Retractable Keel Designs

Dear Sir, I am looking for a good cruising boat with a shallow draft or proven retractable keel design. I have raced in the southern oceans against wind and tide in 67ft steel hull 42 ton yachts and they were superb–but they have 9 ft drafts. I now live in Florida and plan to do some world cruising with my family. However, local water depths can be very shallow. Most of the day boats here have a very flimsy retractable keel (rotating blade hinged on a bolt and lifted on a cable. Many snap their cables and some break their bolts–and they just would not work in severe weather!!). I have heard of a famous 54ft steel ketch, Northanger, which cruises the extreme latitudes and has only 1m draft–but I have no idea of her retractable keel design or other design specifications. Regards Richard R. from the USA

Hi Richard: There are more retractable keel designs being built for offshore sailing all the time. However, it is difficult if not impossible to make a retractable keel as strong as a fixed fin for impact with the ground–sailing loads are easy. So, as attractive as is this concept, we've stayed away from it (which may say something about how often we get stuck. The French have done quite a number of extreme shallow designs, some of which have a pretty good record offshore. If you find something satisfactory, let us know what it is. Regards–Steve Dashew


Dear Steve, Thank you for your response. For your interest, I attach a recent response that I have received from the Northanger shore crew. It might not be the optimum design but it does prove what might be feasible if you want to achieve ultra shallow "keel up" design. I couldn't get the website to work but there are other websites which give lots of information about the boat best regards Richard

Hi Richard: I am answering your e-mail to Northanger, since they are somewhere between Greenland and Labrador at this moment. They have just finished a first ascent of the prow on Sander's Hope, a rather steep chunk of granite on the northern coast of Greenland see

Northanger is a Damien 2 design by Michel Joubert aimed at high latitude sailing. At last count there have been 32 vessels built according to the original drawings. I have only been able to find 11, so not sure where the others are. I believe they have all been built from steel, but not always using the same configuration. The early ones were round bilged on steel frames, some of the later ones used an overlapping plate multi chine method, thus eliminating some of the longitudinals without sacrificing strength. All use a drop keel arrangement with a kick-up or raised arrangement for the rudder which is hung aft. All have had some problems with the original design in down wind sailing in rough conditions. There is a tendency to broach. All the ones I know of have changed the design in one way or another to compensate for this. This is where I come in regarding Northanger. In 1998 I radically changed the design aft, lengthening the vessel and adding a large skeg arrangement. I don't know how much information you want, so will stick with giving a little more info on the keel.

The keel is a nine ton drop keel which hinges on a pin, can be drawn completely into a keel box which basically divides the vessel in two halves (access fore and aft), and can be locked or not in position, either half way or fully down. With the keel up draught is 3', down it is 12'. Besides the ballast, there is a large tank built into the keel, which can be either water, diesel or kerosene. In Northanger the keel is raised (with great effort) using a multi pulley'd/cable come-a-long. Other vessels have used an electric winch or hydraulic winch. The latter is considered for Northanger. As a whole the arrangement seems to be problem free. When the keel is down and in an unlocked position, there is a danger of when grounding and the keel comes up, when it drops back down suddenly rather than gradually, the shock could cause damage to the keel box. There have been various arrangements (some work some ???) in other boats to dampen the shock. Northanger usually locks the keel, unless there is positive knowledge the bottom has a gradual slope.

The Damien design is extremely robust to be able to sail/motor through severe ice conditions, including overwintering in ice. I would not say it is an "ideal" boat for hot climates. The original design did not allow for adequate ventilation, sailing in the tropics is like being inside an oven.

Hope this gives you some of the information you are looking for, if not please let me know with specific questions. If I am unable to answer them, I am sure Greg will send a reply in a month (or so) when time permits.

Regards Karel Doruyter Base manager Greenland Expedition

Posted by Steve Dashew  (November 30, 1999)

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