The English alternative.

In a few recent posts i have begun to explore some of the different avenues of small boat design that have taken my interest over the years, i have talked about IOR boats so much that at some time i must cover that genre and what it has left us with in terms of the IOR influence on cruiser-racers and generic French cruising yachts of the era.  In this post though i want to follow another design avenue which for a while seemed to be almost uniquely the English alternative to good boat design ie the ubiquitous bilge-keeler of the late 1960’s onwards.  I have to admit that at the time i worked in a boatyard which would have been the late 70’s i absolutely detested the boats i am going to talk about today : rows and rows of dull, boring and ‘safe’ Westerly’s and their like….today i am not quite so sure as many of this type of boat have given their owners excellent service down the years and sat safely in many a creek and mud-berth.

Just recently i was also regretting having disposed of all my boat files and i know that amongst those was a file on the first known true bilge-keeler designed and built in the Uk : the first of 3 boats named Bluebird of Thorne, said to be a radical boat in its day and still apparently sailing today as ‘Inversanda’. There were apparently 3 boats built to the name but it is only 2 of them that were bilge-keelers with the 3rd having a conventional keel. Of the 2 bilge keel boats the first i believe had a canoe stern and a rudder just behind each keel, the later one had a conventional rudder and a small transom.  Both are quite unusual in that they are very ’round’ for a steel boat rather than being a series of flat planes.  As an experiment they were both considered a success and were said to have good sailing qualities as well as being convenient to beach and relatively shallow draught for such big boats.  As memory has it the keels were nothing special : just flat plate steel with some additional lumps for weight and nothing like an aerofoil but the designer did work out that they benefit from being splayed out rather than vertical and toed-in rather than in line with the centreline.   I can’t access the material i had then but there certainly was some useful work on why bilge keels might be a very good solution and amongst those are : reduced rolling, improved stability when heeled and potentially increassed windward performance over long keeled boats.

(Photograph by Micheal Allo)….this i think is the first boat.


For those that saw the development of small cruising boats from the 1960’s onwards you will instantly see the influence that Bluebird had on the plethora of small bilge keeled boats that came from this era : its the time of one of the most popular boats ever built in the UK ….the Westerly Centaur, among other similar designs and sad to say but one boat that i totally and heartily dislike !.

I admit that my dislike of the Centaur (and many others from the same factory) is almost irrational given how well they worked for so many owners : Dylan for one seems to love them but to me they have always been nothing but ugly, squat plastic caravans….and i don’t just dislike but detest caravans and most caravaners with a passion !.  Once upon a time i was a boatyard hand and even the foreman called these boats ‘caravans’ as in “park the caravans over there”…they were i admit easy to get in the travel-lift slings and just plonk them on the ground out of the way of the real boats. To this day i still think of them as ‘SAC’s’ (sail assisted caravans) as mostly i never seem to see them actually sail, even in ideal conditions.  I did realise when i started on this post that i would probably end up in a huge digression about caravans and their owners which might have been entertaining to some but hardly useful to the post.  I know that many owners love their Westerly’s as many caravaners seem to love their caravans but there again many people love their garden gnomes and their cats….there truly is no hope for some.

Back to the main theme though and the bilge keeled cruising boat did become ubiquitous in the Uk as they do after all work very well on the huge number of drying tidal moorings : one boatyard i had a walk around once had about a third of all its boats ashore as bilge keelers.  I must admit that caravan references aside i did think of most of this type of boat, moderate bilge keel cruising boat, as very ‘lazy’ boats all round for being apparently very engine reliant, usually with a rolller furling system for the jib in the days when the average roller-genoa had a very narrow effective working range….as though the owners didn’t want anything to do with foredeck work and ‘real’ sailing. As a confirmed foredeckman and offshore racer practising arcane manouvres like gybe-peels and big headsail peels usually in difficult conditions my dismissal of foredeck shy and engine reliant owners was just about complete !.  For years i ignored bilge keeled boats as being completely irrelevant to my interests until i had the experience of teaching a young couple aboard their family’s Macwester : the boat initially confirmed everything i thought about the type but the couple were keen to give it a go so with a bit of work correcting some of the worst mistakes we turned that boat into something i would have cruised across the channel and to be honest i thought that it could be a capable and homely little craft.   I never have come around to liking any of the Westerly range of bilge keeled boats but have quite a bit of affection for the Mac’s for their honest and workaday charm and still like them today.  My change in attitude did come about also when i was leaving racing sailing and maxi-yachts behind but the real change came when i had a long conversation with a well known yacht designer of the day who talked me through some of the theoretical considerations of the bilge keel and why it might make a much better boat than it was at the time. The kind of thing he was talking about was designing better keels ie deeper and with a narrow cord and asymmetric section, well splayed and toed-in so that when heeled one would be vertical and lifting to windward and the other (with a bulb on the bottom) would be acting as very positive ballast up to windward.  I don’t think that boat ever got built in the uk and it wasn’t until a couple of years back that i saw a similar idea in France.

Here are a few similar examples :

Twin keeler_zpsompxzgfx



I saw the red boat in a yard in France once but can’t find my copy of the picture and there was one yard in Brest with several different/similar designs : very typically French looking modern, wide sterned and chined designs so they are being built.  When we beached on the isle de Brehat last year there was something very similar in another corner of the harbour. One of the reasons i like going to France so much is being able to poke around in their boatyards and finding stuff like this.

Back to the Uk though and my own interests in future boats : i can’t afford anything like the modern bilge keelers above and with the budget to afford one they still wouldn’t be my first choice anyway but now i am far less biased against the homely and moderate boats that are easily available here.  No i am not, not not going to even consider a centaur (please shoot me if i ever do) but consider this : i have now owned a small boat with very limited capability and already sailed it beyond its normal range, i am looking for boats that will fulfill the criteria of being able to sail coastal and offshore but that has shallow draught and the eaqsy capability to dry on a beach…..does the simple, cheap and available bilge-keeler not fit the bill ?.  Now : what i could afford would never have the sharp edge of the kind of thing i have been considering so far but it might do the job at a budget i can afford and i do have the ability now to reduce many of the negative effects built into these boats by many of their owners.  Here are a couple of recent examples :


s-l1600 (1)

Absolutely and every inch a caravan ! but : well looked after, decent engines, one has new sails, liveable interior and crucially within the budget.  Ok so all my old racing mates might never talk to me again but why not if it does the job.


And just to say that UK caravan ownere are still in my opinion a bunch of window-licking, oxygen wasting mouth-breathers and should all be culled along with their cats and garden gnomes.

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