The Righting Moment & Sailboat Stability

Feeling a sailboat heel under him for the first time, a novice sailor may wonder what stops it from going all the way over. The righting moment is, of course, the reason why it doesn't.

Many years ago my son James asked me just that.

"It's that lump of lead in the keel" I explained.

"Why put lead in something you expect to float?" said James.

Hmm, perhaps he was onto something - I put him down as a future multihull man...

This piece of nostalgia hints at the two key ingredients to stability - ballast and hull form.

Monohulls have more of the first and less of the second, and multihulls very little of the first and much of the second.

And stability considerations fall under two further headings - static and dynamic. Static being when the boat is at rest; dynamic when underway and subject to the forces of wind and waves.

Lagoon 440 catamaran at anchorCatamarans rely almost entirely on Form Stability

Righting Moment & Static Stability

Take a look at the sketches below:~

diagram showing how centre of buoyancy moves as boat heels and gz changesRighting Moment created as the boat heels

With the boat upright, the Centre of Gravity (G) is in line with the Centre of Buoyancy (B); effectively there is no righting moment.

But as the boat heels, a righting moment develops. The Moment Arm (Z) is the horizontal distance between G and B, and the Righting Moment Gz is the product of the moment arm and the boat's displacement.

But whilst the boat's displacement and the location of its Centre of Gravity remain constant, Z changes as the boat heals more and more. There comes a point at which Z reaches a maximum value, normally at an angle of heel of around 60 degrees or so. As the boat heels past this point it decreases, leading eventually to a capsize.

The relationship between heeling angle and righting moment is different for all boats, and the plotted Gz curve gives an excellent indicator of the boat's static stability.

But the boat's static stability and its righting moment is only part of the story. How will it react to a sudden gust of wind or when clobbered by a large wave?

Dynamic Stability

There's no arguing that heavy displacement helps a boat's stability, but the most important factor affecting dynamic stability is its moment of inertia. This is the measure of the boat's resistance to angular acceleration.

sailboat rolls around 3 axesThe three axes of rotation

Boats rotate around three axes - rolling around the fore and aft axis; pitching about the transverse axis; yawing around the vertical axis.

It's the Roll Moment of Inertia (RMoI) that should concern us most as it's around the fore and aft axis that a boat is most likely to capsize.

This is calculated by multiplying the weight of all the boat's constituent parts by the square of the distance from the boat's Center of Gravity to the part's Center of Gravity - a tedious but necessary task for the designer. The squared term means that the distance of heavy items from the Center of Gravity greatly affect the RMoI, and the greater RMoI the less the boat will react to a gust of wind, or a large wave.

So boats with their ballast deep in their keels, their fuel and water tanks as far outboard as possible, and long heavy masts will have greater RMoI's and will be more dynamically stable as a result. Such boats will have long roll periods and will be highly resistant to rapid changes in heel angle.

dismasted sailboat rolls quickerLost your rig? You'll roll much more!

This will be very apparent to a crew unfortunate enough to have lost their rig, as this item is the boat's greatest contributor to the moment of inertia. Without it, the boat's roll period will be very quick and snappy, and the probability of capsize much higher.

Makers of grandfather clocks had cause to be grateful for the effects of the rotational moment of inertia. They used it to govern the rate of gain, or loss, of their creations.

To correct a 'slow' clock, the pendulum would be shortened slightly thereby reducing the distance to the neutral axis. This decreased the period of oscillation - it would swing faster - and speed up the clock's mechanism. Conversely, for a clock that gained, the pendulum would be increased in length to create the opposite effect.

The principal reason for using pendulums in clocks was that for a given length, the period of oscillation remains constant, irrespective of the amplitude.

Artwork by Andrew Simpson

And so it is with a boat; if she's rolling gently at anchor, or from gunwale to gunwale in a seaway, the roll period will be the same.

So clearly there's a lot more to a sailboat's stability than the Righting Moment alone.


Righting Moment & Stability: A Few FAQs...

What are some factors that affect the righting moment curve?

The righting moment curve is a graph that shows how the righting moment changes with different angles of heel. Some factors that affect this curve are:

  • The displacement and distribution of weight of the boat, which determine the location and movement of the CG.
  • The hull shape and volume of the boat, which determine the location and movement of the CB.
  • The freeboard and deck shape of the boat, which affect when and how much water enters or leaves the boat as it heels, changing its buoyancy.
  • The rigging and sail plan of the boat, which affect how much wind force and drag are applied to the boat at different angles of heel.

What are some advantages and disadvantages of having a high righting moment in a sailboat?

