Sailboat Keel Types: A Complete Guide

Sailboat Keel Types | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

A keel is a very important part of a sailboat, crucial to its stability and ability to sail upwind. This article will discuss the fundamentals of all keels down to the details of the best keel for your boat. We will answer questions including what it does, what it's made of, and even some problems that a keel can cause. By the end of this article, you will be an expert on all things keels!


Table of contents

What Is a Keel?

A keel is the robust underwater centerline of a boat, and often extends into a long, hydrodynamically shaped blade.. It can vary in size and shape depending on the make and model of the boat. But, generally, it will look very much like a fin. If you imagine the fin on the underside of a surfboard you will have a pretty good idea of what it looks like under the boat.

It is crucial to helping with steering and control. The word keel itself comes from Norse and Dutch roots. The word simply means a structural component of the boat. You may have heard the term keel-haul, where pirates would drag someone underneath the boat across its keel. This is pretty barbaric, but it shows just how long a keel has been an important part of the boat. From Vikings to pirates to modern sailboats it has always remained an important part of a sailboat.

What is a keel made of?

A keel will typically be made of whatever the rest of the hull is made of. If the boat is wooden, it will most likely have a wooden keel. If the boat is metal, the keel will be metal, and so on. Sometimes, particularly on fiberglass boats, the core of a keel will be reinforced with lead or a similar ballast while the outside is covered with fiberglass.

The keel needs to be strong enough to withstand a lot of pressure and strain. Traditionally Viking sailing boats would have a wooden keel with some metal plating on it. Casting metal was tedious so putting it on your boat was seen as a waste. Traditional wooden sailing boats, like you would imagine pirates sailing, would also have a wooden keel. It would be made from thick hardwood like oak and could also be metal plated.

Since it is used to control the direction it must brunt the force of the change of direction. If you imagine a boat turning sharply, there will be a lot of pressure on the side that is on the outside of the turn. The hull of your boat will stand up to this pressure easily, as it is very large and very strong. The keel must be strong enough to withstand this too. The keel also can drag on the ocean floor or the boat ramp as the boat is lowered into the water. For this reason, it needs to be strong enough to hold up to the weight and pressure of the boat too. If it were made of plastic it would break every time you brought the boat in and out of the water.

What does a keel do?

The keel is there primarily for stability and guidance. The keel provides all sorts of benefits to the boat. It improves the righting moment and controls the boat’s sideways movement. The keel will also typically hold the boat’s ballast. The ballast keeps the boat weighed down and helps prevent capsizing. The ballast is typically made of lead, sand, or water.

Keels can be fixed or moveable. Some keels can be removed completely or may just retract slightly so they aren’t damaged when the boat enters or exits the water. When a boat leans to one side, because it is turning or there is strong wind/waves, the keel provides the righting moment that keeps the boat from flipping. On larger boats, it is designed to be so heavy that ig will be able to recover a boat from almost any angle of heel. Without a keel, your boat may tip too far or roll completely. On bigger ships, this can be disastrous. In its ability to prevent this alone, the keel is one of the most important parts of the ship.

Does my sailboat need a keel?

Yes, you do need a keel. Pretty much all sailboats have a keel, with exceptions for multi-hulled and/or smaller boats. 

In the case of catamarans, the very design principles that lead to the dual-hull design render the keel obsolete. The stability introduced by the outrigged, dual-hulls replaces the necessary righting moment from the keel. Because almost all the structure of a catamaran is between the two hulls, unlike a monohull which builds out from and around its centerline, there is not a lot of weight pressing out to flip the boat. Related to this, since most catamarans have the length of their hulls pressing into the water, the steering force normally placed on a keel is distributed across the length of the two hulls, which additionally will carry their own ballast.

On smaller dinghies, a small swinging centerboard or daggerboard will suffice to play the role of a keel. The centerboards can be big enough to keep the boat flowing nicely through the water without the need for a large keel. Additionally, it is not a disaster for a small sailing or racing dinghy to capsize, as they are designed to do so and recover rather easily, so the ballast from the keel is also not terribly necessary. 

If you have a motorboat you wouldn’t need a keel, unless it is a very large container ship or military vessel. The reason being that they are outboard propelled. The leg provides enough stability on its own. This is only the case with full plane powerboats. Displacement (even semi-displacement) craft will still need a keel of sorts for stability purposes.

What are some downsides to having a longer keel?

If you have a long keel that doesn’t retract or detach, you may have some problems coming in or out of the water. The keel extends far below the bottom of the boat, so if you are bringing your boat up or down a boat ramp you may find that it scrapes on the bottom. If you are not careful, you may damage the keel rather badly.

