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The one thing a monohull sailor should never lose

2009 April 1
I don't think with the same side of the brain as engineers, but I am able to understand that securely attaching a deep, skinny, heavy keel to the bottom of a sailboat hull is not a simple matter. The keel of a 40- to 50-foot racing boat could be 8 to 10 feet deep, measure only about 2 feet from front to back and have a bulb at the bottom weighing 10,000 pounds or more. Even a right-brained journalist can figure out that the force this generates at the point of attachment when the boat is heeled and pounding into seas or when the keel hits something (as keels always do eventually) is enormous. What we have here is a long bar applying fearsome leverage to break its connection to the boat.

Even so, meeting this challenge doesn't rise to rocket science. By dint of carefully engineered reinforcement of composite or metal grids used to anchor keel bolts, custom builders have been turning out boats for years with narrow keels that stay where they belong regardless of the abuse owners inflict on them. The performance advantages of deep, low-drag keels being irresistible, even for cruiser-racers, production sailboat builders too are dealing with ever narrower keels, and though many of them end up bent, dented or even partially levered out of the hull, it is rare to hear of a keel breaking off.

Rare or not, it's safe to say that is one of the most appalling things that can happen to a sailboat. One or both of two catastrophic results are likely: The keel will tear a gaping hole in the bottom and the boat will sink; the boat will capsize. Six sailors drowned in 2005 when a 42-foot South African production boat lost its keel and capsized in the Indian Ocean. One sailor lost his life in 2007 when a Dutch-built production boat turned turtle after losing its keel in the English Channel.
The keel cause celebre of the moment (if you don't count the Vendee Globe around-the-world race, in which keels and virtually everything else have been failing to the extent that only 11 of the original 30 boats remain in the race and one of the 60-foot boats actually raced nearly 1,000 miles without a keel after it dropped off in the Atlantic) involves a 38-foot boat named Cynthia Woods. The boat lost its keel in June 2008 during a race from Galveston, Texas, to Veracruz, Mexico. The resulting shipwreck was followed by: the drowning of a crewman who reportedly made heroic efforts to save his mates; the rescue of the five other members of the crew 26 hours later; the recovery of the keel from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico; a Coast Guard investigation; a lawsuit against the builder and designer of the boat; and some foolish talk about high-performance sailboat construction.

The stricken boat was a Cape Fear 38, one of a line of racer-cruisers in production since 2001 and available in shoal and deep-keel versions. A sistership of Cynthia Woods won its class at the 2009 Key West Race Week.

Cynthia Woods is owned by Texas A&M University and was crewed in the Veracruz race by the school's offshore sailing team. The crewmember who did not survive was Roger Stone, 53, the boat's designated safety officer. After helping two students escape from the flooding cabin, he became trapped and drowned. His widow, Linda Stone, has filed a wrongful death suit against the builder, Cape Fear Yacht Works of Wilmington, North Carolina, designer Bruce Marek and a Galveston boatyard that did some work on the boat.

A backstory of some interest is that the capsized boat was one of two Cape Fear 38s donated to Texas A&M by Texas developer and oil speculator George Mitchell, whose son Kent Mitchell owns Cape Fear Yacht Works. Cynthia Woods was named after Kent's mother.

Why did the keel break off in conditions that were brisk but far from severe? The Coast Guard in a report issued in January blamed inadequately repaired damage to the keel attachment structure caused by repeated groundings, including one in 2007 when the keel hit a submerged block of concrete. The lawyer representing Mrs. Stone promptly criticized the finding, which seems to deflect blame from the boatbuilder, as the product of a consultant's report that is of dubious reliability.

One thing is certain-someone is to blame. In a remarkable feat of salvage, the keel was found by side-scan sonar and recovered from the mud bottom in 113 feet of water. An unverified Internet report quoted a diver who worked on the project as saying the keelbolts were intact with nuts, washers, backing plates and a piece of fiberglass hull attached. It may not be a smoking gun, but that long hunk of metal with a lead bulb at the end is surely a 5,000-pound symbol of fatal negligence.

It's going to take a while to determine for certain whose negligence it is. The plaintiff in the lawsuit is challenging the Coast Guard report and Texas A&M is conducting its own investigation. In the meantime, the president of Ancon Marine Consultants Inc., the firm retained by the Coast Guard to investigate the accident and prepare the report, made some odd comments about the construction of light-weight sailboats.

Repeating clichéd misperceptions of high-performance boats, Augusto Villalon implied to Soundings magazine that racing sailboats are fragile because they are light. He compared his own 44-foot, 37,500-pound cruising sailboat to a boat like Cynthia Woods, weighing about 10,000 pounds, and said, "Due to that (light weight), the maintenance of that boat will be much more delicate than the maintenance of my boat. A racing boat you haul every time you use it."

So much for expertise. America's Cup boats and some small one-designs may be hauled after each use, but other racing boats aren't and certainly don't need to be. The Coast Guard's consultant isn't the first person to confuse weight with strength, but in his business he ought to know better. Lightweight high-performance boats, production and custom alike, including those with skinny keels, have proven their durability in conditions far more demanding than what the average cruising boat encounters, without the need for extraordinary maintenance. When keels fall off, it's not because they were attached to lightweight boats; it's because someone made a mistake.

The Cynthia Woods tragedy has inspired some talk about safety certification of sailboat designs and building procedures-a fine idea but easier said than done. Consider that the United States maintains an elaborate bureaucracy to certify food safety, yet can't even protect the public from a tainted staple food like peanut butter.

For now, buyers of new or used boats with skinny keels have to do their own due diligence. Some of this is intuitive-if the attachment structure looks strong, odds are it is. But have a marine surveyor or engineer verify it. That's what left-brain types are for.