Stuck On Centerline

Canting keels make sailboats lighter, faster, and easier to sail. And when done right, they're safe. So why is the mainstream sailing public so afraid of them? A feature from our September 2008 issue.

October 23, 2008

Wild Oats canting keel 368

Rolex/carlo Borlenghi

Imagine being given the keys to a shiny new Ferrari. Imagine climbing inside the red coupe, settling deep into the bucket seat, and wrapping your fingers around the leather-bound steering wheel. Imagine turning the key, lightly touching the accelerator, and feeling the sonorous rumble flood through your body. Then as you prepare to ease off the clutch and drive away, someone leans into the car and says, “Ah yeah, one thing. Don’t take it out of first gear.”

This will give you some idea how proponents of canting-keel technology felt when organizers of Skandia Cowes Week said canting-keel yachts over 46 feet were welcome to compete in the 2008 edition of the annual British summer classic only if their keels were locked on centerline.

Their response was an unsurprising mix of outrage and incredulity. But Cowes Week organizers held firm, maintaining that canters of this size are impossible to handicap fairly against fixed-keel boats. Bring along a few more boats, they said, and you can have a class of your own. Otherwise, lock it down, and get a new rating.
Across the pond, organizers of the Bermuda Race have maintained a similar stance for many years, requiring that all canters race in an Open Division, and deeming them ineligible for the race’s premiere handicap trophies.
Sailors have always been slow to accept new technology. But canting keels are not really new. This concept goes back 60 years, possibly longer. It’s been proven to be fast, reliable, and, safe. Yet getting the general sailing population to embrace this technology has been a battle. The decisions of Cowes Week and Bermuda Race organizers, along with the lack of sustainable success of any production boats with this technology, indicate it’s a battle that won’t be won soon, if ever.


The Sailing Machine
Even on the hard, nearly three decades after it first splashed into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, the Red Herring still turns heads. The narrow double-ender looks like it could glide through the water with the slightest push. The spindly strut that sticks out of the bottom and terminates in a torpedo-shaped bulb invites a closer look, which reveals that while it’s attached to the hull above, it’s not quite fixed. It generates more than a few questions from passersby.

“You know what you could do for us?” a yard foreman asks Steve Clark, the boat’s owner, one day in July. “Print out an 8-by-5-inch card that explains everything about the boat so we can just hand it to people when they ask.”

Clark laughs. He has a better idea. What if the boat did that itself? How about a button that the curious could push and be rewarded with a quick oral history of this revolutionary design?


“Hello, I am the Red Herring, the first keelboat to separate the traditional duties of the keel, lift and righting moment, allowing each to be created more efficiently. Nearly 30 years after I was built, I’m still an oddity, occasionally an outlaw…”

For years, Clark’s father Van Alan Clark, an economist by trade, sailed a Block Island 40. People often asked him when he was going to buy a new boat. His response, in effect, was: “When you find one, let me know.”
Van Alan Clark didn’t see much value in swapping his traditional keelboat for one that was incrementally faster. Instead, he dreamed of building something truly different.

In the 1940s, L. Francis Herreshoff published a plan for an innovative yacht in The Common Sense of Yacht Design. In chapter 18, “The Sailing Machine,” he described a slender double-ender of 45 feet with a manually operated swing keel to generate additional righting moment. As a result the boat was light, around 7,500 lbs., and fast, despite carrying a rather modest sail plan. Whether or not Herreshoff came up with the canting keel idea himself is a subject of debate. Some say the idea may go back to turn of the century yacht designer Dixon Kemp.


But Herreshoff’s design was the first to be built. Jim Young, a New Zealand yacht designer, built a version of it in the 1950s. Fiery Cross was the world’s first canting-keel boat. It quickly ran into two roadblocks: the rating officials had no desire to handicap it, and, when the keel was canted and the boat heeled, there was little to prevent leeway.

In the late 1970s, Van Alan Clark contacted Dave Hubbard, an engineer with whom the elder Clark had worked on C Class catamarans. He had an idea how to build a nimble cruising boat that could be easily handled by two people.

Since Van Alan Clark didn’t plan to race his boat, rating it wasn’t a problem. He and Hubbard solved the leeway issue with centerboards. Steve Clark likens the original underbody of Red Herring to a “picket fence,” with two pivoting centerboards, the keel strut, and a boxy rudder. It was 54 feet long and powered by a cat ketch rig, with two fully battened mains mounted on rotating masts.


