What are the pros and cons of fixed keel versus centerboard and deep draft versus shoal draft?
Sue and Larry respond:
It sounds like you're boat shopping. For sailing in any direction other than downwind, a keel or centerboard is needed to convert the lateral force of the wind on your sails into forward motion of the boat. That holds true for most hull forms and kinds of boats.
Centerboard keels are wonderful for allowing you the flexibility of traveling into shallow waters, while still providing the deeper draft necessary for relatively efficient windward performance. The drawback of a centerboard is that you have underwater moving parts that require maintenance. If you lightly ground a centerboard boat, you can usually raise the board and keep on sailing. However, if you ground hard with the board down, you can damage both the board and the mechanism that raises and lowers it.
A fixed keel sailboat offers less maintenance and is more durable in groundings, but you're stuck with whatever the draft measurement is on a permanent basis. In a fixed keel design, ballast can generally be placed lower, and in greater amounts, providing greater stability and the ability to fly more sail.
A deep-draft boat offers several advantages. Generally, fixed keel designs with deep drafts provide even greater stability (due to the much lower placement of ballast) and better tracking through the water when sailing to windward. If you were only going to sail offshore, this would be the preferred design.
A fixed keel with a shallow draft offers the same advantage as the centerboard keel: it allows you to explore many areas much closer to shore than deep-draft vessels. The downside is that, in general, when you lessen the draft of a fixed keelboat, you reduce its stability and lessen its ability to sail close to the wind efficiently.
The newer keel designs, which incorporate winglets and bulbs down low, help counteract some of these negatives. Our experience is that no matter how deep or shallow your draft is, you'll run aground just as often. It's a matter of perspective. Here's hoping this answer sets you straight, or at least gives you some perspective.