Choosing a Boat, Part 2 – Keel

Following on from Length, we have hull form and keel choice. Again, the most suitable hull form and keel will be determined by your likely boat use. Be realistic with yourself! You may dream of winning races, but if you’re likely to spend more time afloat out catching mackerel or sailing down the coast then a short fin with a bulb might not make so much sense.

So what are your choices, and what are each good at?

Fin Keel

A fin keel is exactly what it sounds like. It is a keel that projects down from the centre of the hull much like a fishes fin. They vary in length and depth. Below you can see a Westerly Cirrus sporting a fin keel.

Fin Keel

Fin keels are preferred by those looking for performance from their boats. Their relatively low wetted surface area means they are good in low winds. Their short length creates a natural pivot around which the boat may change direction making them responsive, easy to tack through the wind and fast around buoys. However, these attributes aren’t necessarily suitable for cruising or ocean passages, but for racing and day sailing they make for a fun boat!

Other drawbacks include the deep draft and their inability to go aground. These qualities restrict the places you can explore. If you like to visit beautiful, secluded drying harbours such as those found in Porthleven, Mousehole, Polperro, Looe, etc. or sailing up estuaries like the Helford or the Fal then they may not be for you! They can be fitted with ‘legs’ which allow them to take the ground, but they must be carried on board, take up space, and are generally a pain. If the fin is too short or the boat weigh not distributed well then a fin keel with legs can topple forward or backward. Not pretty.

Twin Keel

These are often referred to as bilge keels, which in my opinion is wrong. A twin keel boat has two fin like keels protruding either side of the centre line. This Westerly Centaur has twin keels.

Twin keeled Centaur

Twin keeled boats can dry out happily, however drying out in soft deep mud may put undue stress on the keels as they are are not parallel to the forces of gravity; they often splay out. However on firm mud, silt and similar they can sit happily every tide. For this reason they are great for visiting drying harbours and estuaries.

Their sailing performance is fairly dependent on the yacht designer’s skills. Each keel must be aligned parallel with the direction of flow of the water over the hull or hydrodynamic lift will be created and this will slow the boat down. They often like to be sailed upright for these reasons.

They also don’t point to windward quite as well as a fin keeler. This is due to the increased drag caused by the two keels, and also due to the leeward keel being at an increased angle of attack to the water, which also produces more drag.


Bilge and Triple Keels

Strictly speaking bilge keels (or bilge plates) are fitted to boats with a centre keel, forming a ‘triple keel’. The centre keel is often a long keel as in a westerly 22 or on the Trident 24.

Westerly 22 twin / triple keel

This keel configuration had died out somewhat in recent years, and most modern hulls are now twin keel. Triple keels have more turning resistance due to the long centre keel which makes them less agile, but means they hold their course well in a following sea. They are often very seaworthy for these reasons.

They can also take the ground and as the Westerly 22 in the photo above demonstrates, have a very shallow draft.

Long Keel

Favoured for long ocean passages long keel boats have a relatively long deep keel with ballast low down and evenly displaced along the keel.

Halcyon 27 long keel

Boats like the Halcyon 27 above have a large wetted surface area, so aren’t so good in light winds. The high directional stability means they are great in a seaway with less chance of broaching. Broaching is the sudden change of direction induced by sharp changes of forces on the boat from waves and wind. The directional stability also means that they can be difficult to manoeuvre in a marina however!

Another plus for the long keeled boat is that they are less likely to snag ropes or debris due to the protected keel and lack of protuberances; another reason why they are so beloved by blue water ocean sailors.

Similar to a fin keel, drying out requires sea legs, but unlike the fin keeler a long keel boat is unlikely to tip forward or backward.

A note on Heaving To

‘Heaving to’ is when a boat tacks across the wind but doesn’t release the jib/genoa. This results in a ‘backed foresail’. Under such conditions different keel configurations behave differently. Another attribute of the long keel that makes them so appealing to the ocean yachtsman is that they heave to very well and sit pointing somewhat to windward making little headway and can weather out a blow this way.

Triple keelers like the Westerly 22 can also heave to with good success. Fin and twin Keelers tend to not fare so well. Their short keel length means their bows tend to blow off the wind leaving them beam on to the sea making lots of leeway.

Traditional Cornish fishing boats often have long keels and used to heave to when pulling nets or crab pots. Mizzen masts right at the back of the boat used to help keep them bow into the waves too.

Summing Up

Twin, bilge and triple keelers can be kept in and visit tidal estuaries and drying harbours. They are easier to transport on trailer or HIAB flatbed lorry. Other keel forms will need support or a cradle in order to move them. They may not point so close to the wind as fin or long keel boats, but they can live on cheaper moorings and can be seaworthy.

Fin keelers are the preserve of the racers and performance sailers. If every degree pointed to windward matters to you and you like screeching around buoys in races these boats are for you. There are plenty of cruising yachts with fin keels around the solent, an in deep estuaries on reasonably priced swinging moorings that don’t dry out, so if you imagine your cruising grounds mostly consisting of these kinds of places a fin keel may well be a good bet.

If you’re planning on spending your days on long ocean passages then a long keel would be ideal.

So, which choice for me?

