19 August 2013

Boat Buying Tips Without Too Much Salt (Pt 3) - Bolt On Vs Encapsulated 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 third in a series of posts about what to look for when you're buying a sailboat and you know pretty much next to nothing about sailing. Scott has been racing and cruising for several years now, but I'm a complete newbie. As we'll be buying a new boat in the States next year, I thought I should learn a little more about sailboats before we write that really big check. So far I've learned about how hulls are constructed and the different types of keels that you can get on your boat. It turns out keels are far more complicated then what shape you want it to be. You also have to decide if you want a bolt-on keel or an encapsulated keel. The former is attached to your hull with keel bolts while the latter is an integrated part of your boat.

As I have no idea which is better, I first thought of asking Scott to explain, but then I remembered what happened when I asked him about roller reefing. He gave me a very complicated answer. I tuned him out using my patented cat-like disinterested look. So instead I decided to make myself some new friends on the Cruisers Forum. The Cruisers Forum is an online forum where people passionate about cruising and cruising boats gather to ask and answer questions. They seem like really smart and friendly people so I thought I would join up and ask them whether they thought bolt-on or encapsulated keels were better.

Within seven minutes I had a reply from a delivery skipper who has posted 10,811 times on the forum. I was stoked! I had my answer from someone who surely must know his stuff and it was a such a simple answer that even I could understand:

"Hi Ellen...Welcome to CF. Bolt On's fall off...Encapsulated don't...But someone likely knows one that fell through..."

After reading what the delivery skipper had to say the choice seemed really obvious. I'm going to go with an encapsulated keel as they don't fall off of your boat. I'm no expert, but I'm guessing it would be preferable to have your keel attached to your boat rather something for the fish to swim around at the bottom of the ocean. I didn't really understand what he meant about "someone likely knowing one that fell through" but I chose not to think about that too much as (a) I liked the idea of having a clear-cut answer and (b) I prefer to be in denial as much as I can about bad stuff that can happen to your boat. So with my answer in hand I happily signed off of the forum for the day and went about my business.
I made the mistake of checking back in later to find that there had been another 27 replies in my absence! And it turns out deciding between a bolt-on vs. encapsulated keel isn't as clear-cut as I thought. So I started reading through the replies and tried to summarize and understand the key points.
  • Bolt-on keels are fine if the people who built your boat know what they are doing. Okay, I had hoped all boat builders knew what they were doing, but now just one more thing to worry about!
  • If you have a bolt-on keel, when you haul your boat out of the water you need to look for cracks along the keel. It would appear that cracks are bad as they let water in. Water is our enemy, at least inside your boat.
  • With encapsulated keels you don't have to worry about your keel bolts rusting, you have more storage and tankage space and you don't have to worry about bilge water swirling around your ankles. I have a lot of DVDs I want to take on the boat so more storage works for me.
  • Encapsulated keels are prone to letting water as they have lots of pesky hidden voids. Again with the water getting into your boat!
  • Some boat builders think encapsulated keels are a license to put all sorts of weird and wonderful materials in for ballast including raw sewage and pachinko balls (as opposed to the more usual lead, steel, iron or concrete) and it is hard to determine what is actually inside an encapsulated keel. Pachinko balls sound fun, raw sewage not so much.
  • There seems to be some debate about whether Volvo engines are any good. Nothing to do with keels but I suspect that people passionate about engines are passionate about them no matter what the topic.
By this point I was feeling a little overwhelmed and then I read this lovely message, "Greetings and welcome aboard the CF, Ellen." What a friendly bunch! So I carried on reading and learned:
  • Some boat builders aren't very nice. They claim to put a certain material into an encapsulated keel knowing the original buyer will never slice the keel open to double check that they've been told the truth. Should we build our own boat instead?
  • People who post on the forum are very passionate! A really interesting debate ensued about whether there really are cowboy boat builders out there who use inferior materials. We even got to see some pictures.
  • When you go aground with a boat with a bolt-on keel, there is less area distributing the stress of the grounding resulting in more damage to the keel. The cracks that result are called "smiles". Would you really be smiling at this point?
  • Not only do you need to worry about whether you should go with a bolt-on keel or an encapsulated keel, you also need to worry about having lead in your keel as it is poisonous. Not only do I have to worry about water in my boat, I also have to worry about poison in my boat. I think I would prefer pachinko balls as ballast over lead.
My mother raised me right, so at this point I thought I should thank everyone for all of the advice that had been shared.
I then signed off thinking that was the end of the discussion. Silly me. When I logged back on there were another 23 replies!
  • I got to learn some sailing math. Did you know that the density of lead is 11,300 kg/m^3, concrete about 2,400 kg/m^3? I didn't. This means that to get the same ballast weight your keel would have to be about 4.5 times bigger.
  • Someone attached a You Tube video of testing that Dehler did on their bolt-on keels. The sailing math had confused my brain, so the video was a good distraction. It was particularly distracting as it was in German and I didn't understand a word.
  • You can test your keel using non-invasive methods including ultrasound, x-ray, radiography and magnetic particle flaw detection. Sounds like a better health care policy then many people I know have!
  • And then I read this, "When I was in Australia, most likely in 2001, a Farr 40 hit a rock off Danger Point. The keel was knocked off. Deaths occurred." Hmm...I wonder why they call it Danger Point? I don't like thinking about dying on my sailboat so I went back and watched the Dehler testing video again to distract myself. You should take a look. It is hysterical - they deliberately crash into all manner of things. Kind of like a demolition derby, but for boats.
So after reading everyone's posts, I've come to the following stunning conclusion:
  • Some people prefer bolt-on keels.
  • Some people prefer encapsulated keels.
I'm now both more confused and better informed about the choice. I think for now I'll leave it in the "too hard" basket and revisit the issue once we start looking at new boats. The following post probably sums it up best for me:
"Its a bit like religion, there are no open minds here. If you prefer encapsulated keels then you will only see what you want to BUT on the other hand if you prefer bolt on keels then you'll only see what you want to. Reality check, both are fine if they are put together well."
Thanks to everyone on Cruisers Forum for their help - you can be sure I'll be back with more tricky questions soon!

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.

Thanks for stopping by our blog - we love it when people come visit! We're also on Facebook - we'd love for you to pop by and say hi!


  1. Most of us will never have problems with our keels regardless of choice. I have owned an external iron keel (Long) and a steel boat with keel ballast. Both had heaps of storage as they were both long keels.

  2. I watched the crash video. That. Was. Awesome. I couldn't help but whisper excitedly, "Ramming speed!" every time they approached an obstacle. Also appreciated your description of the CF post process. I have also noticed that people can be (ferociously) passionate about their opinion about whatever on whatever sailing forum one is on.


We LOVE when people leave comments. It's so much more fun hearing what you have to say. If you have a blog, make sure you leave a link and I'll be sure to pop on by.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.