Heavy metal

Taking the ballast keel off an old keelboat is, for me, a stressful experience.  The weights involved (Katydid’s keel weighs about 1.5 tons) mean that mistakes with supporting structures can have serious implications – on my health – and the boat’s fabric.

The process takes place in two stages, separate the keel from the ballast keel by removing the keel bolts and then move the ballast keel out from under the boat.

The removal of the ballast keel is the last practical stage in the pre-restoration investigation that I am currently undertaking.  Once the ballast keel has been removed then the condition of the wooden keel can be properly assessed and a decision taken on whether to replace or repair it.

The keel bolts all get soaked in WD40 for a few days prior to my trying to get them off.  The keel is through bolted and the underside face of the ballast keel suggests that the iron bolts are well and truly corroded in.  I give it a go with bolt 1 (foremost of 5 keel bolts).  The nut and washers quickly come off with an angle grinder and a block hammer is used to drive the bolt down the inch or so before I have to get a big punch out.  It all seems easy until I get out of the boat and see that the bottom of the bolt has not moved at all.  The bolt has of course collapsed – as well it might after 115+ years.  This fact, strangely, makes the whole job much easier.  I clean out the keel bedding compound (fossilised of course) around the keel bolts using screwdrivers and use a sabre saw to cut the bolts off between the top of the ballast keel and the wooden keel.  I get through a dozen blades for the five bolts – they are not really meant for this sort of punishment – but the keel separates away and the ballast keel is soon jacked down clear of the boat.

Clear daylight

Daylight showing between the boat and the ballast!

Getting the ballast keel out from under the boat takes a while longer. It is heavy, intrinsically unstable and I am working in a constrained space. The ballast has to stay more or less supported all the time as it is moved. I use a chain hoist, blocks, rope, lashed together wooden cradles and steel bar for rollers.

ballast keel pulling rig (a chain hoist)

Once (just about) clear of the stern post the whole caboodle is swivelled clear of the boat

swivelling the ballast keel clear of Katydid

and hauled across the floor

Pulling across the floor

To where it will rest until it is carted off for re-conditioning


Somewhere in the delicate middle of this operation (during the swivel as I recall) an STV cameraman wanders in (James seems to have a regular Friday appointment with STV) and blithely suggests that I continue working while he looks around. The ‘closeness’ of some of his shooting suggests to me that he has not quite appreciated either the weight or instability of the keel as I haul it across the floor. Fortunately, there was no ‘incident’ and he departed un-crushed.  Whether the footage will be usable is another question.

On the radio yesterday afternoon as I drove home there was an intense and pretentious discussion as to whether cars (expensive cars such as Ferrari that is) can be art.  It was argued that while in general, they are probably not art, however gorgeous they are – they can perhaps become art by being appropriated as such by a (presumably suitably qualified) artist.  Anyway,  I hereby appropriate Katydid’s ballast keel as art (sorry that should be Art with a capital A) and offer her to the Scottish nation (on temporary loan) until we need her in order to keep Katydid on an even keel again (sometime in 2010).  I think that she (Katydid’s ballast keel that is) would look very fine residing, rust, toxic paint and all, in the foyer of the Dean Gallery.

The purpose of all this effort was (at least at this stage) so that I could ascertain the full and gory details of the underside of Katydid’s wooden keel after 100+ years.  Judge for yourself,  this photo of the underside of one keel bolt is typical.

Underside of keel

If I am to keep this account going – on anything like a regular basis, I can’t operate in a vacum – so please give me feedback (see below for the comment box), indicating, on the basis of the above photo, whether I should repair or replace Katydid’s keel.  Remember,  the seaworthiness of a crucial piece of Scotland’s maritime heritage may depend on your vote!


  1. If the timber isn’t rotten don’t replace it! If the surfaces can be planed safely without altering the structure too much and the fittings are tight. I would be inclined to keep the well matured timber.

    But only you can make the decision on site!
    Good luck and keep up the good work.

    If you need a hand painting the finished boat let me know.

    Best regards

  2. (update: the old keel is being replaced as it was too far gone to save)

    No – the old keel will not be used as an exact template but merely as a guide. The new keel is being faired to the drawn lines as the old keel has both shrunk and distored over its life. The ballast keel, once re-drilled, will provide the basis for a template from which to drill the holes for the keel bolts. The keel bolts holes in the old keel are too worn to make a template from.

    Hope this helps.

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