Choosing a Blue Water Yacht – Keel Type


Over the coming weeks, Grabau International will take you through a variety of subjects which encompass choosing the right yacht for blue water adventures. The following guide is not written to dictate what to choose, or to supply a comprehensive encyclopedia of every option and variable, but simply a basic explanation of the main options and some guidance on what to look out for. Finding a yacht will always be a battle of your head over your heart, so the purpose of this guide is to give your head some questions to ask in the hope that an amicable compromise can be made with your heart. Part 3 of this guide looks a the question of keel type.


Keel type

The type of keel fitted to a yacht is very much intertwined with the hull shape which was covered in part 2 of this guide. Keels use the forward motion of the boat to generate lift and to counteract the leeward force of the wind. In essence, the basic purpose of the keel is to convert the sideways motion of the wind into forward motion. In the case of a sailing yacht, this same keel must also act to provide ballast and righting moment.

Once again, due to the sheer diversity within the yachting spectrum, different keel types work for different purposes. Those looking to go racing will require a deep fin keel or perhaps even a canting keel, whilst blue water sailors may wish to choose from conventional fin keels, encapsulated keels, shoal-draft keels or even lifting keels. For the sailing looking to go creek crawling, lifting keels once again come to the fore along with bilge keels (although these are rarely seen on larger yachts).

keel type

Bolted fin keel

By far and away the most common type of keel. Easy to construct and offering loads of variations in profile and dimension. Attachment is usually via acid-resistant stainless steel bolts, although some use mild-steel bolts which are painted and sealed over (making maintenance and inspection extremely important). Mild steel is materially stronger than stainless, so there is no best or worst here, just make sure that they are tight and in good shape! With racier designs, a bolted keel can also be (relatively) easily removed for transport or shipping.

Examples: Beneteau, Jeanneau, Bavaria, Swan, Oyster, Hallberg Rassy, Sweden Yachts et al.

fin keel

Italia Yachts 13,98 with modern bolted fin keel and ‘T-bulb’

Encapsulated fin keel

This adds a little more security over the universal bolted-fin keel by laminating (or plating) in the ballast. An encapsulated keel can include anything from a glorified bolted keel which has been over laminated, to a complete keel structure filled with ballast. Encapsulated keels usually benefit from a deep keel sump which can be useful for tank location, storage and bilge-pump location. The keel profiles of encapsulated keels tend to be slightly deeper in length which in turn provides more directional stability (which your autopilot or helm will thank you for) at the detriment of close-quarter maneuvering and fast changes in direction.

Examples: Older Oysters, Camper & Nicholson, Trident Warrior 40, Rival Yachts etc.

encapsulated keel

 S&S Swan 36 with an encapsulated keel

Shoal / Scheel keel

A simple variation of the fin keel, is where the draft is reduced by profiling the bottom of the keel to add further ballast. For tradewind sailing, a deep draft is perhaps not as important as a shallower draft at either end, so many ‘bluewater’ yachts are often equipped with scheel (or shoal) draft. Many yachts are offered with this as an option and sometimes it is possible to swap keels over if the numbers stack up financially.

Examples: Bowman, Rival, Moody, Westerly, Swan (some versions), Pacific Seacraft etc.

Shoal draft keel

Rival 36 with Scheel (Shoal) Keel

Wing keel

Another way to reduce draft and potentially play about with ‘lift’ at the same time. Commonly adopted on larger productionyachts destined for shallower waters (Caribbean or Eastern Seaboard of the USA), but also on high quality cruising yachts in a slightly more paired down fashion (such as seen on Sweden Yachts which have ‘winglets’ rather than a full wing).

Examples: Contest, Sweden Yachts (some versions) etc

wing keel

 Sweden Yachts 38 wing keel

Lifting keel (centerboard or daggerboard)

Traditionally a niche concept, but now more readily accepted. There will always be the salty-seadog perched on the end of the yacht club bar ready to damn the concept on the basis of un-favourable STIX calculations, but the fact remains, more often than not, your ballast is in the boat rather than dangling on the end of the keel; and in the ‘perfect storm’, you can wind up the keel and slip down waves which would cause any traditionally-keeled vessel to trip over herself. The practicalities at point A and point B are also fairly obvious. In tidal areas you can dry out (if the keel retracts fully or aligns with twin rudders to create a ‘tripod’ support), or wind the keel up to get over a harbour sill at your convenience. In terms of downsides, anything involving moving parts adds complication and the potential for breakage or jamming. Common sense, regular maintenance and proper usage (most lifting keel yachts can only be used with the keel fully up or down) will go a long way to mitigate these shortcomings.

Examples: Southerly, Ovni, Feeling, Allures, Garcia, etc

 lifting keel

Classic Southerly dried out with lifting keel

Long keel

Extremely rare on any modern production yacht other than perhaps the Island Packet designs. Effectively, the keel becomes part of the hull, beginning at the bow and working its way to the stern. The advantages and disadvantages of the encapsulated fin keel are all here, but amplified by a factor of 10. Not a bad option if you want to spend your days crossing oceans, but not so hot if you like spinning in and out of marinas or thrashing around the cans.

Examples: Island Packet, Nauticat, Vancouver, Hans Christian etc

long keel

Nauticat 44 with a long keel configuration

Bilge keel

Fairly uncommon on yachts destined for bluewater sailing with the exception perhaps of the extremely clever RM Yachts range. Ideal for drying outin muddy creaks where there is uncertainty about what lies beneath.

Examples: RM Yachts, Moody (some versions), Westerly (some versions) etc

bilge keel

RM 13.50 with bilge keels

Canting keel

A much more recent development. Found almost exclusively on racing yachts, such as those competing in the Volvo Ocean Race or Vendee Globe. Canting keels provide considerably more righting moment as the keel moves out to the windward-side of the boat while using less weight. The horizontal distance from the weight to the pivot is increased, which generates a larger righting moment.

Examples: Open 60’s, Volvo 70, Marten 65

canting keel

 Volvo 70 canting keel
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