A year on the Contessa 26 was enough to convince me that I wanted a bit more boat. I was enjoying the minimalism, but the Contessa was a little too small for long-term living aboard, at least for me and all of the tools that I normally carry. I started casually looking around and found a William Atkin-designed “Ben Bow” named Sirocco. She was sturdy, reasonably roomy, and had a lean, low profile that I just couldn’t resist. She also had a full keel with a rather deep forefoot. This was the boat that finally sold me on full-keel boats.
At first I was a little apprehensive about how she would handle, but that fear was soon put to rest as I discovered how wonderfully predictable she was and what a joy to sail. True, she didn’t turn as tightly as a fin-keel boat, but the penalty in turning radius was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Also, I had not anticipated how her full keel, outboard rudder, and low freeboard up forward would combine to eliminate the tendency that so many other boats have for their bow blow away from the wind in an instant when stopped. Docking in a crosswind was now a much more controlled evolution. The same with singlehanded anchoring. Unless it was blowing a gale, I had plenty of time to stroll up the wide side decks and release the anchor after reaching my desired spot without the boat taking off across the wind. Backing was also improved over the cutaway-keel design, with the long keel making it easier to keep the boat tracking straight when desired.
There were other benefits not related to handling at low speeds and close quarters that were pleasant surprises. Tracking when under sail at sea was superb, and I could balance the boat to sail herself in most conditions, but I had expected that to be true. One thing that I had not considered was how the deep bilges, outboard rudder, and near-vertical sternpost combined to put the propeller in a location where I could reach it from the dinghy. What luxury to be able to keep the prop clean without having to dive under the boat! I suspect that I may have also been able to unwrap a line from the relative comfort of the dinghy, but I never picked up a line in the prop in all the miles that I sailed in Sirocco, probably thanks to the protection offered by her keel. Finally, and probably only due in part to the design of her keel, Sirocco was one of the most comfortable boats that I have ever taken to sea. Even though I am normally somewhat prone to seasickness when I first put to sea, I was never once seasick aboard Sirocco. That comfortable motion was a tremendously endearing characteristic of hers, but I have to also give credit to her other design attributes, including short overhangs, moderately slack bilges, relatively heavy displacement, moderate beam, etc., as contributing factors in that department.
Now that I am moving up to another boat, I again chose a full-keel design in the Dreadnought 32, Idle Queen. I am looking forward to continuing to enjoy the benefits of being able to inspect and reach the prop from my dinghy; having a boat that tracks well in a variety of conditions; not worrying about picking up lines and weed on the rudder and propeller; and having the option to comfortably dry out on a grid or beach if I ever need to. The full keel design has much to recommend it when choosing an underbody for a cruising sailboat.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…