April 14, 2009

Deep-sixing the keel

OWNERS OF J/80 SAILBOATS must be feeling a little shaky these days. They’re wondering if their keels will fall off. And with good reason, because one actually did fall off a J/80 in the recent Farallones Doublehanded Race at sea off San Francisco. The boat turned turtle immediately, and the two-man crew was lucky to be rescued by the Coast Guard after an hour in the cold water — and then only because one of them dived under the boat to retrieve a hand-held radio and transmit a Mayday.

The J/80 is one of Rod Johnstone’s metric designs, of course. It’s 8 meters long. That’s 26.3 feet in real money. And there are more than 1,000 of them in various parts of the world. It has a 1,400-pound lead fin keel with a bulb, attached to the hull stub with seven 3/4-inch stainless steel bolts. But it wasn’t the keel bolts that let go, apparently. It seems the bottom tore out of the fiberglass hull.

The manufacturer describes the J/80 as a “family rocketship.” All I can say is that it’s a good job the whole family wasn’t on board when this ship went rocketing toward the sea bottom. This wasn’t the first time a J/80 has lost its keel.

Ironically, because it’s advertised as a family daysailer/weekender, the company places great emphasis on safety. It boasts: “The J/80 is certified for Design Category B of the EU Recreational Craft Directive which states that qualifying boats are designed for waves up to 13 feet high with winds to 41 knots, or conditions which may be encountered on offshore voyages of sufficient length or on coasts where shelter may not always be immediately available.”

The yachting Press apparently believed them. Sailing World’s reviewer, quoting Carl Schumacher, said: “ ... you could actually think about taking it in a race offshore.” The reviewer added that it was “safer and better suited for sailing offshore than other modern sport boats tested.” Practical Sailor said in a review: “We wouldn’t be afraid to take the boat into the ocean.” Well, gentlemen, maybe you should be afraid.

The manufacturer’s response to this accident, which could so easily have ended in tragedy, was blunt and uncompromising:

“No sailboat is going to last forever without some updating and repairs, particularly if campaigned hard. We do not know what factors over its 15 year life may have led to the failure on J/80 hull #45. But we strongly urge all J/80 owners, indeed all J/Boat owners, to routinely inspect keel stringers and keel sump areas, both internally and externally with frequency and most importantly prior to entering an offshore race.”

We all know that speed in sailboats comes at the expense of something else: sometimes comfort, sometimes seaworthiness, usually accommodation, often all three. I have no argument with this, but what does worry me is that a boat like the J/80 should be presented as a safe family boat. No boat should have its keel fall off at any stage of its life, but racers knowingly accept risks that families shouldn’t even have to consider.

I’m very thankful that my slow and old-fashioned 25-year-old cruising boat has its ballast keel encapsulated in the hull. It brings peace of mind that must now be quite rare among J/80 sailors.

Today’s Thought
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
—John A. Shedd, Salt from My Attic

“Barman! Barman! Do your lemons have legs?”
“No, sir, of course not.”
“Too bad. I guess I just squeezed your canary into my drink.”

No comments: