French boat builders are leading the way with versatile new twin keel boats. Theo Stocker went to discover the appeal and how to dry out in style
Bilge keels can be a divisive topic. While it might seem like the majority of new boat buyers are in favour of fin keels, there is a significant undercurrent of sailors who prefer boats that can take the ground.
While fin keels offer a deeper centre of gravity, marginally less drag and more lateral resistance, making them theoretically better at sailing to windward, they are a relatively recent development and it’s not long since all yachts were long-keeled and could comfortably dry out on legs or alongside a harbour wall.
In the tidal waters of the UK, where drying harbours and half-tide creeks abound, the ability to dry out can vastly increase both your potential cruising grounds, and the cost and location of your home berth.
There are a wealth of shallow draft cruisers available on the second-hand market today.
Moody, Westerly and Hunter all produced enormously popular bilge keel models, while Southerly, Parker, Feeling, Ovni and Allures have been making lift keel and swing keel yachts for years.
Latterly, it is the French centre-board yachts that have proved most popular for the adventurous sailor keen to get off the beaten track. That may explain why bilge keels have rather waned.
There are some new kids on the block, however, that are reinvigorating the concept.
Most notably, La Rochelle-based RM yachts offer a range of epoxy-infused plywood boats that can take the ground between their two keels and a weight-bearing rudder.
Hot on the heels of these French class leaders are Brittany yard Marée Haute and their Django brand, which produces lightweight GRP pocket cruisers from six metres up to 12 metres.
While they offer deep fin and lift keel options, it is their twin keeled versions that are currently proving most popular. So where better than Brittany to go for a test sail?
We went along to try drying out in the latest incarnation of these new and interesting twin keel cruisers.
BILGE KEEL OR TWIN KEELS?
There have been many design variations that come broadly under the term bilge keels. Strictly speaking, bilge keels are in addition to a long central keel, fitted near the bilge, where the hull turns from the bottom to the side of the boat.
Traditionally, these were non-structural, shallow and long, largely intended to reduce rolling. Twin keels, in contrast, replace the central keel entirely and the boat is structurally adapted to make these the main ballast-bearing hull appendages.
Some early twin keel moldings simply added two shallow-draught keels either side of the centreline, at right angles to the waterline and parallel to the centreline, but these boats often tended to sag to leeward when sailing upwind, and sometimes lacked the proper hull reinforcement at the attachment points.
More modern twin keels tend to be much better hydrodynamically aligned and, some argue, provide at least as much lateral resistance as a single keel, though in theory, more drag.
A boat with two keels will tend to be heavier because of the additional reinforcement needed to bear the loads of the ballast and of drying out, and will usually have a higher centre of gravity because of their reduced draught. Again, modern construction, narrow-chord keels and ballast bulbs all help to reduce these effects.
1 FINDING A SPOT
The art of drying out is all about finding the right spot to take the bottom. In an ideal world, you would find somewhere that is totally sheltered.
Luckily, when drying out you can tuck in much further than you normally would, but you don’t want any swell coming through that will lift the boat and drop her on her keels in the crucial moments that she is settling down, or refloating as the tide returns.
Most twin keelers will be designed to withstand some wave action on the keels, but you don’t want to push it. You then need to find an area of seabed that’s as level as possible. Despite the fact that you are suspending the boat’s weight at over a metre’s height, the wide set keels ensure she is very stable, so unless you are on rocks, you should be fine.
The type of bottom makes a difference too. Rocks will tend to be uneven and could damage the keels, although smaller stones won’t be a problem.
Gravel, sand or mud are ideal and will normally be pretty level. Hard sand is the ideal as you will then be able to walk to and from your boat with ease at low tide, but it’s worth having a pair of wellies on board for the inevitable muddy puddles that will be left as the water recedes.
Before you decide to dry out, it’s crucial to plan ahead. You might have enough water to get in on this tide, but you don’t want to get neaped if the tides are dropping off.
Similarly, have a look at the forecast. If the wind is forecast to change while you are dried out, check that the anchorage will remain protected.
Don’t forget to note the barometric pressure and general wind direction, which can have a significant impact on the predicted tidal heights.
While charts will help, local knowledge is king. Almanacs and pilot books will give useful advice for where to go, but ask other sailors too.
Locals may well know little spots that are well and truly off the beaten track.
Once you have chosen where to dry out, you will need to anchor. If you are in an open bay with plenty of space, a single bow anchor will be fine.
If it is important which way you are facing when you dry out, however, such as on a sloping beach, in a narrow river, or if there are other boats around, you will need to lay both a bow and a stern anchor to control your position.
In drying harbours, there may already be moorings, often fore-and-aft, to stop the boat from swinging.
3 PREPARING THE BOAT
You may need to rig extra gear to keep the boat upright. Some fin keel and lift keel boats will have drying-out legs.
Bilge keelers with reasonably long keels fore and aft will be stable enough fore and aft with no additional gear, but more modern twin-keelers often aim to create a tripod, between keels and a weight-bearing rudder or an additional leg.
The Django 770 has an adjustable transom leg. While this is weight-bearing it’s more of a stabiliser and should be set slightly short in a swell.
4 DRYING OUT
If you are in a place you are familiar with and have dried out in before, you should be safe to anchor or moor the boat securely and head ashore while the tide goes out.
If you are somewhere new, however, it is worth staying with the boat for the critical period that the keels are taking the bottom until the boat is securely aground.
This is particularly true if your boat has drying out legs, as the relatively small surface area of the leg could end up on a rock or a soft spot, and will need adjusting and tensioning to keep their boat comfortably upright.
5 HIGH AND DRY
If you are lucky, you will be able to walk ashore at low tide without getting your feet wet. If you are going ashore for a while, make sure you check the tides — you may need to carry the tender to the high-water mark if you don’t want to swim back.
In most places, a pair of wellies will help when walking through mud, or over rocks. You may need to lower the bathing ladder to climb down from the boat, and to get back on when the tide is out.
If you’re in a narrow river, low water is a good opportunity to have a look at exactly where the channel goes.
The boat will be very stable once dried out, but be careful about putting too much weight on the bow — it’s probably a good idea not to have more than one person on the bow when dried out.
A couple of buckets will also come in very handy.
Fill one of them up before you lose the water so you can wash your feet once you’ve walked back across the sand or mud.
The other bucket is for calls of nature, as you won’t be able to flush the heads.
Waiting for the tide to return is the easy part, if all crew are back aboard.
As soon as the boat is floating, remove any drying-out legs or supports — these are remarkably easy to forget, but could cause real damage if left down.
Don’t forget to lift the bathing ladder too.
Retrieve your stern anchor first (you can do this when the tide is out if the conditions are right) and then weigh the bow anchor and you’re off.
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