Since the keel is made of metal, wood, or fiberglass it can bear the brunt of the weight quite well. If you are putting your boat in the water and cannot retract the keel, it is a good idea to go as far into the water as possible before taking your boat off its trailer. The deeper you are in the water when the boat is released the better.

Are there any nautical traditions about the keel of the boat?

The keel is interestingly very important when it comes to boat or shipbuilding.

Traditionally, the keel is one of the first parts of the ship to be made, as the rest of the ship must sometimes be built around it. This tradition is called “laying the keel,” and is a momentous occasion. It is essentially the boat’s birthday. The boat’s age is dated from this moment, and there is also typically a celebration of sorts. This goes back to the days of seafaring exploration. The only day more important in a boat’s life is the day it is finally launched.

Can other types of boats have keels?

Yes! Many other types of boats have keels, not just sailboats. A good example would be a big shipping trawler. These trawlers are very large and need all the help they can get to stay balanced. Because of this, they often have what’s called a bar keel. This is a large rectangular piece of metal that runs along the bottom of the boat’s hull. It is very thick and heavy. The idea is that it gives the boat some more directional control when steering.

Furthermore, it helps keep the trawler balanced when out at sea in rough conditions. The extra weight keeps the boat’s center of gravity as low as possible. This makes tipping the boat almost impossible. It does slow it down a bit, but that is a small price to pay for increased safety.

Huge cargo ships also have a keel, though it is different from a bar. Their keel is known as a plate keel. It is essentially another layer of the boat under the hull. Its only purpose is added weight and protection. A plate keel runs along the centreline of the bottom plate of the ship so the weight is all concentrated in the lowest place possible. This kind of keel works similarly to how the spine of a person does. It keeps your back strong and as straight as possible.

How important is it to keep my keel clean?

It is very important to keep your keel clean, just as it is important to keep the rest of your hull clean.

For any boat kept on the water rather than hauled out every day, there is always the need to clean the hulls and keels of any barnacles and other sea growth. Barnacles not only affect your performance, but can, in the long run, greatly increase your maintenance costs if not regularly addressed. 

To do so, you have to do what is known as scraping. Scraping is the process of physically scraping off all the barnacles and other sea life that has attached itself to the underside of your boat. Many marinas offer this service, but you can do it on your own with a basic plastic paint scraper and a wetsuit. When you do this, it is key to get all the way down to the bottom of the keel and all across the hull. If you don’t scrape it off, it can start to erode your boat away over time. It can also slow you down.The barnacles and other marine life create a very rough bottom. This creates more friction and will reduce your speed more and more the worse it gets. 

It is important to check with your port authority before you start scraping. Scraping is not allowed in some places as you may introduce invasive species to the area. It depends where you have been more than where you are. If you sailed from New York to Chicago, you will be fine. If you sailed from Cuba to New York, probably not so much.

How to maintain a sailboat keel

As mentioned above, it is important to scrape your keel from time to time. While racing boats will actually do this before every day at an event, it is at least a good idea for you to do this a couple of times a season. A great time to do this is when you plan on applying that season’s bottom paint, though anytime you plan to go on your boat is a good excuse to maintain!

You may want to cut off any of the kelp and seaweed that wraps itself around the keel. This is more likely to happen if you have a fin keel. If you do find that there is a lot of kelp and seaweed wrapped around it, you will want to buy yourself a kelp cutter. Unfortunately, the only way to cut the kelp off without taking the boat out of the water is to dive in and do it yourself. It is a good idea to do this in shallow-ish water with the proper flags displayed to inform other boaters that there is someone in the water. Swimming around under your boat, even when it isn’t moving, can be dangerous.

What do I do if my keel breaks at sea?

It is very rare for keels to just break off. It is even rarer at sea. After all, what is going to break it off? The only way a keel will break off ordinarily is if you run aground.

If you should accidentally make your way into shallow waters and break your keel off it is a good idea to set sail for home. You will manage well enough in the short term but will struggle over time. You are far more likely to capsize without the keel keeping you balanced.

If you have a detachable keel it is a good idea to keep a replacement. If one breaks off, you can just install the spare one. This isn’t the easiest thing to do at sea in rough conditions, but it is possible. Make a judgment call using your common sense whether it is worth the risk or not.

Another reason your keel might break or come loose is if the keel bolts come out. These bolts are what holds the keel in place. If you happen to have a keel held on by bolts, then doing proper maintenance is even more important. If the bolts come loose, the keel can come loose.

Since the keel is typically welded on to the boat’s hull the chances of it coming off completely are slim to none. Most often, running aground on a sandbar or anything short of an incredibly rocky bottom in heavy weather will crack off a piece or severely bend the keel, which requires a major repair. If you do notice that the keel is loose, you are better off taking it back to the marina. The bolts may not come off without using some machinery, meaning you might have to take your boat out of the water. If your keel starts to rust, you may need to speak to a professional.

