Boat designs influenced by rules? History shows us canting keel maxis are stupid

I recently read a nice article about a traditional “plank on edge” cutter that was built in England.  The article is on my good friend, Gavin Atkin’s website.

The owner, Jeff Stobbe, did a beautiful job of building the boat.

But gosh, he has done a nice job!  There are more pics and text on Gavin’s website – the link is above.

Plank on Edge Cutter recreation built in the UK.

Jeff put in the hard yards, doing a wonderful job of working out the details, but found it too tender to sail effectively.  It heels a lot in moderate winds.

Jeff apparently has decided to dismantle the boat and try to make it into a moter launch by trimming and simplifying the bottom.

So what about Rules and thinking about Boat Design?

However the article led me to think why such strange boats appeared in the past and if we are prone to the same thinking now.

Francis Herreshoff in some of his writings for Rudder magazine mentions how these boats developed because of rating rules.

Canting Keel yachts are as silly as old time "plank on edge" yachts. It is possible to go faster easier and cheaper.

Instead of actually measuring the beam, depth and length of hull to get some factor to represent displacement they measured the beam of the boat and squared it to represent the depth of the boat. At that time most normal boats had beam and depth measurements that were fairly similar … so they thought it would be a useful short cut for measurement and saved the boat being taken out of the water.

So if you only measure beam to estimate performance for handicapping then the the designer will attempt to improve the handicap by reducing beam and trying to compensate for the narrow beam with lots of depth and lots of lead.

I can’t remember who wrote it and whether it was reported by Herreshoff or Tony Marchaj, but there are mentions that some of these boats heeled over to 15 degrees FROM THE HORIZONTAL (!!!!) in normal sailing conditions. Also there is an eyewitness account that another boat could see one of these heeled over at a crazy angle in the distance. So they thought a squall was coming and reefed heavily to prepare.

When they got closer they found moderate sailing conditions, but that the “plank on edge” cutter was well heeled over.

There is a lesson in this about boat design. The English persisted in the idea that these boats were FAST. But in reality they were slow but the rating/handicap rule saw them as even slower than they were. The brits (or at least some of them) were not able to jump out of their paradigm.

It is pretty similar to the situation now with ocean racers with deep bulb keels that swing over to the side. They think they are FAST … again.


But the reality is that the next step is to get the bulb above the water … then you can have the “keel” as long as you like without hitting bottom and dramatically reducing the drag. Then to prevent excessive heeling or capsize to windward … why not turn the bulb into another hull allowing the main hull to be slimmer and allowing the bulb to be really light but much further out from the hull.

Hey … we have just invented the Catamaran. Which is why a 40ft multihull will burn off a 70ft canting keel monohull on just about any point of sail. Get rid of the lead and go for more width, I say!

motor for keel

And then you wouldn’t need the 250 horsepower diesel ticking over to provide the hydraulic lifting (pic above) to flip the keel from side to side. Every major ocean race should have a trophy for the lowest fuel consumption over the course!!!  The engine runs 24/7 and automatically increases revs when extra winch power or keel swinging power is needed.

This is what the rule says or said …

42.1 Basic Rule Except when permitted in rule 42.3 or 45, a boat shall compete by  using only the wind and water to increase, maintain or decrease her speed. Her crew may adjust the trim of sails and hull, and perform other acts of seamanship, but shall not otherwise move their bodies to propel the boat


  • (e) A boat may reduce speed by repeatedly moving her helm.
  • (f) Any means of propulsion may be used to help a person or another vessel in danger.
  • (g) To get clear after grounding or colliding with another boat or object, a boat may use force applied by the crew of either boat and any equipment other than a propulsion engine.
  • (h) Sailing instructions may, in stated circumstances, permit propulsion using an engine or any other method, provided the boat does not gain a significant advantage in the race.

It is the most stupid thing and a massive waste of resources that could produce cheaper, simpler and faster boats … and is result of the fatuous separation between mono and multi sailing and corruption of the basic rules by lobbyists.

