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16 August 2013

Boat Buying Tips Without Too Much Salt (Pt 2) - Keels

Be warned - I am an unseasoned and not very salty sailor. Any tips I share about boat buying are of the low sodium variety.

This is the second in a series about what to look for when you're buying a boat from someone who doesn't know what she is talking about (that would be me). Scott and I are looking to upgrade and get a larger boat back in the States next year. And as it will require a fair chunk of change and will be my floating home, I thought I should get my head around what you should look for in a boat. After all, you wouldn't let your husband just go out and view a house and make an offer if you hadn't seen it first. Or would you? Maybe we know a couple whose names also happen to be Scott and Ellen who might have done this once. They were young at the time. Ellen might be paying a bit more attention this time around with the boat.

In my last post, I looked at the different types of "bones" that make up the hull underneath your boat's super expensive marine paint skin. In this post, I'm taking a look at the different types of toes you can get on your boat. Yes, "toes". I can't quite get my head around speaking Nauticalese with its sheets and ports and sterns and heads and so on. So every once in a while, I quietly rebel and do things like call keels "toes". And a boat keel is like a human toe in a way. We have toes at the bottom of our bodies and boats have keels at the bottom of their bodies. We can stub our toes by tripping up the stairs and boats can stub theirs by running aground. Both are painful. And one of them can be very expensive if you need to get a marine doctor in to do some repairs.

So let's dive straight in. To start off with what exactly is a keel? A keel is the part of the boat that is hidden under water (unless it rolls over and you have to hold your breath for 2 minutes in which case it comes out of hiding). Basically, sailboats move because wind whooshes into your sails and pushes your boat forward through some sort of magical energy conversion (I dropped out of physics in high school so I'll just accept it as fact without seeking to understand). But as the wind is whooshing into your sails it is also trying to tip your boat over. Bad wind. Thankfully, a boat has a keel which counterbalances the wind and keeps it upright. Well mostly upright - boats "heel" or go tippy when you sail which will surely be a subject of a future post. Something along the lines of "Tippy, Not Tipsy". So, even though we hide our keels underwater, we like them a lot because they keep us upright. Much like human toes.

There are two major types of keels - fixed and deployable. Deployable keels are basically like ironing boards. When you want to use it, you unfold the keel by lowering a cable which drops the centerboard down. When you're done using the keel, you fold it back up and it stores itself neatly under the boat. There are some other types of deployable keels which have a daggerboard which are dropped down like a dagger through a vertical hole in your boat. When we chartered up in the Bay of Islands, we sailed on a Davidson 20' which has a deployable keel with a centerboard. Boats with deployable keels can be great when you want to get in close to anchor. You can fold up the keel and scoot right up front thumbing your nose at the big super yachts. And you can haul them out easily and put them on a trailer and be a trailer sailor if you want. But they aren't really what we would be looking for in a blue water cruiser, so we can cross them off our list.

That brings us to fixed keels. There are a number of different types including full keel, modified fin keel (with skeg or spade rudders) and fin keels with spade rudders and either round or flat sections. Yeah, I don't know what that means either so here are some pictures.

A full keel is just what it says on the tin - it runs pretty much the full length of the waterline. Beth Leonard describes boats with full keels as "traditional voyagers". She says that they are slow, safe and comfortable. All sounding good so far. Full keel boats are good when the wind gets all blowy as they don't get pushed sideways and off course as much as other types of keels. And you can heave-to more easily. ("Heave-toing" is another Nauticalese term which we'll leave for another day.) But slow, safe and comfortable comes at a price and that is speed and ease of turning. Because they are dragging a really big toe under the water, boats with full keels get more resistance and are therefore slower. When you want to tack (turn) the boat, it takes longer as the big toe gets in the way. But I don't like the idea of racing and I do like the idea of safe and comfortable so this might be a price worth paying.


This is our boat - Rainbow's End. She has a modified fin keel with spade rudder.
The next type of keel is a modified fin keel. Unlike a full keel, they don't run the length of the waterline. Beth Leonard describes these types of boats as "performance cruisers" - a perfect marriage between performance and comfort. Many modern cruising boats have fin keels as they give you the best of both worlds. They are faster and turn more easily, but also stable enough so that you feel safe (well, most of the time anyway). These types of boats can come with skeg rudders or spade rudders. Skeg rudders are attached directly to the hull via a skeg. While the term "skeg" sounds like the noise cats make when they cough up a hairball, they are really like an arm which extends down from the keel. Spade rudders are separate from the keel and attached to a post which comes down through the hull allowing it to swivel side to side. I like to think of rudders as a boat's tail and we'll cover these more in a separate post.

The next type of keel -  fin keels with spade rudders and either round or flat sections - are preferable if you want your boat to be more racy. And by "racy" I don't mean sailing around provocatively, I mean being faster and more agile. These types of boats are much harder to handle and need experienced sailors to manage them. I'm not very experienced and I don't want to be provocative or go too fast so we'll cross these off of our list too.

So taking all of that into consideration, I think we're going to be looking for a boat with a modified fin keel and spade rudder much like we have now on Rainbow's End. I like Beth Leonard's description of a "marriage between performance and comfort." The performance will appeal to Scott and the comfort will appeal to me. And that's what marriage is all about - finding something that works for both of you.

Coming up soon, we'll have a look at the different ways you can attach a keel to your boat and why boat builders put ballast in the keels. Clearly, it's just not as simple as what shape you want your keel to be but that's enough for one day.

If you're interested in other slightly eccentric posts on how to buy a sailboat when you know nothing about sailing or boats, check out this page.

Note: Just in case you think I am making this all up, I've had a look at a number of sailing books and articles to get me some learning. Beth A Leonard's book, The Voyager's Handbook, is a classic for good reason. It covers absolutely everything. I've also found Twain Braden's The Handbook of Sailing Techniques useful as he gives really simple descriptions which even I find easy to understand. And I came across a cool website - "How Stuff Works" where you can click on things to learn about buoyancy. It was fun - check it out here.

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