Just how bad ?

The last post/posts in the thin water series.

In an old post i called ‘The English alternative’ i wrote about a form of boat that i thought then, and still think today, as an almost unique English approach to sailing boats that became very common at the time i worked in the boatyard.  These were of course the ubiquitous plastic bilge keeled cruising boats mainly from builders such as Westerly, Moody and so on.   In that post i started out with a quick look at a very radical boat for it’s time : Bluebird of Thorne which i believe was thought to be a very good boat and that it’s bilge keel concept was thought to be a good idea.    For this post i have tried to track the concept back to the first 3 boats in this line, find out where they are today and revisit them, and then take a second look at the whole bilge keel concept today.

In that earlier post i was pretty scathing about the bilge keeled boats that i regularly worked on at the yard .  In that post i conflated a whole slew of things that i didn’t like about them (and their owners) from their fat samey-ness, their usually ‘lazy’ approach to rigs and sailing but i also have to admit that i was at the complete opposite end of sailing at the time.  I will admit today that i was not only very opinionated (still am) but pretty ignorant about boat design and it took many years before i got out of IOR mode, grew up a bit and started actually learning about boats.   Today i think that the bilge keel concept could be used to great effect and could make an ideal cruising boat for my needs today but it still wouldn’t be the boats i disliked so much then and still do today.

Bluebird of Thorne (Inversanda)




From what i have bee able to find out recently there were 3 boats called Bluebird of Thorne with the first one being built in 1924 and the second in 1939.  I think, but can’t be certain, that the photographs are all of the second boat now called Inversanda and based in Jersey.  I think i recognise the marina in the last picture and if i get a chance i will try and make a trip over to photograph her myself.    I think she is a very good looking boat , long and slim, and i like the deck edge cabin design anyway.  The keel arrangement seems to be a pair of swept back bilge keels with twin rudders attached.  Logically the keels are canted outwards so that when heeled one keel should be near vertical but toed-in to windward slightly while the other keel will be producing an increased righting moment.

What i don’t have access to today is a file i used to have which covered the hydrodynamics of well designed bilge keels.  There are some theoretical and practical advantages if the keels are designed well (if) for example and obviously that the boat will be easy to beach but apparently that the keels can reduce a boat’s roll and could be far more efficient as foils than is realised.    It’s almost sad that what could have been a really great avenue of development turned into something so mediocre in this country and now has such a dismally mediocre reputation.    From memory i seem to remember that that the research done on bilge keels suggested that they should be longer than was being produced at the time, more like a ‘modern’ keel but asymmetric, canted out but also toed-in slighly and possibly have a bulge to get weight really low and maintain flow at the bottom end.   Something like this :



These are high-end and high budget boat of course and way outside my budget.  Secondly the actual draft is increasing again which starts to take them outside my desired parameters.

The question i am posing myself then is just how bad a boat would a ‘standard’ everyday bilge keeled boat be as a cruising boat today for what i want to do.  Today i’m not looking for ultimate performance but equally don’t want to be sailing a total dog and i do still want that shallow draft and ability to dry out.  Today then i have chosen to ‘bite the bullet’ and have a look what is available today that i might be able to live with.  This will now become quite a long post because i really want to chew on the subject of why these everyday boats are often poor sailing boats and don’t need to be as bad as they are……to do that i am going to tell a few sea stories and embed a second post within this one : the somewhat oxymoron idea of ‘performance’ in bilge keeled cruising boats.   Don’t worry either…..i will be back on the dried frog pills soon enough and no i won’t be buying a ‘nice little Westerly’

Just how bad would this be ? (as an example)


I think that the boat is one of the MacWester range, probably the 26′, neither the best or worst cruising boat but look….it’s beached somewhere nice looking, it’s got there somehow under sail hopefully and the ladder is down ready for the crew to go walkabout.  Isn’t this basically what i intend to do ?  After that it looks reasonably big enough for a cruising couple to be comfortable aboard.

So, the first of today’s sea story’s.

When i finished my professional sailing life i tried to keep a small involvement by helping out on refits, doing some afterguard/navi-guessing, some delivery work and a bit of teaching.   One of the south coast sailing schools used me as a stand in instructor for odd jobs such as private tuition and this story is about one of those sessions.

The boss at the sailing school contacted me to take on a young couple who intended to go sailing one of their parents boat, they had both done some dinghy sailing but not much beyond that.  From memory the boat was a Macwester ketch at around 31 feet and i think belonged to the young guy’s father.  The teaching session was mainly set up at his request and what he wanted was for them to be capable enough to get in and out of the marina under power and sail the boat reasonably competently.  When i met them they had a different perspective in that their aim was to sail across the channel but they agreed to spend a couple of days going through the basics with me.

I won’t go through the first morning session in great detail except to say that i started with one plan but quickly abandonned that and ran with something different.  The actual teaching style i accidentally hit on is one i learnt properly much later on which is just to get the students to do stuff, observe that and then see what i could develop from what they were or weren’t doing.  Suffice to say that a young couple who haven’t driven a cruising boat hadn’t yet techniques such as prop-walk, reverse berthing and simple, single line berthing.  In short we had a lot of fun especially when i swapped their roles around and got the young woman driving and him doing the line handling : they were a bit dubious about that one until i brought them around to the idea of understanding each others problems on the boat.

