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May 8th 2018. By Gael Pawson.

Sailing boats

Interested in a sailing boat but confused by the vast array of craft on offer, want to understand a bit more? We outline the main types of sailing craft, the rigs, hull types and more to give you a better understanding of what is on offer.

Sailing boats span a huge range of sizes and intended usage, from small dinghies all the way up to giant superyachts. They may be primarily intended for day sailing long distance cruising, racing or learning to sail. One of the key considerations when it comes to buying a sailing boat is what you want it to do for you – this will help you ensure you get the right design.

The main difference between a powerboat and a sailing one, obviously, is that a sailing boat’s primary means of propulsion is wind-power, although most sail-powered craft, apart from the smallest, will also have an engine. However, the fact that they use wind power does mean that hull shapes, especially under the water, differ from powered craft.

The basics of sailing

Before we look at the specific design elements in a sailing boat, it’s useful to understand a few basics. Sailing boats may have just one sail (the mainsail) or more sails. See a full description of all sail types below. The mainsail is the biggest sail and is joined to the main mast and often at its bottom edge, a boom.

When using the power of the wind, sailing craft can head in all directions apart from directly towards the wind. The main points of sail are downwind, with the wind directly behind, a reach, with the wind on the beam (or on the side) and close-hauled – with the sails pulled as tightly in as possible and as close to the wind direction as possible without allowing the sails to stall. This means if a sailing boat’s intended destination is directly to ‘windward’ (where the wind is coming from) then it will need to adopt a zig-zag course to get there (called tacking). In order that the sailing boat doesn’t simply slide sideways when reaching or close-hauled, it needs to have a deep keel or board of some sort below the water to reduce sideways slippage (also known as leeway).

A tack is when the boat passes through the eye of the wind (where the wind is coming from) until the sails fill on the other side. The eye of the wind is known as the ‘no go zone’, you will find the sails simply flap and the boat will slow down and eventually stop when you head the boat in this direction. When heading downwind (with the wind behind you) if you wish to change direction you will need to gybe, in this instance the wind catches the end of the boom and flips the sail over quickly – this is why it can be a more dangerous manoeuvre especially when windy.

Sail types

There are a wide range of sail types but the most basic types are:

  1. Mainsail – the biggest sail, flown from the main mast.
  2. Mizzen – a sail flown from a second mast.
  3. Jib sail – also known as foresail, flown in front of the mast from a forestay.
  4. Topsail – a sail flown above the mainsail or jib, usually on more traditional craft.
  5. Spinnaker – a special sail used when sailing with the wind behind you.

The sails are pulled up (‘hoisted’) using ropes or wires called ‘halyards’, and then controlled by being pulled in and out using ropes called ‘sheets’.

The main types of sailing craft

Monohull or multihull?

One of the first obvious differences between craft is the number of hulls. Most boats you see will be monohulls, with one hull. Multihulls may have two hulls (catamarans) or three hulls (trimarans). Multihulls are generally faster (if you are comparing similar weight and specification craft).

Sailing dinghies

These are small boats that don’t have a keel. Instead they will have a centreboard or daggerboard (or even mini-leeboards) to enable them to sail upwind. Dinghies are popular for learning to sail as they give you a better feel for the wind. They aren’t usually kept on moorings, but ashore in a dinghy park or on an owner’s driveway. Easy to tow behind even a relatively small car, or on a roof rack, they are perfect for traveling with to events or taking on holiday.

Sportsboats, keelboats and dayboats

These boats are a bit bigger than dinghies and tend to have a keel but not really any accommodation. They are often kept on a mooring or ‘dry-sailed’ where they are lifted out of the water and kept ashore in a boat park or on a trailer. Again they are usually easy to tow. Some are designed specifically for racing, while others are designed more for day cruising or use as a ‘picnic boat’ – day trips with the family.

Beneteau 41.1

This Beneteau 41.1 is designed for cruising.

