As French single-handed sailor François Gabart basks in well-earned adulation for his record-breaking victory in the Vendee Globe round the world non-stop yacht race (and let’s not forget Armel Le Cléac’h, who finished only just over 3 hours behind), spare a thought for their compatriot, Jean-Pierre Dick.
His keel fell off in the Atlantic Ocean eight days ago – 2000 miles from the finish – and he’s still racing.
Jean-Pierre has, thus far, skillfully nursed his sick Virbac Paprec 3 – juggling water ballast, dagger-boards and sail area – through conditions in which one would rather have a keel to say the least. As we write, he’s hugging north west Spain’s aptly tagged ‘Costa da Morte’, a place that seasoned offshore sailors usually give a wide berth to.
But within the jagged teeth of Cabo Finisterre – its proper name – there are one or two harbours of refuge should conditions eventually dictate that a crossing of the Bay of Biscay without a keel might be more like the ‘Voyage for Madmen’.
That essential part of a sailing yacht’s elements – the weight that counteracts the heeling force of wind on sails – rather remarkably took thousands of years to find its way through the hull to where it is most useful: underneath.
Until Scottish yacht designer G.L. Watson (1851-1904) became the first to apply all outside, all lead ballast to a yacht with his experimental apprentice adventure, Peg Woffington of 1871, there had been a painfully slow evolution: from stone to iron internal ballast. That was about it, from the Phoenicians to the Victorians.
In 1834, Scottish ship and yacht builder Robert Steele of Greenock experimented in the cutter Wave with an iron external keel, and may have been the first to do so, at least in Europe.
But it is G.L. Watson who is credited with driving matters forward, first with Peg Woffington, then, in 1875, his first successful racing cutter Clotilde’s lead keel was moulded to blend in with the hull shape, rather than a bolted-on slab. Her evolution, the 5-tonner Vril, made his name, with an even more daring amount of her total ballast in a moulded external lead keel.
Within 20 years, mainstream racing yacht designers – especially Watson, Nathanael Herreshoff (USA) and Charles Sibbick (England) – were well acquainted with the wonders of a lead or iron ‘bulb’ suspended precariously by a slim fin below a shallow ‘skimming dish’ hull; such was the rapid development in yacht design during the early 1890s.
And then nothing very much happened. Conservatism meant that racing yachts reverted to heavier displacement until well into the 1960s, which was no bad thing really – following G.L. Watson’s ‘Britannia Ideal’.
But, returning to the 1890s: we are not aware of any catastrophic keel failures in extreme fin and bulb racers at that time, despite the rapid introduction of radical new shapes and the consequential structural design and boatbuilding implications. However, the materials available at the time were barely able to cope with the loadings while remaining light enough. Survivors, like the Charles Sibbick designed and built Bona Fide of 1899 are extremely rare. Her performance is remarkable even by modern standards.
Fin, and then fin and bulb keels became the norm again for racing yachts from the late 1960s. And since the mid 1990s, at the more extreme end of our sport, the canting keel – like Alex Thomson’s on Hugo Boss, in the video above, has become the norm.
But almost 20 years on, they’re still falling off.
We don’t know all the answers, yet.
Fair winds and seas to Jean-Pierre Dick, and the rest of the Vendee fleet.
While writing this, Alex Thomson finished comfortably third in the Vendee Globe, his finishing time extended after his seaman/sportsmanlike shadowing of the keel-less Le Cléac’h. On the final stretch Thomson was running 400-mile days under foresail alone.
G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, Martin Black’s beautifully illustrated and produced biography can be purchased online here.