In other respects the boat was conservative. Eric Goetz built it out of solid wood and the sail plan was quite small. “Off and on it would display impressive pieces of performance,” says Steve Clark. “But I regarded her as pretty disappointing.”

But, he adds, as a “proof of concept,” it was a success. People said it wouldn’t go to windward. It did. And on a reach in breeze it was blazing fast.

Van Alan Clark died in 1984 before he had a chance to really refine the boat. Among the few people who took a serious interest in buying the boat were some singlehanded ocean racers. Steve Clark decided against selling, figuring if anyone were going to break the boat, it would be him.

But the concept had too much potential to be ignored by the offshore racing world. Michel Desjoyeaux won the second leg of the 1991 Mini Transat with a canting keel and soon after Isabelle Autissier launched an Open 60 with canting-keel technology. Now, virtually all open-class ocean racers (supermaxis, Open 60s, Volvo 70s, Mini 6.50s) are built with canting keels.

Steve Clark thinks his father would be proud to see how far his concept has evolved, to see monohulls sailing at multihull speeds. However, would he also be a little surprised that his original goal of a fast, easy-to-sail cruising boat hasn’t taken root, and that sailors have stubbornly refused to embrace this technology?

Schock and Awe
For the 1987 America’s Cup in Fremantle, Western Australia, Tom Blackaller campaigned a radical 12 Meter that featured fore and aft rudders, which provided both lift and steerage, and a large dollop of lead hanging from a short strut, which kept the boat upright. USA-61 was fast, but difficult to control. Before Blackaller could get a handle on it, he and his team were eliminated from the Louis Vuitton Cup.

One of the Solings that Blackaller’s design team used to test the concept wound up in the hands of DynaYacht, a small yacht design firm founded by Chuck Robinson, Bill Burns, and Matt Brown. They put a canting keel on the boat and started developing the Canting Ballast Twin Foil technology. Over the next decade the team retrofitted a Catalina 30-with an eye on the cruising boat market-and a stretched Hobie 33. One of the key problems was linking the fore and aft rudders together and to a tiller and developing a way to angle both foils slightly to windward upwind to create lift with less leeway. With that sorted, the team built a 40-foot prototype.
The Red Hornet went upwind like a quick 40-footer. Off the wind, it could keep pace with 70-footers. The performance was eye opening. However, says project test pilot Peter Isler, what most impressed him about the boat was how easy it was to sail. The boat steered like a traditional single-rudder keelboat and the canting hydraulics could run all day on a single charge. At just 7,000 lbs.-nearly 4,000 lbs. less than a Farr 40-the boat didn’t require a large sail plan. As a result the loads were manageable and there wasn’t any need for a large or experienced crew.

With Isler at the helm, Red Hornet embarked on an extended U.S. tour, hitting everything from Key West Race Week-winning boat of the week honors in PHRF 1 in 1998-to the St. Francis YC’s Big Boat Series. The technology received a mixed response from race organizers.

“Early on the with Hobie 33 CBTF boat I had to beg organizers to let us sail as an exhibition class of one,” says Isler. “Most of [the race organizers] had never been exposed to any of the previous boats with moveable keels. The whole concept of moving your ballast runs contrary to traditional concepts of seamanship and what a sailboat should be. There was resistance with questions of safety and, ‘Hey, you’re not allowed to do this.'”
DynaYacht marketed the technology to production boat builders, but found that only West Coast builder Tom Schock was willing to take the chance. The Schock 40 hit the market in 1999 and won the 2000 Sailing World Boat of the Year overall award. “It probably isn’t this easy every year,” wrote judge and sailmaker Dan Neri in the December 2000/January 2001 issue of Sailing World. “But in the end…picking the overall winner required little discussion.”

As a production boat, and a burgeoning one-design-which allowed the class to skirt the rules against moveable ballast and auxiliary power-the Schock 40 had fewer troubles getting into events. But it wasn’t immune, especially when it ventured outside of the sled-friendly confines of Southern California.

“The guys at the Chicago Mac, one year didn’t let us race,” says Schock. “I flew back to Chicago in November for a meeting and they said, ‘You can’t race because we don’t think the boat is rated fairly.'”

Rating the boat isn’t easy. “How do you fairly rate a boat that has such an extreme performance difference,” says Schock. “Honestly, I sympathize with them. We’ve got a 40-foot boat upwind and a 65-foot boat downwind.”

Still, he says, rating offices can, and do, go too far to protect their existing fleets. “If you penalize a guy to where he can’t win,” he says, “why should he come play?”