Cruising boats

Some sailing yachts are designed for cruising and known generally as ‘cruisers’, they will have proper accommodation. They are designed and built with more of an eye on comfort than speed. You may also come across boats described as performance cruisers – this means that there has been a bit more of an emphasis on speed. Most cruising boats will have an engine to use when the wind drops or for manoeuvring into marinas and harbours.


Also known as racer-cruisers, these boats offer a compromise between generally heavier and slower cruisers, while still offering a good level of accommodation and comfort. They are frequently used for racing as well as for cruising.

Nomad lV

Racing yachts are designed with more of an eye on performance than comfort. Photo RORC/Arthur Daniel.

Racing yachts

These have been designed purely with racing in mind. Accommodation will be much more basic than cruising designs, sometimes with barely any facilities at all. Construction will generally be lighter and more cutting edge with more use of light weight materials like carbon fibre adding expense. The rig will also be higher-tec, using the latest sail design technology and cloths which will be faster, but may have a shorter lifespan.

Action from the 2014 Regates Royales in Cannes. Photo James Robinson Taylor.

Traditional and classic boats will often be made of wood and can be beautiful in appearance – this traditional yacht, photographed at the Regates Royales in Cannes features a bowsprit to allow it to carry more sails. Photo James Robinson Taylor.

Classic and traditional yachts

Older yachts or even new boats designed to ‘classic’ style, often but not exclusively built of traditional wooden construction and often with a traditional rig design, many for example may feature a gaff rig.

Motor sailers

Sailing boats that are designed to do a lot of motoring and therefore feature smaller sails and a hull shape that is designed for a compromise between sailing and power performance. They will generally feature larger, better performing engines and will often have a bit more accommodation as well, but won’t perform as well under sail as cruising boats designed primarily for sailing.


Yachts that are very big and designed with luxury and comfort in mind, to be sailed by a professional crew. They will have crew accommodation as well as accommodation for the owners and often extend to luxuries such as an onboard pool and hotel quality cabins.

MondoMarine SM45 — 148’

Sailing superyachts, like the 148ft MondoMarine SM45, are built for comfort.

Sail and rig types and shapes

The rig and sail types vary across the full range of sailing boat types, although some rig configurations are more suited to particular uses than others.

Bermudan rig

The most common type of mainsail you will see is a Bermudan one – ie a triangular shaped sail attached to a mast with a boom at its foot.

Gaff, gunter or sprit rig

A gaff rig has four sides to the mainsail, with an extra spar at the top called a ‘gaff’ or ‘sprit’. A gunter rig differs in that it is raised to a sharper angle so the boat looks a bit more like a bermudan rigged craft when the sail is raised.

Bermudan sloops

These three designs all have Bermudan rigs, you can clearly see the difference between a masthead sloop (left) a fractional sloop (middle and a cutter (right). Illustration by Claudia Myatt.

Sloop rig

A sloop, with a single mast and two sails, a mainsail and a headsail, is the most common kind of rig. A masthead sloop is where the headsail is hoisted to the top of the mast on the forestay, a supporting wire that runs from the top of the mast to the bow of the sailing boat. On a fractional sloop the forestay doesn’t reach the top of the mast.

Cutter rig

A cutter also has a single mast and mainsail, but the mast is further back to allow the simultaneous use of two headsails that are set from two forestays. The headstay carries the jib and the inner stay carries the staysail. Historically this has been a favourite rig for serious cruising sailing boats as it offers a range of sail combinations for different

Beautiful yachts in the Solent: Eleanora

The beautiful classic, gaff-rigged schooner Eleanora.

Ketch, schooner or yawl rig

These rigs all feature two masts, a main mast and a ‘mizzen’ mast. In the case of a ketch, the mizzen mast is smaller and situated behind the main mast, but forwards of the wheel or tiller, while a yawl’s mizzen is behind the wheel or tiller. A schooner’s aft mast is taller than the forward mast and it may have up to six masts.

HMS Bounty

You can see square-rigged sails here on HMS Bounty.

