How to sail a Dutch barge – Leeboards.

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

Well, they are not paddles!  They are known in English speaking countries as ‘leeboards’. The Dutch call them ‘Zwaarden’ which oddly translates to English as ‘Swords’.

So what are they for?

A sailing barge has a very shallow but wide and flat bottom, typically less than 1 meter deep. Being built like this allows them to be sailed in very shallow waters. The trouble with this shape is there is very little resistance in the water and it can be easily blown sideways through the water by the wind. This would frustrate any progress whenever there is a need to sail across or toward the wind to reach your destination.

To resolve the conflict of the ability to sail in very shallow water but also to be able to sail efficiently, leeboards were developed. They have evolved over the centuries from simple flat boards to highly engineered and finely constructed components of a sailing barge.

Leboards are seen on many traditional sailing barges all around the world but are thought to have been originally used by the Dutch. The distinctive Dutch sailing barge resulted from the need to navigate the shallow Zuiderzee and waterways of the Netherlands.

With the wind direction anywhere from the side and forward, the board on the lee side ( the side opposite from where the wind is coming from)  is lowered down into the water. The hull presses against the board and the board offers some resistance in the water to stop the barge being blown sideways. In sailing terms, this is called ‘leeway’ and is an undesirable but unavoidable aspect of sailing on all boats old or new, so needs to be reduced to a minimum.

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.

Leeboards are secured to the barge at their forward end, this is also the pivot. On some barges it is possible to move this pivot forward or back to suit sailing conditions. A line is secured to the aft end of the leeboard, which is what is used to lower and raise the board. Each board is handled by a winch placed strategically in the helm area.

With a leeboard on each side, they can be individually engineered in a way to be as effective as possible. They are hydrodynamically shaped, tilted and angled to literally lift the barge against the forces that result in leeway. Also, as a barge heels over due to the force of the wind, more of the leeboard is immersed increasing its effectiveness further.

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. Leave it too late and the board will not be lowered down into the water enough before the barge starts to press against it.

In narrow waters, we often leave both leeboards down so we do not have to change them over whenever we need to change course. This saves a lot of exertion!

Leeboards are heavily constructed, typically using oak and can be very beautiful. These days they are usually well varnished and decorated with attractive fittings or carvings.

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