Sailboat Stability Uncensored

Published on February 11th, 2021

by Darrell Nicholson, Practical Sailor
At its most basic level, my goal as a sailor is pretty simple: keep my neck above water. Speed, comfort, progress toward a destination are nice, but if I need gills to achieve any of these, something is amiss. And since an upside-down boat tends to interfere with this modest ambition, I’d say our recent obsession with stability is justified.

This is far from our first foray into this topic. Shortly after the 1979 Fastnet race disaster, in which 15 sailors died, Practical Sailor embarked on a series of articles on sailboat stability. The racing rules of that era had resulted in designs that were quicker to capsize than their heavier, more conservatively proportioned predecessors, and we needed to explore why.

Since then, the lessons of Fastnet have been absorbed by the design community, culminating with the CE Category system and formulas used by various racing bodies like the Offshore Racing Congress to evaluate a boat’s fitness for the body of water where it will sail. But it’s clear that the tools we use to measure stability, and the standards we’ve established to prevent future incidents are still imperfect instruments, as we saw in the fatal WingNuts capsize in 2011. And in the cruising community, where fully equipped ocean going boats hardly resemble the lightly loaded models used to calculate stability ratings, we worry that the picture of stability is again becoming blurred by design trends. This video gives some insight into the dockside measurement process for racing boats.

Last month, we examined multihull stability, including an analysis of several well publicized capsizes. One of the key takeaways from that report was the significant impact that hull shape and design can have on a multihull’s ability to stay upright. Another key observation was the distinction between trimarans and cats, and why lumping them together in a discussion of stability can lead to wrong conclusions. As we pointed out, many of the factors that determine a multihull’s ability are related to hull features—like wave-piercing bows—that are difficult to account for when we try to calculate stability.

This month, we take another look at monohull stability. This time it’s a formula-heavy attempt to tackle the conundrum that many cruising sailors face: How can I know if the recorded stability rating for my boat reflects the reality of my own boat? Or, if there is no stability rating from any of the databases, like the one at US Sailing, how do I assess my boat’s stability? – Full report

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