It was the afternoon session that really got things happening !     After lunch and a first session de-brief i had them leave the marina berth (her driving) and with a plan of sailing the boat so they had some pre-warning.  What i sprang on them once we had left the marina is that i turned the engine off and declared that it was out of action.  Don’t worry….the situation was fine : little bit of tide , some wind and enough space to not immediately have a problem.  I won’t say it was funny as that would do the couple a dis-service but what happened was panic and chaos as they tried to get sail covers off, sail up and so on.     Like the good teacher that i’m not once there was enough panic and confusion i stopped the exercise, i think they got the idea very quickly as they had enough sense to ask me what i thought they should have done.  I didn’t start to explain but immediately repeated the exercise but with me driving and i briefed the young woman to kill the engine at any point she chose after leaving the marina.  I did something that they hadn’t thought of which is to let the residual speed carry us across the main channel while i walked forward and deployed the anchor !    Ok…so they had never anchored the boat either so that was in itself the starting point of another session the next day.

The real fun began when i declared that the engine was now thoroughly and officially dead and that our task was to sail the boat off the anchor and see if we could pick up a mooring under sail.   Once again i won’t go into all the gory details but that the couple got sail on and we got the anchor up but they just couldn’t get the boat to go upwind without losing badly through the tacks.  I reckoned that we were only making about 55-60 degrees true wind angle and with a foul tide hardly making any ground upwind. Of course they ‘invited’ me to do better and i got maybe a few degrees higher and tacked a bit more efficiently but i had to agree that the boat just wasn’t behaving properly and it certainly wasn’t them being incompetent.  Just to say that they both had dinghy experience and both admitted that they couldn’t make any sense of the big (to them) cruising boat.   What we actually did was to run off up the harbour (Portsmouth) and anchor again ,and see what we could make of the problem.

I thought i had already seen a few problems when we were trying to sail earlier in the day, for example that the roller furling jib wasn’t just baggy but slack and actually falling off the leeward so it was already clear that there was inadequate fore and aft tension in the rig.  It also looked as though the jib wasn’t hoisted on the furling gear with enough tension and there was a similar problem with the mains’l….probably soft, stretchy halyards.   The mains’l itself just looked like a big, saggy bag of poo (technical term).          I walked the couple around the boat pointing out the saggy forestay…..i could just grab it and shake it around, it was so slack…..ditto all the shrouds and both backstays.  As i thought, the halyards were old polyester and not even a modern braid on braid so were almost certainly stretching a lot under load……the whole combination of slack standing rigging and stretchy running rigging was robbing the boat of the little ‘performance’ it already had.   As it was set up i couldn’t see any way that the boat would sail to windward at all with that set-up and there were additional ‘negatives’ for example the garden on one side of the waterline also robbing boat speed.  They did ask quite directly whether the situation could be improved and i said that it couldn’t be made much worse but that it wasn’t my boat to mess around with but with their permission i could make it a bit less bad.

I would love to be able to say that i did a basic riggers job of sorting the rig out and totally transforming the boat but i can’t because we didn’t and mainly due to the fact that i was the owner who had set his boat up in that way.  The best i felt that i could do was brief the couple thoroughly on what could and should be done : scrub and antifoul, tension the rig, invest in some better halyards and so on although what i did suggest is that they got some sailing on of the school boats that i was working for and at least sail a ‘normal’ cruising boat.

So : just how bad can it get ?……Answer : so bad that the boat won’t actually sail ‘properly’


I started this post with that question “just how bad” and from just one personal experience i saw what can happen when an owner takes a workaday cruising boat and inadvertently makes it into a much worse boat.  It doesn’t even need to be a dull boat to begin with as we have all, i guess seen the same thing happen with ‘good’ boats.  It just so happened that my experience with a ‘steady’ bilge keeler confirmed all my biases about the type and even, i admit, about some of their owners.  Of course it doesn’t have to be like that, the boat in the title photograph i believe is the same design as the one above but unlike this one it has a clean looking bottom, in fact the whole boat looks smartly kept and i bet the owner looks after it and sails it well.

The second thing i said at the start of the post is that i would embed a second post within this one and it’s a post that has been cooking for a while but to add it here would make this post overly long.  I will however set up the introduction for that post as it follows directly from this one…….the basic idea is that all boats start with some hard limits of ultimate sailing performance.  Usually that is simply down to physics and numbers : load waterline for example and its hard relationship with displacement speed.  other things are important so, for example, if we start with not so great keels we are going to find a hard limit on upwind performance.  After that though most things come down to the way we look after and set up our boats…..better or worse.  In short we can take something ‘ordinary’ and make a good seaboat out of it or we can take a really good design and ruin its performance.   The follow-on post to this explores this concept but from the viewpoint of taking a workaday boat and making it the best we can.



  1. Now these words should never be seen together ‘nice little Westerly’ there is no such thing unless it means I am going sailing up in the Bay of Islands or land yachting over on the west coast 🙂

    Good piece again


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