How to sail a Dutch barge – Leeboards.

When people see a Dutch sailing barge for the first time, one of the most often asked questions is “What are those big paddles on the sides for?”

Well, they are not paddles!  They are known in English speaking countries as ‘leeboards’, or to use the Dutch word, ‘Zwaarden’ which literally translates to English as ‘Swords’.

So what are they for?

A Dutch sailing barge has very little of itself below the waterline, typically around 80cms and with rounded sides which meet a flat bottom. Being built like this allows them to be sailed in very shallow waters. The trouble is that not having much resistance in the water, they are easily blown sideways by the wind, so making any progress towards the wind would be a problem if it was not for those leeboards.

With the wind anywhere from the side, the board on the lee side (hence the name leeboard) is lowered down into the water. The hull presses against the board and the board offers some resistance and helps to stop the barge being blown sideways. When sailing away from the wind they are not needed at all, but when sailing towards the wind one or the other of the boards would be fully lowered.

With a leeboard on each side, as the barge heels due to the force of the wind, more of the board is immersed increasing its effectiveness. This is different from yachts which have a retractable keel on their centerline which become less effective when heeling.

Raising and lowering the boards when the boat tacks (changing the side the wind is coming from) has to be done swiftly and at just the right time. Get it wrong and the board will not be lowered down into the water enough before the barge starts to press against it. The boards are handled by winches placed strategically in the helm area.

Care must be taken never to allow a leeboard to touch the bottom, as this could cause damage to the board and its fixing to the barge.  It may also cause the barge to spin around and stop.

Leeboards can be very beautiful. These days they are finely made, usually varnished and decorated with attractive fittings. The most expensive are also contoured and shaped to further enhance the boats ability to sail upwind, literally lifting the barge against the winds opposing force.


Sailing barge Drifter was built in 1976, as a Lemsteraak by the shipbuilder Blom. It is now used in the Falmouth area for short cruises and day sailing. For further information see the website www.sailingbargedrifter.co.uk