Boats & Gear

MODERN SAILBOAT DESIGN: Form Stability

Open 60 under sail

Stability, fundamentally, is what prevents a boat from being turned over and capsized. Whether you are a cruiser or a racer, it is a desirable characteristic. A boat's shape, particularly its transverse hull form, has an enormous impact on how stable it is. This so-called "form stability" is one of the primary reasons you should be interested in the shape of a boat's hull.

The basic principle is self-evident: an object that is wide and flat is harder to overturn than one that is narrow and round. With this in mind, you can usually see at a glance what hull shapes have the greatest form stability. Wide hulls are inherently more stable than narrow ones; given two hulls of equal width, the one with less deadrise and a flatter bottom is more stable than one with more deadrise and a rounder bottom.

Waterline beam

The controlling dimension, when considering width, is always waterline beam. Do not jump to conclusions based on a boat's published maximum beam, as boats with the same maximum beam can easily have very different waterline beams. Another important factor is how a boat's beam is distributed along the length of its hull. A hull that carries more waterline beam into its bow and stern sections--that is, a hull with a larger waterplane--has more form stability than a hull with a wide midsection and narrow ends. The classic example of the latter are the IOR boats that dominated racing during the 1970s. Because the IOR rating rule favored beamy boats but measured beam only in the midsection, designers thought they could have their cake and eat it, too. By making their boats fat in the middle they could gain a rating advantage; by pinching the ends they could reduce displacement and wetted surface area. Such hulls, however, as demonstrated during the 1979 Fastnet Race, are often not very stable.

Waterplane area

Form stability is an important component of what is termed initial stability, which refers to a boat's ability to immediately resist heeling when pressure is applied to its sails. A boat with lots of initial stability is said to be stiff; one with little initial stability is tender. Stiffness is a desirable feature, as a boat never sails as well when it's heeled way over on its ear. The keel's effective area and draft and its capacity for generating lift are reduced, as are the effective height and area of the sail plan (by about 10 percent, for example, when a boat is heeled to an angle of 25 degrees). A stiff boat that stays more upright not only retains more keel and rig efficiency, it can also stand up to a larger sail plan in the first place. In many cases, particularly if a boat is light, this negates any loss of performance caused by an increase in beam and wetted surface area.

Stiff boats with good form stability in one sense are more comfortable, especially for novice sailors, than boats that heel easily. In another sense, however, they can be very uncomfortable. Though they are rolled to less severe angles, they snap back from those lesser angles more quickly and abruptly than boats with less form stability that are rolled to greater angles. The resulting motion can seem jerky and violent, and this is reflected in a boat's motion-comfort ratio. This quick motion, combined with the tendency of a flat-bottomed boat to pound in a steep head sea, may lead some to conclude that there can be such a thing as too much form stability.

The most important thing to remember about form stability is that it does not translate into ultimate stability. A sailboat's hull form can help it resist heeling up to a point, but past that point all bets are off. A boat that depends too much on form stability to stay upright will be capable of supporting an enormous sail plan in moderate conditions, but when caught in a sudden squall with all its sail up, it can be laid over and capsized very quickly.

Inverted Open 60

Capsized Open 60s can potentially be as stable upside down as they are right-side up. These days boats most undergo a righting test before competing

In a worst-case scenario, after a hull like this has capsized, its form stability may even help keep it inverted. Fans of singlehanded ocean racing will recall a dramatic series of Open 60 capsizes in the mid- to late-1990s. These extremely wide, flat monohulls, designed to surf at high speeds off the wind in the Southern Ocean, stayed upside down after being flipped over in spite of the very deep (or tall, as the case may be) ballast keels attached to their bottoms.

AC45 catamaran under sail

The ultimate in form stability

Multihulls, of course, rely entirely on form stability to stay upright. They are extremely stiff, and it takes an enormous amount of energy to heel them to any appreciable degree. Once pushed to the limit, however, they must flip over and must remain flipped over until an even greater amount of energy arrives to right them. Monohull cruisers, of course, point to this as the Achilles heel of the multihull. Multihull cruisers respond by noting that in a worst-case scenario their boats at least will still be floating (albeit upside down) while the monohull sailor's craft will be sitting (albeit somewhat upright) at the bottom of the sea.

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