Water Ballast Safety

My website at http://h260.com draws a lot of traffic and I get very interesting questions and suggestions for improvements. I've never tried to act as the expert on the H26/260 (I'll leave that to Crazy Dave) -- I see my role as facilitating the exchange of information between potential, former, and current owners of these boats. I've learned a lot from you all and I intend to continue the dialogue as long as I can.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about how water ballast works, and I've tried to address its various aspects in related pages. I recently received a question regarding off-loading water ballast in order to achieve more speed. It took me a while to sort out the various issues involved. Here's the question and my response. I welcome additions and any corrections from those more expert in this area than I.


"Hello! Great articleólots of info! Iím racing in a keel boat regatta this weekend and was looking for a legal edgeódo think it would be okay to sail with about half (or less) water ballast on board? Iíd like to go faster, but I donít want to sink my boat doing it! Expected conditions are steady winds 9-12 knots."


" I'll assume this is not a trick question and you really consider doing this.

Hunter warns that it's unsafe to sail or motor the H26/260 with less than a full ballast tank. I know there have been people that have tried unloading their ballast tanks for various reasons, but the hassle to me does not seem worth the effort and it might be dangerous. Most ballast valves leak anyway, which makes keeping less than a full load in the tank problematic. A couple of times I've forgotten to open the ballast valve before setting out for a sail. When I did check it, I found the tank full - apparently, the seal is pretty weak and there is a lot of pressure on the valve and the tank just wants to fill regardless of the operators error.

What you propose is like cutting off half or more from a conventional lead keel thus modifying the US Coast Guard approved design of the vessel. Once you modify the design of a boat without consulting with a naval architect and getting approval from the USCG, you could end up with an unsafe vessel and open yourself up to all kinds of grief. The design of all production boats is carefully calculated to provide safe sailing within design parameters. Messing with the ballast in a boat is a tricky proposition. Every now and then you read about a boat whose ballast fell off and the boat immediately turtled; it happens so quick, loss of life is a frequent result.

Finally, one of the first things a new H26/260 owner learns is the power in the H26/260 comes from the large roach in the main and it does not take much to become overpowered when the winds approach 10-15mph. I'm one of those "reef early and often" guys. I can't even imagine how the boat would handle with half or more of it's ballast missing in 9-12mph winds. Looks like a disaster waiting to happen to me.  One of the things I like about the boat is how fast it sails and how well it handles with a reef in the main.

Some other questions and problems come to mind:

I assume you'll tell the race committee and your competitors that you have modified the design parameters of your boat - to not do so is dishonest and would provide you an unfair advantage. You'd probably be disqualified if this information was not made available to the committee anyway.

I assume your regatta will use the US PHRF handicap system. As you know, the PHRF system is designed to provide a level playing field for dissimilar boats. The race committee will assign you a handicap which normally ranges from 207 to 234 for a fully ballasted H26. However, the committee will want to adjust your handicap even further to compensate for the lighter load so I'm not sure what advantage you'll achieve. Also, once the committee finds out you are sailing a potentially unsafe boat, they may not allow you to compete.

I assume you are not a naval architect. How do you intend to calculate the weight of the water in your tank, keep it at a constant level throughout the race, and how do you propose to compute and compensate for the changes in weight and balance and righting moment you'll experience so that you don't end up being a customer of the US Coast Guard?

Another thought - As far as I know the ballast tank does not have baffles nor are they needed. Since the tank is normally full, the water does not "slosh" around. Let's assume you were able to empty the tank to 50% and keep it there. It seems to me each time you tack, you'll have 1000 lbs of ballast or about 25 % of the total vessel weight shifting from one side of the boat to the other. As a result the weight will be on the wrong side of the boat to counter the heeling force of the wind, and when you tack there will be huge weight shift in the boat. With the wind pushing the boat to leeward, and only half of the ballast working to resist the pressure on the sails, what do you think the result will be?

Do you intend to advise your insurance company of your intentions? I guess not, but if there were an incident, my assumption is your insurance would be null and void and any claims against you by crew and other boats would surely be upheld in court. It's likely a first year law student could win this case. Backyard mechanics run the same risk when they modify their car suspension or set-up without consulting with an automotive engineer (and an attorney).

Assuming all the other issues could be addressed satisfactorily, would lightening the boat really result in more speed? Of course, it would depend on how heavily the boat was loaded in the first place. With a planing hull there is generally a direct relationship between horsepower and speed. With displacement hulls, it's very difficult to get the boat to exceed its theoretical hull speed. You eventually reach a point of diminishing returns - the more horses you apply, the more water resistance you get.  

If that is not enough to persuade you to reconsider this idea, why not take a look at a very famous case where a boat without a full ballast tank capsized resulting in the deaths of two children and the operator went to prison for a long time. Alcohol was involved in this case, but the primary cause of the accident was operation of the vessel outside it's design parameters. For more on this incident go to this link: http://www.ne-ts.com/ar/ar-407capsize.html .