Sailboat Design: Stability, Buoyancy and Performance

Simply stated, the first requirement of sailboat design is that the yacht designer's creation is seaworthy; particularly in that it stays afloat and is highly resistant to capsize - but of course we expect rather more than that...

Good sailing performance, particularly to windward, will be high on the list of most sailors' requirements. As will the availability of sufficient space below decks to accommodate the crew and the stores, and all the other sailing paraphernalia.

And the boat must be easy to handle, both under sail at sea and under power in the marina. It must be comfortable, for it's not always just a sailing machine - at times it has to function as a home too.

So a design that successfully incorporates all these requirements won't just happen by accident - but however accomplished your yacht designer, you'll not be able to have everything...


We sailors recognise the stability element of sailboat design as the difference between a 'stiff' boat and a 'tender' one. And whether it's one or the other depends on the relationship between the righting moment applied by the hull and the heeling moment applied by the wind-loaded sails.

As can be seen in the sketch, the righting moment (Gz) is the horizontal distance between the boat's Centre of Gravity (G) and its Centre of Buoyancy (B).

The righting moment increases as the boat heels until a point is reached at which the heeling moment becomes equal to the righting moment, following which any further increase in heeling moment will cause the boat to capsize.

This is best expressed graphically by way of a Gz Curve, which plots Righting Moment against Heel Angle.

This curve establishes the Angle of Vanishing Stability, effectively the point of no return for a sailboat about to capsize, and which is a major factor in allocating any sailboat to one of the four recognised sailboat design categories - Ocean, Offshore, Inland and Sheltered Waters.

If you're planning to buy or charter a sailboat, you should always check its Design Category to make sure that it's suitable for your purposes.

Displacement, Freeboard and the Centre of Gravity

Heavy displacement boats sit lower in the water than light displacement craft, so their cabin soles are deeper below the water line. Lighter displacement boats with their higher cabin soles have to have greater freeboard to provide their occupants with sufficient headroom.

And freeboard has an impact on stability in that it raises the centre of gravity, thereby reducing the righting moment.

To compensate this, any ballast carried by a light displacement boat should always be as low as possible, ideally in a bulb at the foot of the keel - the lower the centre of gravity the better, as it improves the righting moment by maximising the righting lever Gz.

In our medium-to-light sailboat Alacazam, we have gone one stage further by building in a water ballast system.


Generally light displacement brings performance benefits due to the higher power to weight ratio and reduced hull drag through having a smaller wetted area.

This is borne out by two important design ratios, the Displacement/Length Ratio and the Sail Area/Displacement Ratio.

Length too has an impact on performance, as can be shown by another sailboat design ratio, the Speed/Length Ratio.

It will also come as no surprise that performance is also influenced by the hull shape below the waterline; a slim arrow-like hull offering less resistance that a squat, dumpy one. But what isn't so widely known is that the ideal shape for hullspeed is not the most efficient shape when sailing at less than hullspeed; which is why sailboat designers ponder long and hard over another sailboat design ratio - the Prismatic Coefficient.

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