Yacht racing origins were in competitions for large yachts taking place during daylight hours with both dinghy and long-distance racing evolving later. Day keelboat racing for many years was in decline, but recovered and is again one of the most popular classes of competition.
The pattern of yacht clubs grew to satisfy the needs of keelboat racing as these boats have no facilities to sleep aboard, accommodation was required ashore and a base from which to organize racing. Events such as Cowes Week originally consisted of day keelboat racing, and this racing still provides the mainstay of similar events like it.
Yacht racing of the nineteenth century was enormous and yachts were sailed by a professional skipper and crew with the owner a spectator aboard his own vessel. With the coming years, the sport became amateur in status and yachts were smaller with owner skippers the norm. During the 1920s and 1930s, 45 to 60 feet keelboats were thought of as small racing yachts, whereas now they are considered expensive.
A drawback of the keelboat is that it requires a mooring afloat being an expense not incurred in dinghy racing. With plastic hulls and cranes, it is convenient to 'dry-sail' keelboats where when notsailing are kept on cradles or road trailers and remain clean and not waterlogged, unlike boats afloat which absorb water and become fouled unless regularly scrubbed.
Racing keelboats is a more leisurely event than dinghy racing with races being longer. As athleticism is not an important attribute, sailors of any age can compete on an equal basis. Teamwork is quintessential, especially on the boats with three or more crew, and successful teams are those in which each crew member has a full part to play.
This is evident in a three-man keelboat such as a Dragon or an Etchells, where the helmsman concentrates on steering, the middle crew takes charge of sail trim and advises the helmsman on tactics, while the crewman in front handles the physical work involved in tacking or gybing.
Between the war years saw the emergence of more modest keelboats in the style of the three-person Dragon and the two-person X-O-D. The down sizing of keelboats reached the ultimate with the 2.4-metre, that is just large enough to accommodate one person. This being the international class for the disabled, in which they can compete against able-bodied sailors.
Although the best classes of keelboat still survive, there is concentration on international classes with one of the best-known being the International Star, a 22-foot, two person keelboat designed in 1908 and sailed in the Olympics from 1932 to 1996.
Having a tall, thin mast and big mainsail, the Star is a difficult craft to sail well requiring the art of tuning the rig to suit the wind and sea conditions. Popular in North America and various parts of Europe, where racing is held on fairly sheltered waters, the Star is unsuitable for coastal racing.
The 29 foot International Dragon, was designed in Norway as a 'skerry cruiser' but developed into a pure racing class. Being an attractive small boat, having a classic 'model yacht' profile it is maintained with pride by owners. More seaworthy than the Star, it is an ideal coastal racing keelboat even if the rounded bow bangs in a head sea. The International Dragon is one of the classes that have gathered strength internationally in recent years.
During the 1970s, a need for a more modern keelboat design for the Olympics to displace the Dragon, produced the Soling keelboat, a lighter, 26-foot keelboat with an up to date fin keel and spade rudder. With the pressure of Olympic competition, the soling keelboat calls for big, strong crew to sail it, with a style of lying out over the side supported by a body harness. This made the boat unattractive to the weekend sailor unable to make the grade in fitness or skill.
Another design produced at the same time as the Soling was the Etchells 22, gradually acquiring a strong following in the USA, Britain and Australia. Bigger and beamier than the Soling, it is light weight incorporating a modern underwater profile, and rules preventing the extreme style of sitting-out as on the Soling. It can be raced effectively by crews having mixed ability and championships attract some of the world's top yachtsmen.