March 10, 2011

The virtues of traditional keels

TOO MANY PEOPLE have the wrong idea about “traditional” cruising boats. They believe they’re slow, poor to windward, heavy to handle, and generally inferior to the modern breed of lightweight fin-keelers.

These people are misinformed.

A properly designed and constructed medium- or heavy-displacement cruiser is not the poor relative of the family, even in speed. As the renowned cruising designer Bill Crealock once told me: “A racing boat accelerates quicker, but there’s no reason why cruising hulls can’t be just as fast over long distances.”

He was right, of course, you only had to look at Saraband’s record for that to make sense. She was a flat-out cruiser, a deep heavy, tubby cruiser, a Westsail 32 in fact — and she won the Pacific Cup race from San Francisco to Hawaii on corrected time.

The Pacific Cup website has this to say about it:

“In 1988, winds were lighter than usual at 15 to 22 knots, and the seas were smooth. With the Pacific high pressure stretched out in an east-west oval, boats that started out on the rhumb line soon began to fear that they were too close to the high, and by fourth day most boats had turned more to the south. The winner on corrected time was Saraband, a Westsail 32 that had sailed a consistent pace for 14 days, 17 hours elapsed time, an amazing feat in relatively light winds.”

An amazing feat? Not really. Fast average speeds at sea depend on how easily a hull reaches a high proportion of her full hull speed. The Pardeys have put up some pretty impressive times with Lyle Hess’s traditional design Taleisin, too, and they found that she would point along with the best racers when her big genoa was set from the bowsprit in a seaway.

Many traditional cruisers are mom-’n-pop boats, of course, and they don’t push their boats particularly hard, especially at night, so this might have started the canard that cruising boats are slow and cumbersome. They don’t need to be.

I know I must sound like Methuselah in these days of fin keels and lightweight construction when I sing the praises of the old traditional full-keel designs for deep-sea work but I honestly believe they have virtues that are little appreciated until you have experienced a storm at sea in one.

I realize that there are hundreds of people who go to sea in fin keelers. They sail around the world and do just fine. But I’d like them to understand that their full-keel brethren were bred to go to sea, not just to race around the buoys or hop along the coast from port to port. They are in no way inferior. In fact, I’d like to see a modern fin-keeler tow two fishing boats off a lee shore under sail only in a gale, as the legendary Colin Archers were reputed to be able to do.

Cruising is primarily about safety and dependability, comfort and seakindliness, all characteristics inherent in the type of full-keel design that evolved the hard way by trial and error in the sea itself over centuries. But speed was also part of the equation, because fishing boats and pilot cutters not only had to be able to withstand any weather that came their way, but they also competed with each other to be the first back to market, or the first to the incoming ship seeking a pilot. Slow boats just didn’t make it. The process of natural selection left them to disappear from the designers’ drawing boards, so that what we have left today is the fine-honed result of centuries of fine draftsmanship and practical experience, a mixture that fits all the moods of the seven seas — moods, incidentally, that have not changed one iota since mankind started populating the earth.

Today’s Thought
What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?
— Abraham Lincoln

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #170
Singlehanders should note that when they sleep at night they should show the signal for a vessel not under command, that is, a vessel that, through exceptional circumstances, is unable to maneuver to keep clear of another vessel. The signal is two all-round red lights in a vertical line. During the day, two balls or similar shapes in a vertical line should be shown.

“You paint portraits my good man?”
“Yes, madam.”
“Good, I want you to paint me in the nude.”
“Okay, madam — but do you mind if I wear one sock as a place to keep my brushes?”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Anonymous said...

Ok I know you've been asked this type of question at least a 1000 times, but here goes anyway. What would you have to say regrading the deep sea capability of a Pearson Triton vs Pearson Renegade? The last "traditional" vs the first "modern", or at least close enough to the first and last. Thanks

John Vigor said...

Well, Anon, not quite 1,000 times, but close. The Triton is a typical Alberg, a tried and trusted old-fashioned Swedish design, almost a direct descendant of the renowned Folkboat. The Renegade is William Shaw's variation, with more keel area cut away fore and aft, like the Brewer "bite." I would expect them to behave very similarly at sea, though the lighter, wider Renegade would be a little less comfortable that the heavy-displacement Triton. Both have excellent recovery-from-capsize characteristics. I prefer the Triton's keel-attached rudder to the Renegade's skeg, which is always weaker. I would suspect the Triton would be a little faster over long distances, despite the increased underwater area because she carries more sail area per ton weight, but otherwise there is not much to choose between them because the Renegade, although technically a fin keeler, is just a modified full-keeler and nothing like today's skinny fin keels.

John V.

Tim said...

I've not done any offshore sailing, but nonetheless prefer heavier boats with full keels such as William Atkin designs, the Ingrid for example. Atkins designs as I recall were refinements of the Colin-Archer doubled ended rescue boats.

Gary said...

Thank you for that! Its simply amazing to me that people jump on the "full keeler needs 30 knots of wind to move" etc etc bandwagon, when they have never even been on one!
The sailnet boards are notorious for this.
Full keeler in Brookings

Jay Bietz said...

John: As an update to your original remarks, Dave King and Saraband W32, was 2nd over all and first in his Division in the 2010 Single Handed Trans Pac.

and for his story.

Jay Bietz
WOA Webmaster