Parts of a Sailboat – A Practical Overview

Main parts of a sailboat are explained for a Bermuda rigged sloop. This is the most widespread modern type of sailing boat and it is the boat type considered in this blog, as well as in Your First Sailing Handbook. For overview of other sailboat types and their classification see our post: Types of Sailboats.

The sloop normally sails with two sails: one mainsail and one foresail that is called a jib. Larger boats use an inboard engine, while smaller boats (usually shorter than 25 feet) may have an outboard engine. The engine drives the propeller providing thrust when sails are not used.

Parts of a Sailboat - Sails
Sloop’s principal sails

A typical sloop is shown in the figures below. The front part of a boat is called the bow, while the rear part is called the stern. A cockpit is a working area, towards the stern of a boat, from which the boat is steered and controlled. A boat is steered by turning the tiller which results in turning the rudder, since these two are connected with a shaft. When the rudder is turned off the centerline it makes the boat turn left or right. On bigger boats a steering wheel is used instead of a tiller. Forestay, backstay and shrouds are steel wires or rods that support the mast (collectively called standing rigging).

Some important lines are drawn in various colors in the figures below (see the legend where colors tell you which line is which). Halyards and topping lift are led to the top of the mast, then down through the mast; they exit the mast near the deck and are then directed to the cockpit as shown in the figures. Similarly, outhaul is led from the rear end of the boom, through the boom towards the mast and then to the cockpit. The main halyard and outhaul are used to stretch the mainsail, while the jib halyard is used for hoisting the jib. The topping lift supports the boom when the mainsail is not hoisted and it is run in the same way as the main halyard.

Mainsheet and vang are used to control the boom and the mainsail during sailing. Traveler and jib car are adjustable blocks running along tracks, through which sheets (mainsheet and jib sheets) are attached to the deck. Jib sheets are used to control the jib during sailing. All the above mentioned lines are collectively called running rigging.

Remark: The term rig comprises mast, boom, sails and rigging (both standing and running). A Bermuda rigged sloop may have different rig configurations.

Parts of a Sailboat - Side and Rear View
Parts of a sailboat – side and rear view

Parts of a Sailboat - Top View
Parts of a sailboat – top view

All the lines running from the mast to the cockpit are led through the system of blocks and then through rope clutches, so that they can be put on the winches. Each line has its own clutch and each clutch has two positions: opened and closed. When the clutch is opened, the line can move freely in both directions. When the clutch is closed, the line can be pulled in only one direction (towards the cockpit), while the other direction is blocked. For example, pulling a halyard from the cockpit results in a sail being hoisted (a clutch is normally closed). To lower a sail, halyard must be eased (a clutch must be opened).

Winches facilitate tightening of the lines when they are under tension. Lines must always be put on the winch in the clockwise direction with a suitable number of turns. The stronger the force on the line, the more turns should be put on the winch. When the tension in the line becomes too strong to be pulled by hand, a handle is used.

Winches can be standard or self-tailing. They are both operated in the same way, except when using a handle. In this case, standard winches are best operated by two persons, i.e. one is tailing (pulling the free end of the line) while the other is turning the handle. On the other hand, self-tailing winches allow simple one-person operation, since they have self-tailing jaws. After the line has been put in these jaws, it is tailed automatically as the handle is being turned.

Standard Winch
Standard winch
Self-tailing Winch
Self-tailing winch

Vedran Bobanac has been sailing since the age of 10, while he has been working as a skipper and as a sailing instructor for almost 20 years now. He also holds PhD degree in electrical engineering and he enjoys using his technical knowledge, as well as pedagogical skills to teach sailing and publish sailing handbooks.