Originally Posted by Wayward Drifter
.... many of the best spots to anchor are on the Florida bay side of the keys. Water depth is obviously a big concern. The question I'm putting out there is, just how shallow of a draft must I consider to be able to reasonably maneuver on the NW side of the keys. I know that a swing keel would be great, and I have had one before on an Oday 25' that I owned. But looking for a swing keel only, really limits my purchasing options. ANY input would be much appreciated.
Keel depth is a matter of preference, to some degree - i.e., whether you plan to gunkhole in really skinny waters or just hang out in a few places in the Keys, and how often you mind grounding your boat.
I'm further up the west coast of FL, and FWIW my preference is for a minimum draft of 3-3.5 feet or less, but there are plenty of boats in FL with fin or full keels of 4-5 feet that can get around pretty well, provided they use current charts and tides data and keep to the (relatively) deeper areas.
Also look at keel/centerboards, which have ballast in a stub/shoal keel and a fairly light retractable centerboard, or sometimes a lifting keel. There are a number in the 27-35 foot range, from older ones (O'Day, Tartan) to newer ones (Hake/Seaward). Even some of the larger, pricier blue water boats (Southerly, Ovni) are centerboarders. Check out Yachtworld.com and use "centerboard" as a search term.
A swing keel is similar, but has most of its ballast in the keel itself, which puts greater strain on the lifting mechanisms over time and may present more danger in a knockdown. Usually swing keels are found on smaller boats (22-25') such as the older Catalinas and O'Days.
As recommended above, I'd be chary about a wing keel, as most say they are far harder to get unstuck once grounded. And eventually, you (read: "everyone") will be grounded.
Hope this helps. Someone here who sails regularly in the Keys should chime in soon. Good luck, and let us know what you decide.