Every sailboat has a keel. Whether yours is stationary (fixed) or flexible (moveable) depends on the model of your sailboat. If your boat has a fixed keel, you may struggle to launch the vessel into the water. You want to get better at this, but you’re not sure where to start. How do you launch a sailboat with a fixed keel?
To successfully launch a fixed keel sailboat into the water, follow these steps:
- Make sure you’re driving a heavy vehicle, such as a pickup truck or mid-sized SUV that doesn’t have front-wheel drive
- Reverse your vehicle so the trailer is near the water’s edge
- Put wheel chocks on your trailer
- Unhook the trailer from your towing truck
- Drive the vehicle away from the edge of the water so the attached rope becomes tight
- Take the chocks out from the trailer wheels
- Begin backing up until your sailboat is in the water
Admittedly, launching your fixed keel sailboat isn’t the easiest nor the quickest process. Therefore, in this article, we’ll explore the above steps in much more detail. We’ll also tell you everything you need to know about a fixed keel so you can better understand your sailboat.
What Is a Fixed Keel?
Okay, so your sailboat has a fixed keel rather than a moveable one. What does that even mean?
Well, first, let’s just make sure we’re on the same page about what a keel is. Your sailboat’s keel is the lowest element and the most longitudinal. Keels are made for counterbalancing and hydrodynamics in most sailboats, but they don’t do this for all.
If your keel is more hydrodynamic, then it’s supposed to go partially in the water. Fixed keels can be hydrodynamic, and if they are, then they’re strong enough to hold up the weight of your sailboat if necessary.
Okay, let’s talk more about fixed keels now. As we said in the intro, a fixed keel is stationary, meaning it will never move. Thanks to your sailboat’s fixed keel, you don’t have to worry about your boat blowing sideways in windy conditions.
Your fixed keel also distributes the center of gravity of your sailboat when in the water, moving this gravity under the waterline. Now, if your boat were to capsize from strong waves or the wind, it would pop right back upright again.
Not all fixed keels are the same. Your sailboat may be outfitted with one of two types: a full keel or a fin keel.
Full keels, despite their name, are not as long as the hull. They’re actually half the length. The design of a full keel is such that the aft edge is attached to a rudder while the forward edge has a vertical curve.
The stability a full keel lends you is advantageous. You can also rely on a full keel for grounding safely on your sailboat every time.
A fin keel has a broader shape, as its bottom cuts off at an angle. This type of fixed keel is often made of metal or wood. If you’re using a sailboat, a racing yacht, or any other shallow vessel on the water, the fin keel adds lateral resistance with its downward projection. That will make steering easier as well as help you keep the boat steadier.
Do Fixed Keel Sailboats Have Any Benefits?
You may have bought your sailboat without knowing some keels could move and others couldn’t. Through the luck of the draw, you ended up with a boat installed with a fixed keel.
Is your boat at an advantage or a disadvantage with a fixed keel? The answer is both. Let’s start with the benefits of a fixed keel sailboat.
- Centerboard-free: The first main perk of a fixed keel is that your sailboat foregoes a centerboard. If you’re not familiar, a centerboard is a type of keel that can retract. It fits in a sailboat’s hull via a slot. The centerboard pivots due to this setup. In shallower waters, the centerboard will lift so your center of lateral resistance is better.
Centerboards can come in handy, but due to their construction, there’s a good chance yours will jam up eventually, if not snap off entirely. A fixed keel won’t do that. It’s built into the boat and doesn’t bob and move with changing water levels. That increases the keel’s durability by a good margin.
- More freedom among your crew: With some other keel setups, if your crew doesn’t distribute their weight evenly, your risk of capsizing is higher. That’s not the case with a fixed keel sailboat. Move about as you will. Your boat will stay upright.
- Less sideways motion: If your sailboat experiences a lot of leeway or sideways motion in the water, a fixed keel will change that. The keel positioning lends the boat more stability.
- Great for capsizing prevention: As you’ve read on this blog, sailboats are incredibly prone to capsizing. It’s practically unavoidable. That said, with a fixed keel on your sailboat, the ballast of the keel may reduce your instances of capsizing. Also, as we mentioned before, the center of gravity distribution from the fixed keel makes it easier for your boat to come back up after capsizing. This can save lives in some instances.
In the interest of full disclosure, we should talk about the downsides to a fixed keel sailboat, as there are several of these.
- Trailering difficulties: This admittedly depends on the size of your keel and how deep it is. The deeper the fixed keel, the harder it is for trailering. Should your fixed keel sailboat exceed 25 feet, then you can’t trailer it at all. You’d need to keep it in a boatyard and launch it from there. This can be expensive and inconvenient.
- Weighty boat: Another problem with fixed keel sailboats is the keel adds extra weight to the boat. If you’re trailering, which we’ll explain more in the next section, that weight does add up.
- Shallow water troubles: Deeper keels have yet a second problem you should be aware of. That is, the displacement of these keels may make them unable to handle shallow waters without the keel scraping along and sustaining damage.
For more detailed information on keels, their types and effects on your vessels please read our last article here.
Launching a Sailboat with a Fixed Keel? Follow These Steps
You will indeed have your work cut out for you when trailering and launching a fixed keel sailboat, but it’s by no means impossible to do.
