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Keels and Schlemiels

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Photo: OceanMedia
Photo: OceanMedia

I’m old school. I believe that keels should stay attached to their vessels. I know, I know—this puts me totally out-of-step with modern yacht builders, many of whom believe that sturdy keel attachment should be an expensive ‘add-on’ option.

Other modern shipwrights want to include ‘keel attachment of more than 12 months duration’ as part of an additional ‘service and maintenance’ contract to further monetize the issue.

“Sure, we provide a provisional keel with our hulls—but it is up to the owner to pony up additional money if they want it to stick around longer than the warranty period,” said one off-the-record builder.

Fair enough.

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Thus, it behooves us to delve into the nitty-gritty of modern keel attachment. Our first call went out to ASS, the American Shipwright Society. “The main thing to remember is not to buy a foreign vessel,” said Joe Connelly of Biodegradable Boats USA. “They use inferior Velcro®, and thus their keels drop off like over-ripe bananas. American builders use the rigorous AYS (American Yacht Standards) approved Velcro—which virtually guarantees that your keel will stay on for weeks and weeks after purchase … unless you do something dumb, like sail the boat or bounce up and down in its cockpit.”

That’s nice to know.

Jonathan Smiley of Green Boats, Inc., offers a different industrial viewpoint. “We use chewing gum,” he admits. “Not only is it cheap—it protects the reef. Our keels wipe off as easy as harbor slime! We’re aiming our sales marketing at the selfless ‘tree hugger’ sailor who is more interested in Mother Ocean than his vessel’s resale value.”

Okay. Yeah, I can appreciate that. It takes all kinds of folks to make America a melting pot. Perhaps my ‘firmly attached’ fixation, re: keels, is really too retro to have merit in today’s disposable world.

One enthusiastic builder—who had just bought the bankrupt Hummer line of yachts—has decided to focus on keel retrieval as a selling point.

“Keeping the keel actually fastened to the vessel is expensive,” their general manager admitted. “We’ve tried everything—nails, self-tapping screws, double-sided tape, aluminum rivets—nothing seems to work for very long. But to assist our owners in keel retrieval, we’ve drilled a hole in its trailing edge and attached some Marlow heavy duty string to a pad eye on the transom—how considerate is that?”

very considerate, agrees this marine reporter.

“Why don’t more builders do this?” we asked.

“Because the French boats don’t have anything strong enough to attach the pad eye to—and the Germans don’t care,” he said, adding, “But don’t quote me on that—you know how sore those WWII losers can be!”

In order to better understand modern yacht design evolution, we consulted with noted designer Rob Parody.

“Once these cookie-cutter companies started to design cutters and sloops with balloon-skin hulls—rudder and keel attachment became somewhat problematic. You know, Fatty, sailboat owners can be rather fussy. If they buy a boat with a keel wobbling somewhere underneath it—they tend to want it to keep wobbling in the same general vicinity.”

“How have modern marine architects attacked the problem, starting with rudders,” I prodded with cleverness.

“First off, we realized that rudder skegs were part of the problem,” pontificated Rob Parody. “With the skegs, it was obvious the rudders were moving too much—so we eliminated the skegs! Brilliant, eh?”

“Indeed,” I gushed, “And, doubtless, cost-effective too.”

“Yes, we designers have to live in the real world,” admitted Parody, “And that means we have to consider the bottom line—I mean, as well as our boats eventually resting on the ocean bottom … see how confusing marine engineering is?”

“… So that was it?” I asked. “Just eliminate the skegs?”

“No,” admitted Parody, “That was just a stop-gap measure. The final solution was … (he bends towards me and whispers) water absorption!”


“Modern yacht builders have all signed the twin GW & CC agreements—even if they haven’t publically admitted it,” said Parody. “Rudders fall under Gradual Weakening or GW clause. We just build a tiny ‘leak hole’ in each rudder blade, so they begin to absorb/ingress/gulp saltwater immediately upon launching. Thus, most owners of ‘hung’ rudders are so ‘hung up’ on the water-in-the-core issue that they forget the rest of the vessel has all of the structural integrity of a dented egg crate.”

“Wow,” I said, “You sound bitter,”

“Not really,” he said, “Just giving you the truth—despite the numerous legal ‘confidentiality agreements’ I was forced to sign at WoodyLawn and MIT.”

“Let’s re-focus on the keel,” I gently coaxed.

“That falls under the CC part, the Continuous Cheapen clause …” he mused. “You see, once-upon-a-time, long ago, hulls could be attached to—no, seriously, I’m not kidding!”

I waved his words away with a smile. What—did he think I was stoooooopid?

“… it’s true,” sputtered Parody. “Each boat used to have something called keel bolts—that is, before we discovered that squirting Liquid Nails was cheaper.”

“But this is really an economic issue, isn’t it,” I asked. “I mean, the boating public wants cheaper, faster, lighter water toys that greatly-resemble-actual-boats—and some companies sort of … how shall I say … well, they bend to these requirements, right?”

“Not necessarily,” he said. “While it is true that the cheaper, more mass-produced companies tend to lead the charge in progressive shoddiness—the Big Boys eventually notice.”

“Ah,” I said smugly, “you’re talking about Polinated Star III, the 90-footer built by ClamShell Marine in the UK that spit off its keel on July 3, 2015 off the coast of Portugal.”

“Now, now,” Parody said. “Let’s not get too reality-based, Fatty. And the fact that the vessel was extended nearly eight feet and had over 4,000 pounds of lead hidden forward—just ignore those niggling details, Fatty! Don’t be a nit-picker! Ditto, the fact that the keel support grid was built in many pieces to save time and money. The reality is: the boat was sold to a new-money, vodka-soaked Russian—perhaps the builders didn’t think it needed quite as much Velcro as their earlier models. Keels are becoming like yo-yos—up-down, up-down, up-down. What’s the problem? It’s the future, dude. Embrace it!”

“But what if I don’t know any better and I buy a new three million dollar yacht from ClamShell—and I take it offshore and hit a Styrofoam cup or florescent light bulb or floating marshmallow?”

“Well, then you’re sunk,” said Parody gleefully, “And you’ll need to buy another one! Besides—what do you expect for three mil?”

“Not much,” I sighed, “not much.”

Editor’s note: Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn are currently hauled out in Johor Bahru in preparation of nursing their keel across the Indian Ocean. Their latest book STORM-PROOFING was released in June.


Cap’n Fatty Goodlander is currently on his third circumnavigation. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Storm Proofing your Boat, Gear, and Crew is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap'n Fatty Goodlanderhttp://fattygoodlander.com/
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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