Square rig

The main sails on a square rig ship are, as the name suggests, square. Foresails will still be triangular, but the main mast (or masts) will feature square sails hung from a ‘yard’, or which there may be many on each mast.

Keel and rudder types and shapes

There are a variety of keel and rudder shapes, which generally have particular characteristics making them more suitable for certain types of sailing. Known as ‘foils’, keels and boards help keep a craft upright and reduce the movement sideways (leeway), while the rudder (or rudders – some boats will have two) steers the boat – controlled by a wheel or tiller.

In dinghies and multihulls the foils to prevent sideways drift have no added weight, but larger monohulls have ballasted keels that also provide leverage to improve the vessel’s stability- the heavier or the lower it is below the hull, the more stability it will provide.

Fin keel

The fin is the most common keel type – a single, usually narrow keel under the middle of the boat, they tend to make up 30-45 per cent of the boat’s weight. They are very efficient, but not ideal for shallower waters.

Bulb keel

A variation of the fin, with weight concentrated in a bulb at the bottom to increase stability, or by concentrating the weight higher up they can be used to reduce a design’s draught to help with cruising in shallow water.

Long keel

A longer, shallower keel is often found on traditional sailing boats. Although popular in some circles for long-distance sailing, long keel boats tend to be difficult to manoeuvre when going astern and have a large turning circle.

Finn keel, bulb keel, long keel

Here you can see the difference between a finn keel (left), a bulb keel (middle) and a long keel (right). Illustration by Claudia Myatt.

Bilge keel

A bilge keeled boat has two shallow keels, one either side of the centreline of the hull. Advantages are they enable the boat to stand upright on sand or mud at low tide and the keels also have a stabilising effect to reduce roll. You are more likely to see them on smaller craft and they are not as effective at reducing leeway.

Centreboards and daggerboards

These are movable boards that resist leeway but can be withdrawn into the hull of the boat to reduce draught for shallow waters, or when launching or coming into shore. Centerboards rotate on a pin that allows the lower part to swing upwards into the boat, while daggerboards slide up and down in a vertical slot.

On these sailing dinghies, we can see how daggerboards (left) and centreboards (right) differ. Leeboards feature two centreboards, on hung on each side of the hull.

Swing keels and lifting keels

Similar to centerboards (swing keel) and daggerboards (lifting keel), but with the addition of ballast to aid stability. These are ideal for shallow waters and are often found on small cruising boats designed for ‘creek crawling’, or exploring tidal waterways.

Rudder types

Keel-hung rudder

You will find keel-hung rudders on may traditional long-keeled sailing boats. It’s easy to engineer great strength when they are built, and the foils are unlikely to be snagged by lobster pots or similar underwater obstructions. However, they tend to be less efficient shape, which means steering tends to be heavier and needs to be more pronounced, which increases drag and slows the boat.

Spade rudder

You will find most sailing boat designs since the 1980s feature a blade rudder. The blade is usually constructed around a metal stock that extends upwards into a tube within the hull that gives it support. If properly engineered this can be a very strong arrangement that gives excellent control. A transom-hung rudder is  a variation of the spade rudder, but with the foil hung on the back of the boat.

Skeg hung rudder

This is a kind of half-way stage between a keel hung rudder and spade rudder, with a vestigial appendage below the hull to which the lower bearing of the rudder is attached. It’s often thought of as being a strong arrangement, but this  depends on the quality of the attachment of the skeg to the hull.

Twin rudders

You will find twin rudders on many catamarans, as well as some modern monohulls. They tend to be more efficient than a single central foil, allowing control to be maintained for longer. However, the boat may be less responsive when manoeuvring under power.

Gael Pawson is the editor of Yachts & Yachting Magazine and the founder of Creating Waves. A keen racer, she has sailed all her life, and started writing about the subject whilst studying journalism at university. Dinghies and small keelboats are her first loves, but she has cruised and raced a huge variety of boats in locations across the world.