After a flurry of initial orders-and 10 boats out the door-interest dwindled.
Two well publicized capsizes, involving the same boat, also played a significant role in the boat’s fading popularity. The boat, then owned by Schock, first lost its keel in December of 2002 on a demo sail in 7 to 10 knots of breeze.

Schock says the first failure was the result of a grounding not long after the boat was launched in early 2001, which weakened the weld that attached the keel to a rotating tube in the hull. Keels fall off fixed-keel boats as well. But new technology is always under a microscope.

When a haunting image of the twin foils pointing skyward appeared online the next day; many sailors wondered whether the technology and the boat were inherently flawed and dangerous. When it happened again a few years later, it reinforced the feeling.

“If you look at the statistics of these boats,” says Bill Burns of DyanYacht, “they’re no more dangerous than other boats. But because they’re such cool boats, when something goes wrong, everybody knows about it.”
Burns, however, wonders if they might have pushed too hard to make the boat impressive to racing sailors. In addition to being fast and light, it had a remarkable initial price tag of just under $200,000. “You need to detune a technology like CBTF for a high-volume manufacturing process,” says Burns. “[Custom boatyards] love their craft, they love their technology. When you get to manufacturing, other variables become more important, like low-cost production volume and output. That’s when a high-tech concept begins to have problems.”

Is Bigger Better?
While the Schock 40 failed to capture the fancy of the sailing public, the technology struck a chord with owners of larger, custom race boats. Not long after the Schock 40 went into production, Australian wine entrepreneur Bob Oatley took over a half-built 66-foot raceboat and instructed Reichel/Pugh to outfit it with CBTF technology. Wild Oats X led the Australian Royal Prince Alfred YC club team to victory in the 2003 Admiral’s Cup, dominating the IRC division. MaxZ86 owners Roy Disney and Hasso Plattner followed suit. Oatley and Neville Crichton (Shockwave/Alfa Romeo) took the technology to the 100-foot level, staging a couple of memorable long-distance match races. In 2005, the 98-foot Wild Oats XI earned a remarkable triple in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race, taking line honors, setting a new course record, and winning overall on handicap.
With the Volvo Ocean Race moving to a canting-keel 70-footer for the 2005-’06 edition and the Open 60 class having long since embraced canting keels, grand-prix ocean racing is dominated by this technology.

This cuts both ways. “It’s good, has to be good,” says Schock. “More great minds looking at it, it gets thing rolling. The sport is going to grow. You’ve got to have nifty things. You’ve got to have improvement. We can’t keep sailing Newport 30s forever.”

The top speeds of these beasts are eye-popping and do wonders when it comes to debunking sailing’s staid, stuffy image. However, there have also been many failures. The Volvo 70s pushed the technology to so hard that half the fleet almost sunk the first night of the last Volvo Ocean Race. Movistar was later abandoned in the North Atlantic after problems with its keel mechanism. Last spring, a similar problem forced round-the-world champion Vincent Riou to abandon his Open 60 midway through the Artemis Transat Race from England to Boston.

The question that the public is forced to ponder each time is whether the cause of the failure is the technology involved or the fact that these high-end programs are building their boats with very thin safety margins.
These ocean racers are also extremely challenging to sail, requiring an extraordinary amount of courage, muscle, and experience. This brands any boat with the technology as something beyond the grasp of the weekend warrior.

“The direction that CBTF was taken, to the bigger, fairly narrow, massive-sail-plan-maxi boats, was a direction that may be right for the guys sailing the boats, but is wrong for the sport,” says Isler, who does plenty of professional sailing on just these sort of boats. “The bigger sail plans are rewarded, so the boats can be bigger, so there are more loads, so the boats are harder to sail, so you need a more professional crew. The whole fun factor goes away. Maybe these big-rig boats are a little bit faster, but they’re way harder to sail.”

The Schock 40, with its undersized sail plan, is exactly the opposite. “You think it’s going to be this super complicated thing,” says Jason Rhodes, a former Farr 40 and Olympic-class dinghy sailor from Vancouver, B.C. “Because it doesn’t weigh a lot, things don’t load up. My wife trims the jib and the kite. On our Wednesday evening sails we just bring people on board that have never been sailing before. They don’t have to hike like idiots.”

Ron O’Hanley moved from a Swan 48 to a Cookson 50 in 2007, choosing the canting-keel boat because it would be easier to sail. “We were doing very well with the 48 and wanted to go to next level,” says O’Hanley, “but wanted something that we could continue to sail Corinthian. That rules out a few things. I didn’t think we’d be able to be competitive in the TP 52 class.”

