Water Sports - 13 min read

10 Types of Sailboat Keels (Canting, Bilge, Bulb & More!)

Town and Tourist

Town and Tourist, Updated October 30, 2022

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Every component of a sailboat affects the cost, handling, and safety of the vessel. Perhaps none of these components are as overlooked as keels. So, how many types of sailboat keels are there and how do they differ?

The most common types of sailboat keels are bilge, bulb, and fin keels which are beloved for their speed. Full keels offer the most stability and make them best-suited for ocean sailing compared to shoal and daggerboard keels. Lifting, twin, and bilge keels are all popular as well and are known for providing a smooth ride.

Factors such as the size of your sailboat and where you intend to take it to help determine which type of keels you should consider. Some types of sailboat keels, such as full keels are great for ocean sailing whereas shoal keels are ideal for shallow waters. Follow along as we explore the 10 types of sailboat keels and see what the best practical use is for each one.

Sailboat Keel Types

Each of the types of sailboat keel is different in style, application, and ideal use. For example, fin keels are great for racing sailboats whereas shoal keels are better for cruising. You also need to consider how far you plan to go from shore and which type of water you are sailing through.

For example, some keels can easily cut through choppy water without suffering stability. On the other hand, some sailboat keels are only suited for smooth and shallow waters. Let’s take a look at the 10 types of sailboat keels.

1. Canting

YachtWorld

Canting keels are among the most practical and impressive types of sailboat keels. They come in a wide variety of sizes that are proportionate to the size of the boat in question. Canting keels are attached to a strut underneath the boat and they are designed to extend as low as possible.

This dynamic keel isn’t fixed, so you can adjust it based on the wind and the direction of your boat. Many boaters look for this in a sailboat because it lets you react accordingly under different weather and water conditions. Ideally, you should be able to adjust a canting keel while onboard so that you can go as fast as possible.

2. Bilge

Pinterest

Bilge keels refer to multiple fins that extend from the bottom of a sailboat. Neither of the 2 fins sticks out too far, so you won’t have to worry about damage when you come close to shore or sail through shallow water. They aren’t the fasted type of keel, but they are quite easy to maintain because of their relatively small size and simple design.

Arguably the biggest benefit of bilge keels is that they offer superior roll stability. This provides a smoother ride which is essential if you sail through rough waters or easily get seasick. You will most commonly find sailboats with bilge keys in areas with shallow water around a coastline.

A bilge keel should last for years to come as long as you properly maintain it. Dry your bilge out every few months and clean it so that it continues to work well and doesn’t suffer algae damage.

3. Bulb

Boat Design Net

Consider a sailboat with a bulb keel if you value stability and safety. Also known as wing keels, bulb keels are perfect for large sailboats and can help keep them on track. That can be difficult to do with a massive sailboat, especially in inclement weather conditions or in rough water.

A bulb keel can use its weight to balance a large or long sailboat when it shifts from one side to another. As the name suggests, bulb keels are shaped like a standard bulb, and they look almost like teardrops. They are low-maintenance as long as you can dry and clean your bulb keel’s surface every few months if you use it often.

4. Daggerboard

Practical Sailor

Daggerboards are a unique variety of keels that are removable and easy to maintain. They are easy to use for beginners and seasoned sailors alike. However, you should only use a daggerboard keel with a small boat because it may not be strong enough to sway one that is long and heavy.

A sailboat with a daggerboard can sail up to 2 knots faster than other sailboats under the right conditions. Daggerboards make it easy to steady and balance your sailboat because you can easily adjust the boards themselves. With that said, the presence of a daggerboard can add a lot of money to the cost of a sailboat.

They can add up to $15,000 or more to the cost of a boat, especially if you get one with a dual daggerboard which offers more control. Daggerboards are also cumbersome and can reduce some of the storage space on your boat depending on which type of hull you have.

5. Fin

Sailboat Cruising

Your sailboat likely has a fin keel if it was made in the last 10-15 years. Fin keels are commonly praised for being precise and fast which is useful in fresh water and saltwater. A fin sticks out of the bottom of the sailboat in the perfect shape that doesn’t reduce your sailboat’s hydrodynamic nature.

You get more speed with a fin keel than most of the alternatives because they aren’t cumbersome. Their shape is meant to easily cut through the water without any trouble. Fin keels can also easily steady a sailboat as it sways even if the waters are rough or the weather is bad.

They also appeal to beginners because fin keels make it all too easy to steer sailboats of any size. Storage isn’t a problem for sailboats with fin keels because they don’t take up too much internal space that could be used for cargo. You can find fin keels on everything from casual cruisers to professional-grade racing sailboats.

6. Full-Length

Rigging Doctor

Full-length keels are a popular alternative to fin keels, even if they are somewhat slower and less modern. With that said, sailboats with full keels make up for the lack of speed and precision with stability. The stability that a sailboat with a full keel has to offer is unparalleled in the world of marine technology.

That is large because the keel starts at the front and continues all the way through the aft. Unlike some other varieties, full keels are a part of the hull itself. This makes them large and heavy which can limit the speed but also makes it much easier to control your sailboat.

7. Shoal

Life of Sailing

Shoal keel sailboats are unique in that they have a limited draft which makes them perfect for drifting. However, you aren’t limited to any particular style or activity with a shoal keel unless you take your boat out far into rough waters. They aren’t as stable as full keel sailboats which put you at a higher risk of capsizing if an emergency occurs.

You wouldn’t necessarily want to take a shoal keel sailboat out for a long-distance trip. They are best suited for fun excursions that don’t take you too far from shore or into choppy waters. Even still, sailboats with shoal keels can easily handle a trip close to shore or even within shallow lagoons. 

