The word "keelboat" refers to two different types of boat, each with different uses. One type, now less common, carries cargo or passengers along narrow waterways. The other is a sail boat for recreational purposes. One of the main features of each, however, is the presence of a keel along the bottom side of the boat's hull.
These types of boat derives its name from its primary structural component: a long beam that stretches along the bottom of the body, or hull. The feature serves two functions: providing a strong foundation for the structure of the boat and helping guide the boat forward as it moves along waterways.
The riverboat style of keelboat has its origins in the past, when water transportation was more commonplace. Companies and individuals that sold and distributed goods often needed efficient water vehicles to transport their commerce from one area to another. Large boats that could carry large amounts of freight were essential.
A keelboat served this purpose due to its design. Builders created a long and wide cigar-shaped boat that could easily navigate rivers, canals, and other tight water spaces. Its size allowed for bulk carrying. The ease with which the boat was navigated also made it useful for traveling against the flow of water.
The boats were mainly built to haul heavy cargo, but they sometimes served other functions as well. For example, the famed North American explorers Lewis and Clark utilized a keelboat for much of their adventure. Individuals who sought settlement in different regions also found the vessels useful, and the arrival of a keelboat often signaled the beginning of regional expansion. If a keelboat transported large numbers of people, it usually contained an onboard cabin. Otherwise, the deck was open.
Unlike many modern boats, these inventions were not motorized and thus did not have electrical or other means of self-sufficient power. As a result, individuals often had to use poles or oars to propel and navigate the boat. For this reason, the keelboat was often referred to as a pole boat. As one might imagine, steering a boat that could run up to 80 feet (about 24 meters) long was often a challenge. Several individuals were usually needed to accomplish this task.
Most contemporary keelboats serve as sailboats for outdoor yachting and sporting. Racing contests like those found in the Olympics often feature keelboats, for example. Some small sailing boats designed for cruising closed waterways like lakes can also be classified as keelboats, although most larger luxury boats typically fall in the yacht category. The size of a crew in a modern keelboat has likewise diminished, as most contemporary versions require three or fewer individuals for steering assistance.