Here’s what you must have handy for the job:
- A trailer that fits your fixed keel sailboat
- High-quality wheel chocks
- Durable, fresh rope
You’ll then want to follow along with these steps to successfully send your boat into the water.
Step 1: Make Sure You Have the Right Vehicle
Not every vehicle is made for trailering and launching fixed keel sailboats. Ideally, you should drive a pickup truck or a mid-sized SUV. The heavier, the better here. After all, since the fixed keel sailboat can weigh more itself, you need a towing vehicle that can handle the extra weight.
Besides the weight of the vehicle, you should also make sure it has the right drive type. Front-wheel drive is not recommended. When you launch a fixed keel sailboat using a truck with front-wheel drive, the trailer weight will come down on the back of your truck. This causes traction instability to your front tires, which is not good.
Two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, and manual four-wheel drive are all better options than standard four-wheel drive.
Step 2: Position Your Vehicle
Put your sailboat on the trailer and drive to the water where you want to launch the boat. When you get there, switch into reverse so you can align your truck or SUV until the trailer is right at the water’s edge.
At that point, the other crewmembers you brought with you (no, you can’t do this by yourself) need to set up the wheel chocks. These should go behind each of your trailer wheels.
Step 3: Separate the Tow Vehicle and the Trailer
With the wheel chocks secure, your crew should next remove the trailer so it’s no longer attached to your truck or SUV. At this point, the spare tire that comes with your trailer should be at its front. Otherwise, the tongue of the trailer won’t stay up, which can prevent the easy rolling you’re going to need for your sailboat.
Step 4: Attach the Rope and Pull It
You don’t want your towing vehicle and the trailer completely removed from one another yet. Take your rope and connect the two vehicles now. Then, drive your truck or SUV in very small increments until the rope is pulled nice and tight. It should not be strained to the point where it will break, but it should feel taut.
Step 5: Remove the Trailer Wheel Chocks and Move the Boat in the Water
You’re almost done at this point, but not entirely. Next, you want your crew to take the wheel chocks off all four wheels of your trailer. Now you want to reverse your truck or SUV yet again, going until your sailboat and the trailer are in the water. Neither should be barely in, but submerged.
Step 6: Let the Boat Float into the Water
Gravity should do its thing and your sailboat should naturally take to the water without you having to back in any deeper.
Step 7: Drive Forward and Re-Chock the Wheels of Your Trailer
Instead, you want to switch your truck or SUV into drive and get your trailer out of the water. When you’re safely out, your crew can reapply the wheel chocks on the trailer.
Step 8: Reattach the Trailer to Your Vehicle
The crew will also reconnect the trailer to your towing vehicle so you can drive it back home. You’re all done from there!
Now, the above eight steps anticipate that the conditions are ideal. In some bodies of water, you may run into shallow sandbars that make launching a fixed keel sailboat even more difficult. You don’t want your keel scraping along or even going through the sandbar, as that could hurt it. You could also end up ruining your boat that way if you’re not careful.
You’d want to use a boat ramp for launching your sailboat over a sandbar safely. Alternately, a courtesy dock near the boat ramp works just as well. Your crew will need to be with you to make a launch happen in these conditions.
They’ll attach the dock line to the courtesy dock to send your fixed keel sailboat with the trailer into the water deep enough for the launch.
More Tips for Sailing with a Fixed Keel
You now know how to launch your fixed keel sailboat in the water, but what do you do once you’re in there? We’ve compiled some handy tips for successful sailing with an immovable keel.
Research Where You’ll Sail Before You Go
The above sandbar situation is for the most part avoidable with a bit of research. Plan for where you sail and know which bodies of water have sandbars. Sometimes, water level and weather shifts can cause sandbars to appear where there had been none. Once you have a few preferred places to sail though, you can get a feel for which bodies of water may be most likely to have sandbars and then avoid those if riding in your fixed keel sailboat.
Gauge Water Depth Before Launch
Besides the level of the ground beneath the water, you also have to watch out for the depth of the water. Other sailboat keels can accommodate for shallower or deeper waters, but not a fixed keel. The keel length stays the same no matter how much (or little) water you’re sailing in.
The lower the water levels, the greater the chances of your fixed keel colliding with all that lies on the water’s floor. These could be sandbars, yes, but also damaging debris like seaweed or chunky rocks and stones.
If you’re sailing in the ocean especially, avoid venturing out during low tide when launching at the shoreline. There are far too many risks for your fixed keel sailboat.
Know What to Do If Your Keel Is Aground
Let’s say the worst did happen and your fixed keel ended up firmly lodged in a sandbar. You’d want to try to navigate your sailboat away if you can, getting your boat over or behind the sandbar.
Then it’d be a good idea to pull off to a dock as soon as you can and assess the damage. If your keel is just a little scraped up, then you should be able to keep sailing. For more serious harm, you’ll probably have to get your boat repaired.
In the future, avoid shallow conditions or waters with high floors, as they don’t do any favors for a sailboat with a permanently fixed keel.
A fixed keel on a sailboat cannot move, which means it has no freedom to retract in shallower conditions. These keels can reduce sideways motion and may even make it easier to recover after capsizing. That said, because the keel can be weighty and hard to work with, launching a fixed keel sailboat into the water is a whole complicated process.
The steps and guidance provided in this article should help you with a successful launch. Happy sailing!