The real problem is because the “easy” solution of fitting big engines has been allowed then there will never be a technical solution found that will allow the keel to be canted without an engine.  On smaller boats they have found ways for the crew to manually handle the keels without needing engines.  So what might have happened if engines had been continued to be banned is that a series of clever ideas which would have allowed manual methods of keel canting to be incorporated into larger and larger boats as development continued?

Or just to see the BEST way to get weight out to windward is sailing a multihull.  The canting keelers aren’t even close to this type of performance.  Look at all that weight out to windward, little water drag, a triumph of simplicity.

America's cup multihulls are much more efficient than any canting keel yacht.

Remember that a much smaller and cheaper multi than these will outclass a canting keeler on most points of sail in most wind conditions and probably hold together in rougher conditions.

Maybe there is something good about the America’s Cup after all!?

Pardon the (bitter) rant :)

Pics of my boat designs

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5 thoughts on “Boat designs influenced by rules? History shows us canting keel maxis are stupid

  1. MIK

    Enjoyed your analysis of the “rules = designs” cycle – especially the view that the designs are then perceived to be “fast” 😉

    Looking forward to a trimaran design from you – you already know that I (and lots of others) really appreciate your approach to getting speed from simplicity and would like to see your take on something like a ultra-simple 9m trimaran.

    Definitely not trying to bait you, a serious wish to see something like this from your drawing board.


    • Hi Tom,

      It is a really interesting one and there are lots of myths to implode.

      A few years ago I found a second hand copy of a history or the British Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) that was published around 1960 (?). The club along with the American CCA (Cruising Club of America) which had been on the forefront of creating the offshore racing tradition.

      It was written by Adlard Coles who has written several books about heavy weather sailing that have been highly influential.

      The book was quite critical of existing sailing before the second world war with the fleet anchoriing whenever there were strong winds on the nose. The boats just were not up to it. These included Channel Cutters and some designs championed by Claude Worth. The boats just couldn’t make ground to windward in those conditions.

      There is a saying “gentlemen don’t sail to windward”. The reality is that Gentlemen yacht owners in the UK or the USA were unable to, however those in Scandinavia or in Polynesia (or their homeland of modern day Taiwan) had been managing it for decades or millennia.

      Then along came Blondie Hasler and his bunch of commandos sailing the Scandinavian restricted sail area rule 30 square metre boat – Tre Sang. It was cramped, low freeboard, but light narrow and long. So it would eat up to windward and fly downwind when the indigenous British tradition was too nervous to lift anchor.

      Adlard Coles in his boats called Cohoe were derived from Scandanavian theory as well.

      Also John Illingworth who put together a series of boat called xxx of Malham. My very favourite boat of this era was his strikingly modern looking “Myth of Malham” which I think is a truly beautiful boat, despite most traditionally minded types thinking she was an abomination. But perform she did. The only foolishness were the large genoas that gave unmeasured sail area under the rule. Very inefficient sail area, but extra that allowed the basic rig to be reduced in size so the rule would think the boat didn’t have much sail.

      The truly stupid part of genoas were that they were adopted for cruising boats too and you can find dozens of old article about “cruising genoas”

      In the Americas the revolution was as International Rule boats such as 6, 8 and 12 metre yachts (the old America’s Cup class) started to be imported and built. I think there was a series of 10 of the 10 metre class rule boats made for a group in the New York Yacht Club. Built in Scandinavia and designed by Luders (again from memory) they showed how capable they were at sea.

      A young designer at the time, Olin Stephens, got a design commission to develop a couple of 6 metre designs to the rule. They were not terribly successful, but when he got a commission to design an ocean racer the result was the famous Dorade, in some senses a barely disguised metre boat but with a ketch/yawl rig to make the best of handicap allowances under the CCA rule.

      Over time under the influence of the rules these slim seakindly hulls put on width as it was realised under the rules you could make the boat look slower and heavier by going wider but that the boat wasn’t quite as slow as the rule projected. But it meant the boats moved from seaworthy types to the very distorted shapes with stupid sails like big overlap genoas purely as an influence of the rules. Enshrining cost, big crews an boats that were real cows in many conditions. Sole virtue that the rule thought that they were slower than they really were.

