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AjariBonten 11-13-2007 10:07 AM

Full Keel Vs. Fin or Modified Full Keel
I've been looking artound the threads and have not seen one that concisely answers my question, so I thought I'd start one.

I'm narrowing my choices down, and it seems that most of my favorites have full keels.

Can someone give me a down and dirty pro-con list for full keel sailboats versus fin keeled ones?

Also, I've seen some keels that appear to be hybrids: ie: very long & shallow fins, or full keels that aren't "really" full length. If need be I'll search out some pics to fill out the discussion.

P.S. : For reference I'm thinking Cabo Rico 38' , Tayana 42' Pacific Seacraft in the same range, maybe a couple of others.


Jeff_H 11-13-2007 10:30 AM

This is a draft of an article that was written for another purpose but covers the material that you seem to be asking about.

"First of all your question seems to be about appendages. In principle Appendages keep a boat from making leeway. They come in many shapes and sizes. Keels are supposed to be a fixed appendage and centerboards generically are moveable appendages that occur on the centerline but centerboards are just one kind of moveable appendage. In more detail:

The earliest form of a keel was simply the backbone of the boat extending through the bottom planking. (Like a Viking ship) That works OK with running and reaching sails but when you try to point toward the wind you slip side wards at great speed. As sails and rigs were invented that allowed boats to point toward the wind the keel was extended below the boat either by planking the hull down to a deeper backbone or by adding dead wood (solid timber below the backbone. A planked down keel permitted the space between the planking to be filled with heavy material (originally stone), which served as ballast keeping the boat from heeling. After a while it was discovered that there were advantages to bolting a high-density cast metal ballast to the outside of the deadwood and interior ballast dropped out of fashion.

Full keels:
These earliest keels pretty much ran from the point of entry at the bow, to the aft most point of exit at the stern. Those are full keels in the fullest sense of the word.

They have some advantages; they theoretically form a long straight plane, which keeps a boat on course better (greater directional or longitudinal stability). If you run aground they spread out the load over a larger area reducing the likelihood of damage. Once really planted they keep the boat from tipping over fore and aft. They are easier to haul and work on. You can spread out the ballast over a longer distance and so they can be shallower for the same stability. You have a greater length to bolt on ballast so it is a theoretically sturdier and simpler connection.

They have some disadvantages; a larger portion of the keel operates near the surface and near the intersection of the hull and keel, which are both turbulent zones. They also have comparatively small leading edges, and the leading edge is the primary generator of lift preventing sideslip. Because of that they need a lot more surface area to generate the same lift. Surface area equates to drag so they need more sail area to achieve the same speed. Long keels tend to be less efficient in terms of lift to drag for other reasons as well. As a boat makes leeway water slips off of the high-pressure side of the keel to the low-pressure side of the keel and creates a turbulent swirl know as a tip vortex. This is drawn behind the boat creating drag in a number of ways. The longer the keel, the bigger the vortex, the greater the drag. So they need more sail area again to overcome this drag. To stand up to this greater sail area the boat needs more ballast and a stronger structure, which is why long keelboats are often heavier, as well. (Of course, then the spiral starts again as more sail area is needed to overcome that additional weight as well. It is the classic weight breeding more weight design cycle) Full keels tend to be much less maneuverable.

Fin keels:
By the classic definition of a fin keel any keel whose bottom is less than 50% of the length of the boat is a fin keel. Fin keels came into being in an effort to reduce drag. Cut away the forefoot or rake the stem, as well as, move the rudderpost forward and rake it sharply and pretty soon you have a fin keel. Today, there seems to be a widely accepted belief that a fin keel implies a separated rudder (skeg hung or spade) but in fact early fin keels usually had their rudder attached. No matter what we call them, these comparatively short keels with attached rudders were in all ways were a worst of all worlds situation. They offer all of the disadvantages of both full and fin keels, but with nearly none of the virtues of either. Unknowing or unscrupulous brokers will often refer to boats with fin (or near fin) keels as full keel if they have an attached rudder.

Fin keels with separate rudders seem to be the most commonly produced keel form in the US these days. (I could be wrong, there is a slight resurgence of full keels these days)

Fin keels have some advantages as well. They have less drag as explained above so they typically make less leeway and go faster. You can get the ballast down lower so in theory they are more stable for their weight. They are more maneuverable. They take better advantage of the high efficiency of modern sail plans and materials. They work especially well in terms of roll dampening and so offer advantages in terms of motion comfort.