What are the different keel types?

Now you know what a keel is, what it does, why it is important, and how to care for one it is time to learn about the specific types of keels. Big trawlers and cargo ships have bar or plate keels, but sailboats do not. Here are the 6 different types of keels typically found on sailboats and their purposes:

Full Keel

The full keel is one of the most common types of the keel that you are likely to see on a sailboat. A full keel runs from end to end of the boat lengthways. A full keel, as the name implies, runs almost the entire length of the boat. At a minimum, it must run 50% of the length of the boat. A full keel is one of the most stable keel types, which is why it is so common. Full keels are also safer should you run aground. If a boat with a full keel should come ashore, it will cut its way through the sand and eventually land on its side. Whether you are grounding your boat intentionally or not, your boat will have far better odds of surviving the ordeal with a full keel.

Fin Keel

A fin keel is similar to a full keel, just shorter. There may be one or two fin keels along the length of the boat hull. A fin keel is defined by being less than 50% the length of the boat. The fin keel works almost entirely the same way that a shark's fin does. When you wish to turn, the keel provides the resistive force that keeps you turning. This means that it essentially acts as your tires going into a turn. Whereas a full keel is essentially just a long fin, a fin keel has very different benefits. A full keel is more stable and safer overall. A fin keel is sleeker, smaller, and most importantly makes you faster. Most racing sailboats have fin keels.

Bulb Keel

A bulbed keel is very similar to a fin keel. In fact, it is possible to make a bulb keel by shaving off part of a fin keel and attaching a bulb. Once the keel has been made substantially shorter, the bulb is fitted. The bulb is shaped similarly to how a torpedo would be on a submarine. This keel works the same as a fin keel does, offering a slightly more stability without sacrificing speed. The biggest difference between a bulb and a fin keel (besides shape and length) is where they are used. Bulb keels are most commonly used in places with very shallow waters and lots of rock/shale/coral outcrops. Somewhere like the Caribbean would be the perfect place for a bulb keel. The rounded bulb bounces off the rocks and is less likely to break off. It just isn’t going to be as quick as if you used a fin keel.

Wing Keel

The wing keel is another alternative to your standard fin keel. Just like the bulb keel, a wing keel is an extension to the standard fin keel with an extra fitting at the bottom. A wing keel is far more streamlined than a bulbed one, at the expense of being more susceptible to breaking. A wing keel looks very similar to the tail of an airplane. It works the same way, too. The water can pass by either side of the wings, allowing you to adjust your course easily. But, a wing keel does have one major problem. If you do run aground, digging out a wing keel can be very difficult. Whereas digging out a standard fin is as simple as scraping sand away from the sides of it, a wing keel must be dug out completely. The wings act like little shovels and wedge themselves into the sand. These are generally limited to higher performance racing classes.

Centerboard Keel

A centerboard keel works similarly to a fin keel but it can retract slightly. It works by having a dagger that folds out downwards. When you are sailing, the dagger protrudes outwards and offers you all the stability and balance of a fin keel. When you are in shallow water, the dagger can be retracted upwards, essentially shortening the keel temporarily. This should be done when you are sailing in shallow waters or removing the boat from the water entirely using a boat ramp. Some centerboards work on a loose hinge. When the boat is sailing along, the dagger is out and the fin works as normal. If you should bump into something though, like some shallow rocks, the hinge would push the daggerboard back inside. This stops the keel from breaking, instead, it just moves out the way. This only works if you are only just deep enough. If you are in very shallow water you would just break the centerboard off.

Canting Keel

A canting keel also works on a hinge. Instead of working end to end, it works port to starboard. When the boat turns a corner, the canting keel swings from side to side. This allows the boat to maximize its balance and speed. Eventually, this will become the norm in racing. But at the moment it is still quite experimental. The biggest downside is that the hinge works on hydraulics, and hydraulics can fail. If they should fail at sea there is very little you can do to repair them. Once they have perfected these canting keels, they will move first into the racing classes and high performance boats, then to all new cruising boats as boatbuilders improve the technology. .


Hopefully, you now have a good idea about what a sailboat keel is,how it works, why it is so important, and, of course, all the different types. Chances are, when you buy a sailboat, the keel it has is going to be at the bottom of your list of priorities. That being said, if you are planning on sailing somewhere in particular, it is a good idea to think about what keel type you are using. Replacing them doesn’t have to be expensive, but you can go a long way to saving yourself that money either way by being prepared for your home waters!

Sailboat Keel Types: A Complete Guide
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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