      The culmination of the type was the pic below – distorted shape … note the way the hull volume actually swings up vertically above the rudder for rule purposes and the plan view shows lots of volume in the middle and fine ends. Kind of OK for going upwind but not very good at either accelerating cleanly under wind pressure downwind.

      Just a reminder of how things had been from the same designer. Dorade again

      But then these were about to be eclipsed by two further developments. Multihulls and cheap high performance sailing yachts, strangely slimmer than the way the slower ocean racers were developing. The main proponents of these were EG van deStadt and Kiwi John Spencer in the early ’60s.

      The modern multihulls were never allowed to race with the establishment yacht clubs and there was a great running around trying to find ways of eliminating the plywood planing monohulls on structural grounds on very little evidence of problems. Van deStadt and Spencer both being good engineers as well.

      Here is a vandeStadt Black Soo

      And one of the Spencer plywood circa 1960 maxis “Ragtime” (originally called “Infidel”) that won or went close to winning the Transpac race so many times it became legendary totally outclassing modern boats up until recent years. A clean hullshape, modest sail area and hard sailing.

      We moved around from such lovely clean hullshapes, simple construction, sensible ballast positioning to develop distorted and much slower boats and arguably much less seaworthy and less safe ones … at least until a generation later when a bunch of innovative Kiwi designers Bruce Farr, Laurie Davidson and the late great Paul Whiting found a way of doing fat light boats that would fly. Again the rulemakers tried to ban speed and also tried to imply the boats were not strong enough – a criticism that could have been levelled at some of the more lightly scantled boats that were acceptable such as the North American One Ton Class champion Pied Piper where the crew asked what to do as the hull panted in and out four inches over every wave on the way to Hobart – the answer – “don’t look”.

      Bad rules and artificial distinctions between types of boats have been very retrograde for sailing in terms of affordability and the proliferation of boats and features that are foolish in one way or another.

      The automotive powered canting keeler maxis are the children of this corrupted evolution.

    • Hi again Tom,

      It is unlikely that I will design bigger boats. There is just no money in them. But I am very interested in smaller off the beach catamarans. Some of the high tech developments in the A-Class Catamarans seem to indicate a squarish shape is not as inefficient as traditional cat thinking has tended to believe.

      So some type of of the beach cat might appear. Or a minimum accommodation cruiser.


  2. Loved the history lesson, thanks – I’m old enough to remember following the sailing press during those days of discovery about designing ‘fast’ boats 😉

    As you well know (and I’ve been learning lately as I investigate trading off planing forces for displacement forces) – “squarish” is in fact most efficient (meaning with absolutely sharp chines – no rounding) when it comes to hull shapes if/when they can attain the higher speeds that also yield dynamic lift. So the lighter weights and higher RM’s of multihulls are a natural for exploiting the benefits of ‘flattish’ shapes 😉

    Similarly, moments are moments no matter how they are generated. Generating RM for anti-capsize can be done either with weight on the bottom or floatation at the top. Cocktail napkin arithmetic applied to 15/20 foot boats indicates that 1 pound of bouyancy at the masthead is worth perhaps 30 lbs of lead in the bilges. There is at least one sailing class (bad memory) that utilizes thin foam inside the top panels of their sails to good effect.

    For me (at my age), a good and safe boat is an unballasted and multihull-fast boat the won’t turn turtle – which more and more rules out proper multihulls from being my ‘last’ boat.

    Anyway, that’s what leads me towards longer skinny hulls – perhaps 50% longer than a hull of the same payload – combined with some kind of planing surfaces for speed -and- a bouyancy substitute for anticapsize.

    So far most of my napkin-sketched solutions are butt ugly – that is until I add some kind of canting rig scheme for even more net horsepower (VMG horsepower), then they get really goood looking 😉

    Sorry I digress – it seems therapeutic and helpful to think about this stuff out loud sometimes.


  3. […] – Boat designer Mike Storer has written a piece on plank-on-edge sailing craft here. Share this:FacebookEmailPrintStumbleUponReddit This entry was posted in Uncategorized and […]

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