How come designers and engineers can't ensure keels stay intact during a round the world race?

Why do the Vendée Globe solo designs, the IMOCA 60s, keep having keel failures? There have been two keel failures on this race: Safran and now Paprec-Virbac 3, and the breakage of a keel ram on Maître Coq.

If you look more broadly at the class, you’re bound to reach the conclusion that the flaws leading to these catastrophes have been endemic. There were six keel failures in the race four years ago and 17 in total dating back to the shocking images of Tony Bullimore’s boat upside-down in 1997.

How can it be that these keep happening and what’s the reason? How come designers and engineers still cannot manage to ensure keels stay on for the duration of a round the world race?

The subject is immensely complicated, but the simple place to start is that no one – no designer, no engineer and certainly no sailor – wishes to take big risks in this area.

While they are trying not to be handicapped in terms of performance, most teams would be prepared to accept some compromise if it provided a guaranteed solution and over the years many teams have swapped materials back and forth several times in search of it.

The other issue is that keel fins are made out of one of a variety of materials, so there is no one answer. (Safran’s was from fabricated titanium; JP Dick’s of fabricated steel.) Each fin material has its pros and cons, and the problem is that there have been failures in every material. The table below illustrates some of the choices and trade-offs:

Keel fin types  

Material   Carbon   Fabricated steel   Milled steel  

Typical weight 450kg     650-kg             1,100kg   
Typical max width 120mm   115mm            100mm   
Pros Light weight   Lighter than milled steel   Thin section  
   Heavier bulb   Less expensive than carbon   Less drag  

‘Fit and forget’ Cheapest Durable and strong

Cons  Flutter problems Finite life Manufacturing time
  Expensive   Regular maintance   Expensive   
         Poor impact resistance   Possible voids in casting
         Damage can be invisible   Heavy   
         More wetted surface      


There are many areas where things can go wrong with keels. There can be material problems – for example voids in steel – and human error in manufacturing of fabricated steel or carbon keels. There can be problems with the canting mechanism, the hydraulic rams that push and pull the keel head, and in the attachment between or bonding of the keel head and the rams.

Then there are underlying structural problems and engineering miscalculations and, together with manufacturing issues, these are probably at the bottom of the majority of failures.

Besides these, some teams have blamed subsequent keel failures on earlier collisions with marine mammals. Jérémie Beyou voiced the opinion that a collision with a mammal might have bent his keel ram, putting him out of the race on the way down the North Atlantic. Such impacts can do serious damage, though admittedly more serious to the poor animal. Keel calculations are usually for a longitudinal grounding, whereas on a canted keel these can impose a big torsional load.

So coming up with a simple solution that fits all these types is near impossible. For this reason, the class has been debating for over five years the possibility of a one-design keel, or options of a solid forged steel one-design keel. In the last few years I’ve written about this several times, including here and here.

I prematurely concluded four years ago that the class would have to come up with a plan. The rule has been tweaked, but teams still take individual options, even quite leftfield ones like Safran’s super-expensive titanium fin, which failed early on in this race. The team blamed fatigue.

As a group the class hasn’t made the leap to a more failsafe option. Interestingly, Alex Thomson comments today: “When I joined the class in 2003 I was a little surprised that I had to change the keel on my first boat because it had exceeded its mileage of 80,000 miles. Since then people have been building keels that last only one round the world race to save a few kilos of weight. I came from the world that a keel lasted for the life of the boat and that is where we need to get to.”

This time could a bold move be that much closer? The one-design keel/rig debate is set to be heard again against a counter-argument for a full-on one design for the Vendée Globe. Although Michel Desjoyeaux is not a particular fan of a move away from the development class, it so happens he has a candidate that could be considered: the Oceans50 one-design. More on that soon.

So an interesting crossroads is approaching for the skippers and class. And it may not even be entirely theirs to have. Desjoyeaux is interesting on the subject, pointing out that the Vendée Globe race and boats eligible for it is entirely down to the event management. “IMOCA won’t be able to decide,” he told me last week. “It is the organisers of the Vendée Globe who will decide. They could say: ‘For the interests of our race, we don’t want this.'”