O’Hanley and his team were able to quickly get the 50-foot Privateer up to speed. They finished second at a very windy St. Maarten Heineken Regatta in early March-just behind a TP 52-and then won the four-boat Open Division of the 2008 Bermuda Race, beating Ken Read’s Volvo 70 il mostro by 37 minutes on corrected time.

Can’t Keep a Good Idea Down
Irish sailor Ger O’Rourke, who campaigned a Cookson 50 for three years, doesn’t think that even the most conservative race organizers and the most protective rating rules will be able to keep canting keels at bay. “I’m confident that canting keels will still be here in 10 years time,” he says. “They’re only going to slow it down. They’re not going to stop it.”

In the meantime, he’s moved on, purchasing the winning ABN AMRO boat from the 2005-’06 Volvo Ocean Race and readying it for the start of the 2008-’09 edition in October. He agrees with the Cowes Week organizers that a separate class for canting keels may be the best way to handle it, eventually.

“Wait until the class develops,” he says. “Wait until we get more than five or six canting keels boat that are not Open 60s. Then bang us into our own class. They’re seemingly trying to kill it before it begins.”
O’Hanley wonders if maybe the rating officials and race organizers will succeed, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. “I think the jury’s still out,” he says. If the Newport Bermuda Race restricts Privateer to the Open Division again in 2010, O’Hanley isn’t likely to enter the boat.

Schock has put the molds for his 40 in storage. But he hasn’t given up on his boat. “We have the feeling that the boat is still somewhat ahead of the market,” he says.

So what will turn the tide? A strong one-design class would have quite a bit of leverage. But getting that level of success will be a challenge. Aside from Schock, others have tried, or are in the process of trying. But no designs have yet shown breakthrough potential, at least in the traditional ocean racing markets of the United States, England, and France. Farr Yacht Designs recently put a tentative foot in with the Farr 11s, a 36-foot design that the company is marketing as a semi-production boat. Six have been sold to date. With twin daggerboards and rudders-both of which are manually retractable-the boat isn’t as simple to sail as the Schock 40, but it’s even quicker on the water. Unfortunately, its IRC rating of 1.341 puts it nearly even with TP 52s and renders difficult any honors under that system. Other production canters include the Swedish Backman 21, which features an 8-to-1 block and tackle control system for the 500-pound bulb, and the Cookson 50, 10 of which have been built since 2004.

British yacht designer Jo Richards thinks the answer could come from another facet of the sailing world.
“What will happen is that we’ll see them in cruisers before we have them in race boats because you don’t take any penalties,” says Richards, who drew the absurdly fast Full Pelt X, a skiff-like 36-footer that can plane upwind and carries an IRC rating of 1.704. “A little bit of righting moment means you can get rid of some of the weight out of the boat, which means you can have another Jacuzzi. It allows you to do a lot more with your boat, have a lot more toys with you and keep the same performance.”

In the United States, at least, that will require a change of mind from the builders who turned down CBTF a decade ago. One worry for production builders, according to an industry source, is putting all these critical moving parts in the hands of owners who may only haul their boat once a year, are not known for their rigorous maintenance schedule, and will occasionally put their boats on the rocks. One careless owner can lead to one horrible accident and an inescapable amount of bad press.

With the economy struggling, this isn’t a risk anyone’s likely to take soon. So canting-keel owners, sailors, and designers will be forced to proceed forward piecemeal, without a vanguard one-design fleet to lead the way.
Not that they mind all that much, even if the establishment continues to make life, and winning, difficult. “I don’t have to win races to feel good,” says Rhodes. “I want to enjoy racing with friends and enjoy the boat.” Another Schock 40 is en route to Vancouver and Rhodes is eager to have someone to compete against or to join him for a fast cruise.

While options are limited, joining the canting keel fraternity is neither difficult nor prohibitively expensive. The Schock 40s available online are all around $100,000. Teddy Turner IV is selling American Eagle, with a new keel strut, awlgrip, and engine, for $92,500. With a J/92s and a cruising catamaran, he simply can’t find enough time to sail it. Though he wishes he could. Just like Red Herring in Bristol, the three-pronged underbody of American Eagle gets plenty of befuddled stares from visitors to Turner’s Charleston Boat Works in Charleston, S.C.

“People look at it when they come by the boat yard and they go, “What the heck is that?” he says. Once they go for a sail, however, the expression changes. “You go upwind, you push the keel, and the boat takes off. There’s nothing like it.”

Which is the best thing about the boat. And the worst thing, too.


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