8. Twin

Sirius-Yachts

Twin keels are a type of bilge keel that has 2 keels and they have recently become popular again. Their rise in popularity is mainly because of their handling and how smooth they are. You can easily make a wide turn with a sailboat equipped with a twin keel and maintain a similar speed.

Another major benefit of sailboats with twin keels is that they can stand when you bring them to shore. This makes it easy to connect your sailboat to a trailer, perform routine maintenance, and transport it. Great performance aside, this is a major selling point of twin keels because it can otherwise be difficult to maintain and transport a sailboat.

9. Quad

Yacht Harbor

Sailboats with quad keels particularly come in handy if you need to make several tight turns on a single trip. Quad keels are designed so that you won’t have to fight to steady your sailboat once you’ve made a turn. Of course, you will need to adjust based on the situation, but the additional keels make it all too easy to navigate tight passages.

10. Lifting

Owen Clarke Design

Lifting keels, or swing keels, are retractable, stable, and easy to use. You can even beach a boat with a lifting keel without worrying about causing damage. They are retractable and your boat can operate well whether your lifting keel is up or down.

You get more variety with a lifting keel than you would get with one that is in a fixed position and unable to move. Speed isn’t necessarily the main appeal of boats with lifting keels, but they are lightweight nonetheless. All that you need to do is raise or lower the keel via a lever attached to ropes or a pulley.

With that said, you need to keep an eye on several key components of your lifting keel so that it stays in good shape. Lifting keels require a system that includes a winch, turning ball, and cable which are all necessary to function. Otherwise, there aren’t any downsides to a lifting keel as long as you keep up with the maintenance.

Best Keel For Ocean Sailing

Full-length keels are the best option for ocean sailing because they are reliable. They don’t offer as much speed as a fin keel, but they are much more reliable. Full keels are the most comfortable option for ocean sailing because of their smooth and easy-to-control nature.

You can support from a full keel throughout the majority of your sailboat’s hull. This is invaluable while ocean sailing because there will always be an element of waves and choppiness. It also doesn’t hurt that you won’t have to worry about your sailboat changing course while ocean sailing.

With that said, some boaters prefer fin keels for ocean sailing because of their speed and maneuverability. The right choice for you comes down to whether or not you want to cruise casually or enjoy a speedy journey at sea. Personally, the stability of a full keel is more appealing than the extra speed of fin keels because you need a stable vessel on the ocean.

Best Sailboat Keel For Fishing

Bilge keels and shoal keels are the best sailboat keels for fishing. They can both handle shallow waters quite well and can easily navigate tight passages. That is often necessary when fishing, especially if you visit small coves and lagoons and need as much control as possible.

Sailboats aren’t always thought of as the best types of boats for fishing, but choosing the right keel can make a huge difference. Bilge and shoal keels both have shallow drafts which give you more control in areas where you’d be likely to stop and catch some fish. A bilge keel or shoal can make the difference between a sailboat that is suitable for fishing and one that is meant for racing and cruising.

Sailboat Keel Material

Sailboat keels are made of several types of materials, but the most common are lead and cast iron. Each of these materials is durable enough to withstand prolonged exposure to water which is unavoidable with sailboat keels. Typically, sailboat keels are made of a combination of several materials in small concentrations.

For example, many sailboat keels feature a combination of cast iron, lead, and concrete infused with iron. The mixture gives the keel stability and protects the metals from quickly corroding from water. Many boaters and enthusiasts are reasonably apprehensive about the presence of lead, but lead isn’t in every keel.

The presence of lead typically only applies to sailboat keels that have a ballast, but not all keels with ballasts even have lead.  With that said, you will find lead in many of the most popular types of sailboat keels, such as fin keels. You can typically count on the presence of cast iron, however, because it is superior to other types of iron in terms of durability.

What is an Encapsulated Keel?

Grabau International

An encapsulated keel is a keel that is part of the hull itself. You can encapsulate several different types of keels, especially if you customize a sailboat or yacht. This will come at an extra cost, but many sailors find the money worthwhile given the added stability.

Encapsulated keels have become more common and are now often available as stock parts of new boats. The keel is molded to the hull instead of attached with hardware such as rivets. This is essential to the stability of an encapsulated keel because you won’t have to worry about hardware suffering water damage.

Can You Sail Without a Keel?

You can sail without a keel if you have a dinghy, and that is an affordable alternative to a standard sailboat. They are tiny sailboats that don’t have a ballast or keel and measure under 20 feet long. Dinghies are safe to sail with, but you shouldn’t go out more than 1-2 miles from shore.

Otherwise, you risk losing your course because of the lack of a keel that can help keep your vessel on the right path. The further you take a boat out, the easier it is to stray from your path even with modern navigation technology.

You should never attempt to sail a boat that is over 20 feet long without a keel whether it is damaged or you removed it. This will take away much of the control that you need to safely sail whether your distance is short or long. Your sailboat needs a keel whether it’s a monohull or multi-hull vessel if it’s over 20 feet long.

So, What Are The Types of Sailboat Keels?

The best types of sailboat keels are fin keels, full keels, and bilge keels. They all offer a great mixture of precision and maneuverability, but full keels in particular offer the most stability of them all. Bulb keels are another great option if you want a sailboat keel that is stable and safe.

However, you need to especially keep an eye on bulb keels because they can easily carry scum and algae. Lifting sailboat keels are great because they are retractable so you don’t need to worry about your approach to shore. Full keels are the most well-rounded and best suited for ocean sailing, but fin keels are the fastest and most precise.

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