They have some disadvantages as well, many of these have been offset or worked around by modern technology but at some level they are still accurate critiques. They often have less directional stability than long keel boats so the tend to wander more under sail. Since directional stability is also a product of the dynamic balance between the sail plan and underbody, in practice they may actually hold a course as well as a full keel. In general though you can expect to make more course adjustments with a fin keel. It is sometimes argued that the lower helm loads requires less energy to make these corrections so a fin keel may also require less energy to maintain course. This I think is a product of the individual boat and could lead to a debate harder to prove than the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

Fin keels are harder to engineer to withstand a hard grounding and when aground they are more likely to flop over on their bow or stern. (Although in 40 plus years of sailing, I have never heard of anyone actually experiencing this.) Fins typically have deeper draft. They are easier to pivot around and get off in a simple grounding.

Shoal keel
A shoal keel is just a keel that is not as deep as a deep keel. Today the term seems to be applied mostly to shallow fin keels. Shallow full keels seem to be referred to as shoal draft boats. A shallow fin is a tough animal to classify. Like a fin keel with an attached rudder, I really think it has few of the advantages of either a deep fin or a full keel and has many of the worst traits of both full and fin. This can be partially offset by combining a shallow fin with a centerboard, which is a neat set up for shoal draft cruising.

Bulb Keel:
A lot can be done to improve a shallow fin. One way is to add a bulb. A bulb is a cast metal ballast attachment added to the bottom of the keel. They concentrate the ballast lower providing greater stability and sail carrying ability than a simple shallow keel. Traditionally bulbs were torpedo or teardrop shaped. They have been re-contoured to provide some hydrodynamic properties. Recalling the discussion on tip vortex from above. Shallow keels need to be longer horizontally than a deeper fin in order to get enough area to prevent leeway. This means that a shallow longer fin would generate more tip vortex and more drag than a deeper keel. The bulb creates a surface to turn the water aft and prevent it from slipping over the tip of the keel thereby reducing tip vortex. This does not come free since a bulb increases frontal area and surface area.

Scheel Keel:
Scheel Keels are a specialized form of shoal bulb keel which is shaped to reduce induced drag (tip vortex) and surface area, and lower the center of gravity. Like any shoal bulb keel ity offers a very big improvement over a simple shoal draft fin but do not sail as well as a properly designed deeper fin.

Wing keels
Wing keels are a specialized type of bulb keel. Instead of a torpedo shaped bulb there are small lead wings more or less perpendicular to the keel. These concentrate weight lower like a bulb and properly designed they also can useful in reducing tip vortex. There has been some discussion that wings increase the effective span of the keel when heeled over but this does not seem to be born out in tank testing of the short wings currently being used in production sailboats. Not all wings are created equal. They potentially offer a lot of advantages, but they are heavily dependent on the quality of the design and I really think that many wing designs are not really working to their potential.

Then there is the whole grounding issue. The popular perception isthat wing keels are harder to free is accurate. This seems to be born out by discussions that I have had with towboat skippers on the Chesapeake and with a researcher who worked on a project at the US Naval Academey. According to both wing keels were extremely harder to free. Straight fins were much easier to free, especially when heeled. There also is some evidence that bulbs may be easier to free than fin keels.
Keels that are not really keels:
Swing keels are ballasted centerboards and drop keels are ballasted daggerboards that are ballasted beyond what it takes to submerge themselves. They are really forms of centerboards. More on these in the discussion on centerboards.

Keels that are keels that move.
I said in the introduction that keels do not move. That used to be true. We now have canting keels, which can be pivoted from side to side. They are best designed to be light fins with heavy bulbs that can be canted to windward increasing the effectiveness of the righting aspects of the keel. Just one problem, a keel canted to windward losses efficiency to prevent leeway so they really need other foils to keep leeway in check. I frankly do not like the idea of a canting keel. I think canting keels are too complex and potentially problematic.

Centerboards are appendages that can be raised and lowered on or near the centerline of the boat. They can rotate up into a trunk or rotate below the boat. Daggerboards are a type of centerboard that raises vertically or near vertically in a trunk. Swing keels are a type of rotating centerboard that actually contains a substantial portion of the boat’s ballast. They may be housed in a trunk like a Tartan 27 or 34 or hung below the boat like a Catalina 22. In the case of the Tartan 27 or 34 they are more frequently referred to as a Keel/ Centerboard (abbreviated k/cb). A swing keel is intended to act as a fin keel when lowered and allow some sailing in the partially raised position. My biggest problem with swing keels is that most do not have a positive lock down. In an extreme knockdown they can slam up into the hull greatly reducing the boat’s stability. This is a pretty rare occurrence and usually requires big wave action combined with a lot of wind, but I have experienced it out in the Atlantic.

A drop keel is a daggerboard that actually contains a substantial portion of the boat’s ballast. These are easier to lock down but can be more easily damaged in a grounding. They generally have better shape than a swing keel and can be more robust, but not always are.