My closest coast is the North Somerset coast. It’s know for its huge tidal range and its mud. However, cheap moorings can be found if you have a boat that can dry out or sit in mud. In order to make it down to Cornwall I will have to sail down the perilous North Devon and North Cornish coasts. Safe havens are few and far between on those coasts and many of them dry out. For example Minehead, Watchet outer harbour, Clovelly and basically all the others!

Also, when we get to the Scillies it will be great to be able to not worry about going aground or even to be able to go aground on purpose. So I’m going to be looking for a twin or triple keel boat.

Anecdote of the Day

I strayed off the path and was tempted by a lovely looking Hurley with a long/fin keel. This conversation with Kurt ensued;

Jamie, [29.09.16 13:29]
I’m now thinking a fin keel hurley wouldn’t be so bad.

Kurt, [29.09.16 14:37]

Jamie, [29.09.16 14:38]
Only an extra 3/4’s of a foot. Legs are a pain though.

Kurt, [29.09.16 14:38]
You want to be able to go aground anywhere and not worry

Jamie, [29.09.16 14:39]
But the sea keeping qualities are nice. On a hurley they’re kind of designed around that keel. Narrower beam and big heavy keel means boat sits low in the water which gives you the standing height in the cabin. Not sure how they’d translate to a bilge keel?

Kurt, [29.09.16 14:40]
You’ll regret it

Jamie, [29.09.16 14:40]
I guess you’ve experienced this with your old Porthleven boat?

Kurt, [29.09.16 14:42]
Ha!! It’s a Pain in the arse. And then you’re always worried that a leg will sink into a hole or something. Don’t do it

Jamie, [29.09.16 14:42]


Choosing a Boat, Part 1 – Length

Choice of boat is a huge subject. The first thing to do is to have a long hard look at what you will do with your boat. N0t what you want to do, but what you are likely to actually do. Sure, I’d love to spend three months sailing down the to med and cruising around Greek Islands, but I have a job and I have kids. My wife and I are separated and me being around for the kids allows her to work, which is important to her. I love being around my kids and it’s important to me to be a big and constant part of their lives. This means I’m likely to spend the maximum of a couple of weeks at a time on the boat. That still gives me a large cruising area, with opportunities to cross the channel, head over to Wales and up to the solent and beyond. I’d like to be able to take the kids cruising too. They’re pretty excited at the prospect of staying on a boat. So I’m looking at something capable of a channel crossing, with at least three births that I can live on for a week or two at a time.

Boat Length Choice

One complication for me is that while at university I did an RYA Yachtmaster Offshore shore based course.  I’d love to start accruing the 2500 miles at sea pre-requisite for the YM Offshore practical exam. Half of the 2500 miles must be done on a boat with a waterline over 7 metres. So initially I was thinking of getting a 28ft boat which should have a lwl of 7m.

Then I listened to Tom Cunliffe’s ‘Sailing, Yachts and Yarns’. Tom has observed that sailing is very much about adventure and a feeling of freedom. That feeling can’t be achieved if the cost of sailing is likely to restrict your ability to sail, or mean you’re shackled financially for the rest of the year. So, he postulates, enjoyment and satisfaction from a boat in inversely proportional to length.

I thought about that a little while.

Bigger boats require more routine maintenance which eats into your sailing time. Costs are not proportional to length. They are more like a square of the length. Think about your sails for example. Cost are relative to their area, which is roughly that of half a rectangle. As length of the boat increases, area increases by a factor of roughly eqn.

Wetted area again increases disproportionally. So new sails, rigging, antifouling and many other costs increase exponentially rather than proportionally as length increases. So the difference in yearly costs between a 22ft boat and a 28 ft boat won’t be 27% more (the percentage length increase), they could increase by as much as 60%. An 80% increase in length to 40ft might mean an as much as a 230% increase in costs!


So I’ve decided to look for a 22-24ft boat and start eating into those 1250 <7m RYA miles. This way I can see if the urge to do that Yachtmaster Offshore exam grows or subsides. If I’m still keen after 1250 miles then I’ll look for a > 7M LWL boat then.

Will a 22-24 ft boat suit my needs? Well yes. There are plenty of 22-24 ft boats that have crossed the channel, can sleep three and have sufficient space and comfort to live on for a couple of weeks. Having spent more time than is sensible looking at what might suit the following list, while not exhaustive for complete gives and idea of the kind of boats that might fall into this category;

Westerly 22
Macwester Rowan Crown
Westerly Cirrus
Jaguar 22
Hurley 22
Trident 24
Snapdragon 747
Leisure 23
Hunter Horizon 23

and many more….

Anecdote of the Day

I once had a disposable boat that was the epitome of freedom. I bought it for £400. It was a 20ft plywood boat with a jib, sliding gunter main and a scaffold pole mizzen. It had a cabin with two births and a cooker on board. I had some amazing times on that boat. I sailed it from the Helford, round the Lizard to Porthleven using an Ordinance Survey map to navigate with. Yeah… I know. But I was skint, and it was that or nothing. I hit the tidal race of the Lizard and spent half an hour wondering if the old plywood hull would stand up to the slamming as I motored into the headwind and short steep waves. Then the seagull outboard ran out of petrol….

I sailed that boat all summer then went back to University. It lasted the next summer too and I spent nothing on it. It then went off to a life as a chicken shed. That was cheap boating.