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Drop the keel, pop the top
Hugh D. Whall
April 19, 1971
Small cruising sailboats that can be trailed to beckoning water all over the country are a fascinating new lure for the landlocked sailor
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April 19, 1971

Drop The Keel, Pop The Top

Small cruising sailboats that can be trailed to beckoning water all over the country are a fascinating new lure for the landlocked sailor

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Elephant Butte, N. Mex., is not the kind of place one associates with cruising sailboats. There is something miragelike about it: parching desert winds, sentinel cacti—and sails shimmering in the sun. Yet just as at many other unlikely ports far from the sea, at Elephant Butte fleets of tiny cruising boats are winging over the available water like gulls blown far inland by a gale.

Towing a house trailer across Death Valley or up into the Rockies may be enthralling, but to sail your own home on a lake rimmed by mountain spires, to thread through desert arroyos or up a meandering river under sail; to be driven by nothing noisier than williwaws: these are experiences at once slightly incredible and truly satisfying.

Because conventional sailboats are not specifically designed for this kind of sailing, it has taken a special type of boat to open up the new frontier. Boats with deep keels draw too much water, and they are awkward to tow on high-speed turnpikes. Additionally, launching and retrieval require special lifts or marine railways that cost anywhere from $10 to $35 a clip. I here is another, less obvious, disadvantage to deep-keel boats. With his boat tied up at a marina or stored in a boatyard, an owner finds it difficult to work on the vessel; it is far easier for him to pick up a telephone and order the job done. Since a yard may charge $11 an hour for labor alone, this common malaise frequently puts upkeep costs into orbit.

Some sailors believe the answer to the deep-keel, small-boat dilemma is a combination ballast keel and centerboard. This, they argue, permits trailing and shallow-water sailing with good performance. But centerboard boats, no matter how stable initially, have never quite managed to erase the feeling that centerboard is synonymous with capsize. And the gusts that come down mountain passes and sweep across deserts and plains are certain to put to the test, with shocking suddenness, a manufacturer's claim that his boat is self-righting. Finally, small cruising boats (of less than 30 feet, say) are uniformly short of headroom for anyone who is more than 4 feet tall.

So, for the self-sufficient sailor-camper who is attracted to inland sailing, who is willing to moor his boat in his garage and launch and rig his boat himself but wants to live aboard in reasonable comfort and sail virtually without fear of capsizing, what's the solution? Maybe a cruiser with a top that pops and a keel that drops.

Pop-top drop-keelers range from a tiny fiber-glass 17-footer called the Venture 17, through the swift Cal-21 and husky Santana 21, to bigger boats like the 24-foot Seafarer Sail 'n Trail. Some boats have pop tops, while others, such as the Santana 21, do not. All, however, are identified by a distinctive footprint: some form of drop keel.

As the name suggests, this is a keel that may be lowered and retracted. It slides up and down like a centerboard, but there the resemblance ends. Where the centerboard is basically a pivoted, weightless foil designed more to help a boat beat against the wind than to prevent capsizing, the drop keel performs both functions. But another way, when down and locked in position the weighted drop keel holds a boat on her feet, thereby freeing her crew from the tear of being precipitously tipped over. When winched Lip inside the boat, a drop keel allows her to skim through water only inches deep or to he hauled smoothly up on a trailer at any one of thousands of launching ramps found throughout this country on rivers, lakes and coves. In addition, because a drop-keel boat is not propped up high in the tow car's slipstream by a three- or four-foot fixed keel, towing her home to dry-land anchorage—instead of an expensive marina—becomes a breeze.

The other key to the type, the pop top, is not exclusive to drop-keelers. In fact, the best known pop-topper of all is not a drop-keel boat but one with a ballast keel: the O'Day 23 centerboarder. This is a spiffy little gem which not only sails well enough to win races but whose entire lid almost lifts right off. By cranking on a mechanism whose principle O'Day borrowed from automotive campers, the skipper of a 23 elevates his cabin top, converting a "down" headroom of only 4'7" to a heads "up" headroom of 6'4". Cloth screens and vinyl curtains are provided to close the gap. The difference a pop top makes to cruising can be appreciated by anyone who has spent a night pinned in claustrophobic humidity to the bunk cushions of a midget's cabin.

King of the drop-keel pop-top trade is a bearded 36-year-old California named Roger MacGregor who builds the Venture line at Costa Mesa, almost within sight of the Pacific. As MacGregor explains it, the idea of mass-producing drop-keelers grew out of a class project in a business course he attended at Stanford as a master's candidate. "The project was to find a market that as yet hadn't been exploited fully," MacGregor says. "From what I'd seen, most boat-builders were hopeless as businessmen; many wouldn't know a time and motion study if they saw one." What was needed, says MacGregor, was a boat with a price set as low as possible by efficient production and sufficient volume. With his training, he figured he could cut it where others had failed.

Like so main other boatbuilders, MacGregor's start was in the backyard. He designed a 21-foot sloop and began molding it in his garage. That was seven years ago. Since then he has moved to a sprawling, ever-spreading Costa Mesa plant where production has reached 13 boats a day. Last year he grossed $6 million while others were hard hit by the recession, partly because he has a knack for cost shaving. For simplicity he color-codes such things as drilling jigs and compartmentalizes every step of production. Thus he does inn need boatbuilders of classic skills and classy wages. His gang of thick-maned coed assemblers doesn't really need to know it is working on a boat, let alone its size. "Boatbuilders? He picks them up wherever he finds them," grumbles one of MacGregor's competitors, a man who believes things have been going downhill since Nelson's day.

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