What is a Sailboat Centerboard?

What is a Sailboat Centerboard? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

A sailboat centerboard is a retractable fin that protrudes from the bottom of the hull. The centerboard keeps the boat stable and on course.

Centerboards are an important and often overlooked part of a sailboat, but they're essential to stability and effective navigation. Centerboards perform the function of a keel and keep the boat on course regardless of wind direction. Centerboards are primarily found on small trailerable vessels, which vary in length from 12 to 25 feet.


Table of contents

How a Centerboard Works

Centerboards look similar to fin keels, but they have one notable difference: they're retractable. Small sailboats use centerboards for stability and to keep a straight course, especially when sailing windward.

Technically speaking, a centerboard is a rudimentary form of a hydrofoil. In practicality, it's like a rudder that always stays amidships. This is beneficial, as it forces the boat to track a straight course regardless of what direction the wind is blowing.

Without the centerboard, the wind would push the sailboat in whatever direction it was blowing. Tacking would be nearly impossible, and attempting to sail windward could simply knock down the boat. In this sense, the centerboard performs the same function as a fixed-keel.

Centerboard Sailboat Characteristics

Centerboard sailboats are typically less than 25 feet in length and designed for shallow water. In fact, centerboard boats are perfect for shallow water. Cruising in lakes and rivers is a joy with a centerboard boat, as the board can be retracted for towing, beaching, or skimming over shallow water. Centerboard sailboats are the ultimate shoal-draft vessels.

Centerboards descend from a hollow cavity in the center of the boat. This cavity is called the centerboard trunk. Some centerboards are removable and slide vertically into the centerboard trunk. Others are hinged or enclosed, allowing them to be raised and lowered from inside the cabin without removal.

Removable Centerboards

Removable centerboards are usually found on the smallest sailboats. These blades tend to be roughly twice the length of how they look from under the boat. This is because the centerboard trunk has to be above the waterline. Remember, the centerboard trunk is effectively a hole in the boat, so it can't be the same height as the water.

Enclosed Centerboards

Enclosed centerboards are common on mid-sized and larger 'small' boats. They're especially common on vessels equipped with cabins. The primary benefit of an enclosed centerboard is water tightness, as the board is housed within a sealed centerboard trunk.

Enclosed centerboards can be raised and lowered from inside the cabin and never needs to be removed from the boat. They're also shorter (overall) than removable centerboards, as they don't mount to the very top of the high centerboard trunk.

The primary drawback of enclosed centerboards is increased complexity and access issues. But in most cases, small centerboard craft are not usually in the water long enough for severe growth issues. Additionally, retracting the board can protect it from excessive marine gunk.

Hinged Centerboards

Hinged centerboards (or 'swing keel' centerboards) are the most common enclosed variety. Hinged centerboards pivot on a forward hinge. They're long and thin and sometimes stow in a hidden centerboard trunk that's mounted to the bottom of the hull.

These 'stealth' centerboard trunks free up cabin space at the expense of a few inches of draft. Hinged centerboards offer an increased level of grounding safety, as they retract on their own if they hit the ground (instead of shearing off). It's the collapsing steering column of sailboat keels.

Advantages of Centerboard Sailboats

The primary advantage of a centerboard boat is its inherent shoal-draft capability. That means centerboard boats can go a lot closer to shore than fixed-keel vessels. They can even go on shore, and drying out during low tide is rarely hazardous. They sit upright on dry land, and they're easy to trailer around.

The cost to construct, own, and maintain a centerboard cruiser is often far less than a traditional fixed-keel sailboat. This is primarily because you usually don't need a crane to pull it out of the water. Centerboard boats are often small and light enough to leave on a trailer, and their small size avoids excessive marina fees.

Disadvantages of Centerboard Sailboats

Can you cross an ocean in a centerboard sailboat? Most would caution against it. Some would say, "absolutely not," but it has happened a time or two. The issues with centerboard sailboats are size, displacement, draft, and stability, which cause problems in rough weather.

Most centerboard sailboats are only comfortable in calm coastal and inland waters. Conditions aboard a shoal-draft sailboat in foul weather range from uncomfortable to downright perilous, which is a major tradeoff. Additionally, small centerboard sailboats typically lack the cabin and storage space necessary for seagoing provisions.