Some advantages of having a high righting moment are:

  • The boat can carry more sail area and generate more speed and power in moderate winds.
  • The boat can resist capsizing better in strong winds or waves.
  • The boat can have a more comfortable motion and less fatigue for the crew in rough seas.

Some disadvantages of having a high righting moment are:

  • The boat may have more wetted surface area and drag, reducing its speed and efficiency in light winds.
  • The boat may have more weight and inertia, making it less responsive and manoeuvrable.
  • The boat may have more cost and complexity in its design and construction.

What is the difference between righting moment and heeling moment?

The difference between righting moment and heeling moment is that they have opposite effects on the stability of a sailboat. Righting moment is the force that tries to restore the boat to its upright position, while heeling moment is the force that tries to tilt the boat away from its upright position.

The righting moment is determined by the distance between the centre of gravity (CG) and the centre of buoyancy (CB) of the boat, which changes as the boat heels.

The heeling moment is determined by the wind pressure on the sails and the water pressure on the hull, which also change as the boat heels.

A sailboat is stable when the righting moment is equal to or greater than the heeling moment, and unstable when the heeling moment is greater than the righting moment.

A sailboat can increase its righting moment by adding ballast, increasing beam, or reducing sail area, and can reduce its heeling moment by reefing, easing sheets, or changing course.

How does the wind speed affect the righting moment?

The wind speed affects the righting moment by changing the heeling moment, which is the force that tries to tilt the boat away from its upright position. The heeling moment is determined by the wind pressure on the sails and the water pressure on the hull, which also change as the boat heels.

The higher the wind speed, the higher the wind pressure on the sails, and the higher the heeling moment. This means that the boat will heel more for a given sail area and angle of attack. To counteract this, the boat needs to have a higher righting moment, which can be achieved by adding ballast, increasing beam, or reducing sail area.

The ideal wind speed for sailing depends on the type and size of the boat, the skill and preference of the sailor, and the weather and sea conditions. Generally, most sailors prefer a moderate wind speed of 5-12 knots, which allows them to sail comfortably and safely without excessive heeling or capsizing. However, some sailors may enjoy sailing in stronger winds of 15-25 knots, which can provide more speed and power, but also more challenge and risk.

How does the hull shape affect the righting moment?

he hull shape affects the righting moment by changing the position and movement of the centre of buoyancy (B) as the boat heels. The centre of buoyancy is the centroid of the boat's underwater volume, and the force of buoyancy acts upward through this point. The righting moment is the force that resists the heeling of the boat caused by the wind pressure on the sails. It is determined by the distance between the centre of gravity (G) and the centre of buoyancy (B) of the boat, which changes as the boat heels.
Different hull shapes have different effects on the righting moment. Some examples are:

  • A wide and shallow hull has more form stability, which means that it has a larger displacement of the centre of buoyancy to leeward as it heels. This increases the righting moment and makes the boat more stable, but also more prone to drag and less responsive.
  • A narrow and deep hull has less form stability, which means that it has a smaller displacement of the centre of buoyancy to leeward as it heels. This decreases the righting moment and makes the boat less stable, but also more efficient and manoeuvrable.
  • A round-bottomed hull has a low metacentric height, which means that it has a small distance between the centre of gravity and the metacentre (the point where a vertical line through the heeled centre of buoyancy intersects the ship's centreline). This makes the boat slow to roll and easy to overturn, but also more comfortable in rough seas.
  • A flat-bottomed hull has a high metacentric height, which means that it has a large distance between the centre of gravity and the metacentre. This makes the boat quick to roll and hard to overturn, but also more uncomfortable in rough seas.

The above answers were drafted by sailboat-cruising.com using GPT-4 (OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model) as a research assistant to develop source material; to the best of our knowledge, we believe them to be accurate.


Recent Articles

  1. A Hunter Passage 42 for Sale

    Jul 16, 24 01:41 PM

    'Soul Venture', a Hunter Passage 42 for sale, is a sloop rigged centre cockpit cruising boat that is comfortable to live-a-board without sacrificing on cruising performance. All lines lead aft to the…

    Read More

  2. The Wauquiez Centurion 40 Sailboat

    Jul 15, 24 04:50 AM

    Interested in the Wauquiez Centurion 40 Sailboat? Here are the pics, specs and performance predictions you're looking for...

    Read More

  3. The Elan 431 Sailboat

    Jul 13, 24 03:03 AM

    Interested in the Elan 431 Sailboat? Here are the pics, specs and performance predictions you're looking for...

    Read More