Other appendages: (besides the rudders)
Bilge keels (or twin keels for our English friends) are a pair of keels (usually fins these days) that emerge on either side of the boat and angle out. They offer some advantages. If you let the boat dry out the boat can stand on the two keels and wait the next tide. There are dubious theories about increased efficiency since one is vertical like a good leeway resisting foil and one is canted like a good stability inducing foil. With computer modeling there has been greater success in approaching that theory on large bilge keel boats. While bilge keels do allow shallow draft though, they extremely difficult to free once aground since having the two keels on the ground prevents heeling the boat to get free. In practice bilge keels have enormous wetted surface creating a lot of drag at lower speeds, and produce two very large tip vortexes creating a lot of drag at speed.

Keel Centerboards are a wonderful choice for coastal and offshore cruising. Properly designed they offer nearly the performance of a fin keel, and yet permit access to shallower venues. They can be partially raised to precisely control the center of lateral resistance and therefore offers the ability to have a very neutral helm and great tracking in a wide range of conditions. Properly constructed they have proven to have a long service life. Keel-centerboard boats really proved themselves offshore during the late 1950’s and into 1960’s.They fell out of popularity with the advent of the wing keel in the early 1980’s. The downside is that they are a little harder to maintain, and because the ballast is closer to the center of buoyancy they require more ballast and so end up requiring a higher overall displacement, a higher ballast to displacement ratio, or are more tender, or some combination of the three.

Bilge boards (for the scow guys), are a pair of centerboards that angle out of each side of the boat. They work well on scows but I’ve never been able to really figure out scows anyway. Seriously, You raise the windward board and lower the Leeward one on each tack and because they are close to vertical they can be small and efficient. I still don’t get the scow thing.

Last but not least- Leeboards. Leeboards are foils that are bolted to the side of the hull like on Dutch Jachts and Herreshoff Meadowlarks. Phil Bolger’s sharpies use them a lot as well. They have some advantages but they drive me nuts. They are vulnerable in docking and ideally are raised and lowered on each tack also. Some are raised to be hinged feather so they do not need to be raised."

So that’s about it. The final is tomorrow- multiple choice and essay.


AjariBonten 11-13-2007 10:51 AM

Thanks Jeff,

That's a very good article explaining what the different types of keels are, and answers some of my theoretical questions.

Issues that I have heard mentioned; and would like some commentary on:

Full Keels and backing down

Full Vs Fins beating to windward

Stability and righting moment

Practical effect on speed (cruising rather than racing)

Blue Water implications

Thanks again,

CapnHand 11-13-2007 11:02 AM

I think you could draw most of your conclusions from Jeff's very complete answer above:

Full Keels and backing down Fin keels are more manouverable but more difficult to track straight

Full Vs Fins beating to windward Fin keels point higher and give less leeway

Stability and righting moment Fin keels have greater righting moment for the same weight

Practical effect on speed (cruising rather than racing) Full keels are slower

Blue Water implications Such as?

AjariBonten 11-13-2007 11:38 AM


Originally Posted by CapnHand (Post 221893)
I think you could draw most of your conclusions from Jeff's very complete answer above:

Blue Water implications Such as?

Well, I'm not really sure. It seems that a lot of the boats that are generally accepted as "Blue Water Boats" have full or almost full keels. I was wondering if that just happens to be the boats I've been looking at, or if there was some particular advantage. Heaving to, perhaps? Had I read that heaving to is more effective in a full keel boat, and if so, how bad is it in a fin keel?

I don't want to wander too far in this thread into the "What Boat Should I Buy" conversation, because that really belongs in the "Buying A Boat" forum; but I'm trying to get as many variables sorted out before going that route.

I'm curious; Are fin keels better in terms of leeway because of better lift characteristics? ; because it seems somewhat counterintuitive otherwise, thinking that the full keel would put more resistance to being pushed sideways.

BlowinSouth 11-13-2007 11:45 AM

Heaving to: We must have read the same books, I've always heard that full keels heave to better and create a better "slick" to windward to calm breakinig seas. I don't have any experience heaving to in a full keel but I know that my Islander 26 fin keel hove to rather nicely, only made about 1/2 knot of headway in 30+ knots of wind and while I never hove to in breaking seas it DID appear to make a nice windward slick.

I'm looking for a boat right now and I'm pondering the same things as you. I think I would feel better in a full keel boat making long passages.

Just my two cents.

CapnHand 11-13-2007 11:54 AM

The greater lift / less leeway of fin keels is due to them having more leading edge.

