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Silly Season in the America's Cup - Keels 'n Barge

by Richard Gladwell on 28 Jan 2008
Graham Dalton’s multi-foiled canting keel Open 50 demonstrates why rulemakers talk of appendages rather than keels and rudders. The canting keel strut contributes little if any real righting moment - which comes from the bulb (another defined term in the ISAF Equipment Rules). © Richard Gladwell www.richardgladwell.com

After Christmas, the silly season seemed to strike the America’s Cup.

Some would say that the Cup has been in an incoherent state for quite some time. Maybe that goes with the territory.

The antics started soon after Justice Herman Cahn’s decision on 27 November, which declared that Club Nautico Espanol de Vela (CNEV) was not a legitimate challenger on a couple of grounds – both of which involved the interpretation of a couple of simple words.

“Having” meant something that had happened in the past – not some expression of future intent. So the phrase “having for its annual regatta on ocean water course…” meant that CNEV should have already sailed a regatta before lodging its Challenge with Societe Nautique de Geneve. Clearly it had not, and on this count alone the Spanish “legal adjustment” was out of the game, according to Justice Cahn.

Clearly encouraged by the fact that the case could swing on a word or two, Alinghi’s new legal team trawled through the documents submitted by the second challenger, Golden Gate Yacht Club. The new legal-eagles and found that that in their Notice of Challenge GGYC had stated in their preamble that the were going to sail a “keel yacht” and later in the Notice of Challenge gave the dimensions of their Challenger, as required by the Deed of Gift.

The Deed of Gift does not require the Challenger to give a written description of their boat, save for stating the basic dimensions specified in the Deed of Gift. The argument advanced by Alinghi is based around information that is not required.

The reason why the information is not required is fairly self-evident. Imagine if when entering your yacht in a race you had to describe it accurately in words, and that if this description was proved to be inaccurate in a protest hearing, or capable of being interpreted so as to be misleading, then you would be disqualified from the race? The protests would be endless, and for this reason it is required on entering a yacht race, the yacht is described as being of a certain class (and therefore in compliance with the restriction and measurements of that class). Or, the owner will supply required dimensions, which must be accurate ie it would be protestable and if inaccurate a penalty would be prescribed.

This approach is consistent with the case of Thistle in the 1887 America's Cup, which turned up with a waterline length 18' longer than specified on her Notice of Challenge.

Most sailors would have taken a nanosecond or two, to work out that a yacht with a 90ft waterline beam and 90ft waterline length would have been some sort of multihull – the only issue being whether it had two or three hulls.

However the words “keel yacht”, used the Notice of Challenge clearly confused some in the Alinghi camp.

Their legal department swung into action and produced various affidavits and other papers, one of which was written by Fred Meyer, Vice Commodore of SNG.

In paragraph 10 the Vice Commodore comments:

“10. This distinction between “keel yacht” and “multi-hull” is confirmed by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF”) rules, which clearly distinguishes among the following class designs: (i) Keelboat, (ii) Multi-hull, (iii) Centreboard, and (iv) Windsurfing.

“In addition, on the website www.isaf.org, the ISAF distinguishes the following boat classes: (i) Centreboard, (ii) Keelboat, (iii) Multihull. and (iv) Windsurfing.

(Three references are quoted, relating to ISAF Regulations. The first reference being the composition of the Class Rules Subcommittee, and the second relates to the minimum participation required to retain the right to stage a world championship. The third would appear to be incorrect ISAF Regulation 16.1.6 which is claimed to specify differing equipment required on board based on the class of boat – when the regulation in fact just lists the international classes to be used in the Olympic and Asian Games).

The obvious point in the above extract is the way in which the paragraph begins with the use of the term “keel yacht” and finishes talking about the term “keelboat” - which is much safer ground from which to work their argument, which is tenuous at best.

Unfortunately for Alinghi, Golden Gate YC used the words “keel yacht” not keelboat, and the terms mean quite different things.

The word “keel” in “keel yacht” is an adjective describing the noun “yacht”.

“Keelboat”is a noun, free of adjective, and is primarily a technical term coined by ISAF for Olympic Event classification and International Class administration purposes. ISAF previously had a Keelboat Committee, as it had a Centreboard Committee along with about 30 other committees and sub-committees. Followers of the governing body of the sport will be aware that it is concerned with the International Keelboat classes (almost all of which are one-designs), and who meet the ISAF criteria for International or Recognised class status.

While the keelboat side of the sport is large in terms of worldwide participation, however most of the work has been done by organisations like the ORC and offshore and ocean racing clubs independently of the ISAF.

Further the America's Cup class, while initially called the International America's Cup Class soon dropped the word 'Intrenational' as this implied some form of connection or administration by ISAF, which was not the case, and the rules have since been known and the America's Cup Class rules (ACC). It is ironic that when an authoritative interpretation is required that SNG reverts to ISAF, yet will not use that body to run the event in the way that it does for all World Championships and the Olympic Games.

Many believe that SNG is using ISAF as a flag of convenience in this matter.


The word keel has two meanings.

Its traditional meaning is that it is the centre spine of a boat from which all frames are attached. In sailing ships the keel was also the lowest point of the yacht.

In this meaning, all yachts have keels, as in “keel yacht”.

In modern yachts, “keel” also has a looser meaning when referring to an appendage, that pokes out of the bottom of yacht – be it multihull, monohull or whatever.

Yachting rulemakers have long recognised the fallacy of talking about the ambiguous term “keel” to refer to this fin/strut/centreboard and use the term “appendage” to describe the various items which poke out of the bottoms of racing yachts.

This is the case in various America’s Cup class rules, and International Sailing Federation’s own Equipment Rules of Sailing in Section E defines no less than 11 terms of various items which can be appendages, of which “keel” is one.

If a designer were genuinely perplexed as to the meaning of a “keel yacht” then one would have thought a couple of minutes spent reading the ISAF Equipment Rules of Sailing would have been more relevant than the Oxford dictionary.

If you are a lawyer wishing to make a legal point, then the Oxford Dictionary is the place from which to launch your case. However Fred Meyer describes himself as being the Vice Commodore of SNG and Secretary of the International 8m JI Class Association, - a sailor not a lawyer.

For the record a “keel” according to ISAF is “A fixed hull appendage, attached approximately on the hull centreplane, primarily used to affect stability and leeway.”

However we digress.


The point with the term “keel yacht” is that it is so vague as to be meaningless (which was probably GGYC’s intention). Anything with sails that floats and moves forwards, can be called a yacht, and plenty of pleasurecraft without sails are also called yachts. All boats have keels (as in a backbone structural member) and all have appendages to prevent leeway and provide steerage.

A “keelboat” is quite a different beast and stems, as from ISAF’s need to broadly categorise boats under its jurisdiction, and for the cat

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