Also, most small centerboard sailboats simply aren't designed for extended cruising. Things like generators, VHF radios, large freshwater tanks, and bathroom facilities usually aren't up to the task on small boats.

Centerboard Sailboat Propulsion

The smallest centerboard sailboats, such as Sunfish and Laser racers, have no propulsion system other than the sail itself. However, anything beyond 15 feet in length will probably have some alternative propulsion. Small boats have an oar or two on board, but most utilize a 5 to 10-horsepower outboard motor.

Inboard motors are rare, but a one or two-cylinder marine diesel can sometimes be found below the cockpit of a centerboard cruiser. Some small 'motor-sailer' boats have inboard engines and a centerboard for sailing.

Best Centerboard Sailboats for Cruising

Centerboard sailboats are ideal for coastal and inland cruising, and many of these pocket-sized vessels include surprisingly comfortable accommodations. These aren't dinghies or converted rowboats; they're serious sailing vessels in a compact package. Here are a few of the best 'all-around' centerboard sailboats available today.

Catalina 22

The Catalina 22 is one of the most popular sailboats ever built. It has the profile of its larger cousins (like the Catalina 27) but features a compact swing keel centerboard instead of a fin keel. At 22 feet long, the Catalina 22 is about as hardy as centerboard cruisers get.

And thanks to its retractable hinged centerboard, there's enough cabin space for a V-berth, porta-potty, stove, sink, settee, and a convertible dining area berth. The trailerable Catalina 22 is widely available on the used market, often for entry-level pricing.

West Wight Potter 19

The West Wight Potter 19 is a small centerboard pocket cruiser with a cult following. It's a fiberglass V-bottom trailer sailboat with a spacious cabin, retractable centerboard, and foldable mast. This little cruiser is capable and convenient, and it's still produced today.

West Wight Potter sailboats are famous for being (quite literally) unsinkable. They're loaded with flotation foam and stay afloat even when completely flooded. Plus, they're easy to sail, and they have an enormous amount of natural stability.

Hunter 22

The Hunter 22 is a remarkably well-balanced centerboard cruising boat. Like the Catalina 22, this Hunter sailboat features a compact swing-type retractable centerboard. It has a spacious cabin with room to accommodate the whole family on short voyages.

Hunter designed this compact cruising sloop with a masthead rig, which is simple to operate and robust. These vessels were only produced for a few years in the 80s, but variants are plentiful, and they're plenty of fun to sail.

Centerboard Vs. Fixed Keel

Are you interested in buying a sailboat? Deciding between a centerboard and a fixed keel is an important decision that shouldn't be overlooked. If you're looking for a trailerable weekender for short voyages and an occasional offshore run, then consider a centerboard. They're cheap and easy to store in or out of the water.

Centerboard sailboats are also ideal for island hopping, as long as the islands aren't too far from your homeport. Florida to the Bahamas is a common and manageable journey for cruising centerboard boats.

And since centerboard sailboats tend to be smaller, it's important to consider how much provision storage you'll need for the journey. Running out of food or fresh water isn't much fun in the middle of the ocean.

Fixed keelboats are ideal for extended offshore voyages and coastal cruising, especially in choppy waters. A fixed keel cruising boat offers superior roll comfort, stability, and handling in a wide range of weather conditions. They're safer in storms as well. For serious sailing, it's difficult to find an ideal alternative.

What is a Sailboat Centerboard?
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.

Read more articles

by this author

Home /

What is a Sailboat Centerboard?

What is a Sailboat Centerboard?
7 Best Places To Liveaboard A Sailboat >>Can You Live On A Sailboat Year Round? >>

Most Recent

Important Legal Info

Similar Posts

Popular Posts

Get The Best Sailing Content

Welcome aboard! Check your email...
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Lifeofsailing.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon. This site also participates in other affiliate programs and is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.

(866) 342-SAIL

© 2024 Life of Sailing
Email: contact@lifeofsailing.com
Address: 11816 Inwood Rd #3024 Dallas, TX 75244
DisclaimerPrivacy Policy