubrail or not.  Closehauled in 15-20 knots of wind, Idle Queen takes more spray across the deck than the much lower Sirocco.  Dodgers, windscreens, or other shelters are more effective at providing a place on deck to stay out of wind-driven spray.  People these days seem less interested in putting on their “oilies” and toughing it out…

It is amazing to me how just a foot of extra freeboard on similarly-sized boats like Sirocco and Idle Queen can make such a huge difference in how they handle and how they feel.  The loads on dock lines and moorings are much higher on Idle Queen; windward performance is not nearly as good (though this has much to do with other differences in the hull shapes); and even the motion while seated on deck is less comfortable.  That’s right–being higher in the boat amplifies the effects of motion.  Try climbing the mast at sea if you really want to feel this effect.  (Disclaimer:  Only go aloft at sea if you can do so safely!)

A boat that is excessively low to the water will have the decks frequently washed over by waves, so there is definitely the potential to take the low-freeboard idea too far.  My point is that once past a moderate amount of freeboard, the returns paid in dryness will diminish just as quickly as the negatives, like sailing around at anchor, will pile up.

Besides, boats that are low and lean just look sexier.


4 thoughts on “A Little More Freeboard

  1. Hi Barry,
    Just been catching up on my reading. Many years ago, following a successful Atlantic crossing, I penciled into the margin of the log “measure inversely the depth of experience at sea by the height of the freeboard”. Just another element to consider.
    Keep up the great work you are doing.

  2. Interesting thought. I was actually thinking about his during our little sail on IQ the other day. Her movement is so different than MR that both Anne and I were instantly struck by it, albeit in different ways. MR has much lower freeboard, but is a surprisingly dry boat (to me anyway.) There are some sea states that we’ve been in that I can imagine IQ riding more comfortably, though, because she seems to “bob” on top of the sea where MR’s large lead ballast causes her to bob more reluctantly. Still, sometimes that’s not what you want. I don’t have enough experience with different boats to really understand all the factors, but I’ve read enough to know that even yacht designers struggle with all the parameters that differentiate a dry boat from a wet boat, so it doesn’t seem to be a simple formula. I’m still trying to learn what words like able, wholesome, seakindly, etc. meant to sailors back in the day. There’s so many ways to describe a boat’s motion and some sought after traits are at odds with others.

    1. Hi Colin,

      Thanks for taking the time to post a comment.

      It really is fascinating to compare the different ways that boats feel and to try to predict how they will react in different situations. There is little substitute for just getting out there, though. I was also very surprised by that “bobbing” that you describe from IQ in small chop. I hadn’t expected that motion. I am getting used to it now, though, and overall believe that she will be comfortable at sea. I hope that my stomach agrees.

      The topic of whether a boat is “dry” or not came up from time to time because of Sirocco’s low freeboard. Many folks who walked down the dock thought that she would be “wet”, but my experience was the opposite. It just goes to show once again how complex the whole subject is, and how people are very ready to latch on to one parameter and ascribe it more significance than it really has. I don’t have delusions of being able to push back the flood of misconception that is out there, but maybe just a few people will think more about why the old timers made boats the way they did…



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.