The leeway advantage of the fin keel is also related to the speed. For instance, even if two boats had the same leeway speed, if the full keel is doing 4 kts with 0.1 kts leeway, then over a 24 kt course it will be 0.6 kts downwind. If a fin keel is doing 6 kts with 0.1 kts leeway over the same course, it will be 0.4 kts downwind.

Sailormon6 11-13-2007 12:42 PM

Fred, re-read Jeff's article. It appears to answer most of your questions, except perhaps the specific characteristics of a full keel, backing down. It doesn't answer all your questions in the specific terms that you're asking them, but it describes the principles that lead you to most of the answers you're seeking.

For example you ask about "Full Vs Fins beating to windward." Jeff says: "[Full keels] have some advantages; they theoretically form a long straight plane, which keeps a boat on course better (greater directional or longitudinal stability)." Later, he explains that : "[Full keels] have some disadvantages; a larger portion of the keel operates near the surface and near the intersection of the hull and keel, which are both turbulent zones. They also have comparatively small leading edges, and the leading edge is the primary generator of lift preventing sideslip. Because of that they need a lot more surface area to generate the same lift. Surface area equates to drag so they need more sail area to achieve the same speed. Long keels tend to be less efficient in terms of lift to drag for other reasons as well...."

You also ask about the "Practical effect on speed." Jeff says: Surface area [of the keel] equates to drag so [full keels] need more sail area to achieve the same speed.

In discussing fin keels, Jeff says: "Fin keels...have less drag as explained above so they typically make less leeway and go faster."

There's a lot of "meat" in Jeff's article. If you'll re-read it carefully, thinking about each of your questions as you do so, you'll find that he answers most of your questions.

With regard to the above two questions, let me take a stab at explaining the general principles in a little different manner. A boat with a large amount of "wetted surface" has more drag, and is therefore slower, than a boat with a smaller amount of wetted surface. Wetted surface is the amount of the boat's bottom, keel and rudder that are submerged in the water. (A racing hydroplane, to use an extreme example, usually runs with only it's prop, rudder and a few square inches of its hull touching the water. That minimizes drag, and enables it to use most of it's engine power to generate boat speed, rather than to push a large mass of water aside as it moves forward.) A full keel sailboat has more wetted surface than a fin keel, so a full keel boat will generally be slower than a boat of equal proportions (width of beam, waterline length, etc.) with a fin keel.

Generally, the faster a sailboat moves through the water, the faster it is capable of going, and the closer it is capable of sailing to windward. I like to say, "Speed begets more speed, and better pointing ability." As the boat's speed through the water increases, the surfaces of the keel and rudder become more efficient in generating lift, and that helps the boat point higher. The same is true of the ability of the sails to generate lift, as they move through the wind. An ultra-light racing sailboat can generate enough speed so that it can even rise up onto a plane, lifting part of the hull out of the water, and, when that happens, the amount of wetted surface decreases dramatically and suddenly, resulting in a dramatic and sudden increase in boatspeed.

I hope this helps.

AjariBonten 11-13-2007 12:51 PM

Thank you all, this is a lot of good information; and I will re-read and digest it all in good time.

From what I am reading;

The fin keel, properly done, seems to be a generally good improvement over full keels? (Big Generalization)

Heaving To seems not to be as big a concern with fin keels as might have been alluded to elsewhere?

Speed is good, not just for racing.

Fin better for backing up; but the usefulness of that advantage is very user specific.

Fin vs. Full keel seems not a big enough issue to rule out an otherwise good boat based on that variable.

Thanks, I think I have enough to go on.


Valiente 11-13-2007 01:50 PM

I happen to own both, and like both for their own qualities. Cruising-wise, the full keel offers more volume lower down in terms of stowage and tankage generally than the fin keeler, and frequently either has a skeg-hung rudder, or the rudder is supported at the end of the keel itself, an inherently stronger installation for steering (two points of support instead of one, and less chance of damage from impacts/grounding).

Full-keelers are invariably slower for the most part, but frequently have a higher "comfort" rating in heavy seas than fin keelers, and are less sensitive to weight in the ends, another consideration for the distance cruiser.

Perhaps a "compromise" design is the semi-full keel boat, sometimes known as "the cutaway forefoot" and commonly seen with "the Brewer bite", the space between the keel end and the skeg, as seen in many of the designs of Ted Brewer.

Really, it comes down to the type of sailing you intend to do...I like light-air, go-fast fin keelers, but I chose a full keeler for reasons beyond speed, and because I feel in the end, a full keeler has advantages apart from pure sailing qualities (although I have not been particularly disappointed in those). When recently in six-seven foot seas, which is biggish for Lake Ontario, I noticed the motion of the full keeler was far smoother than similar waves in my fin keeler, and while less "exciting", was also less exhausting...I could safely move about the boat without fear of sudden slamming.

To each, however, their own.

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