There exist many different sailing boats types and they can be classified by various criteria. This blog post discusses the most common types of sailboats (both modern and traditional). Sailboats are classified by:
Types of Sailboats by Size
Sailboat division by size could be as follows:
- Sailing dinghies (small)
- Cruising sailboats (mid size)
- Tall ships (large).
Dinghies are small sailing boats, typically up to 6 meters long (approximately 20 feet). They are open (i.e. they don’t have a cabin) and most often don’t have an engine. Operated by a crew of one or two persons, they are used for shorter (day) sailings in coastal regions. There are many different types of sailing dinghies and they could be divided to traditional dinghies (typically made out of wood) or modern dinghies (typically made out of fiberglass). Most modern dinghies are allowed to capsize (i.e. overturn) and recover as an integral part of their use.
Here are some of the most popular types of modern dinghies:
- Optimist – small single-handed dinghy for young people under the age of 15
- Laser – single-handed dinghy, an Olympic class since 1996
- 420 – 4.2 meters long double-handed dinghy used for racing and teaching
- 470 – 4.7 meters long double-handed dinghy, an Olympic class since 1976.
Remark: The term dinghy can also refer to any small boat carried by a larger boat in order to facilitate access to/from the shore.
Cruising sailboats are typically 6 to 20 meters long (approximately 20-60 feet), but can be even longer. They have cabins which allow for onboard sleeping and longer cruises that might last an arbitrary number of days. Also, they normally have either an outboard or an inboard engine which is used for leaving from and returning to the berth, as well as to provide propulsion when there is not enough wind. As opposed to sailing dinghies, cruising sailboats can be safely sailed during the night and are not intended for capsizing. Different cruising sailboat types are listed below by the rig type.
Remark: The term cruising sailboat is used for mid-sized sailboats, since nowadays sailing is practiced mainly for pleasure and sport, be it cruising or racing. However, it should be clear that mid-sized boats were historically used for work, trade or even military purposes.
Tall ships are large sailing boats, typically over 40 meters long (approximately 130 feet). They use traditional sails which are set on multiple masts (2 to 5). When talking about tall ships first thing that comes to mind might be old wooden ships that sailed the oceans from 15th to 19th century and were used for trade and military purposes. However, there also exist modern tall ships that are built from modern materials and are used for tourism (cruising) or training (navy cadets). For more information, check out Wikipedia’s Tall ship article.
Rig is the name for the arrangement of masts and sails on a boat. There are basically two main rig types:
- Square rig
- Fore-and-aft rig.
Square rig is a traditional rig typically used on tall ships. It is characterized by the sails being set perpendicular to the length of the boat (or transversely to the sailing direction). This type of rig is efficient when sailing downwind, but is unable to sail upwind (against the direction of the wind) or it performs poorly when attempting to do so. Today, square rig is used only on tall ships.
Fore-and-aft rig is characterized by the sails being set along the length of the boat (or longitudinally to the sailing direction). This type of rig is capable of sailing both upwind and downwind. All the modern sailboats (other than tall ships) are fore-and-aft rigged.
Some important fore-and-aft rig types are:
- Lateen rig
- Gaff rig
- Bermuda rig.
Lateen rig is a traditional rig type originating from the Mediterranean. It consists of a triangular sail hanging down from a spar (pole) which is hoisted on the mast at a certain angle. Lateen rig can still be seen today on smaller, wooden traditional boats. For instance, in certain places along the Croatian Adriatic coast, sailing regattas of traditional lateen-rigged boats are regularly organized.
Gaff rig is characterized by the four-sided mainsail which is hoisted along the mast and stretched between the two spars: upper one called the gaff and lower one called the boom. Gaff-rigged boats also carry a foresail called a jib. They may also carry a topsail which is hoisted above the gaff. Nowadays, gaff rig has been largely superseded by the newer Bermuda rig.
Bermuda rig is by far the most popular type of rig on modern sailboats. It is characterized by the two triangular sails: mainsail and jib. Mainsail is hoisted along the mast and stretched along the boom (see our post: Parts of a Sailboat). Some racing boats may carry a square top mainsail, but cruising sailboats will in most cases carry a triangular-like mainsail. Advantage of Bermuda rig over other rig types is sail efficiency and ease of sail handling. Bermuda rig is sometimes referred to as the Marconi rig.
Remark: There exist more fore-and-aft rigs, e.g. lug rig, gunter rig and others.
Cruising Sailboats by Rig Type
Cruising sailboats are fore-and-aft rigged boats with one or two masts. Older boats were mostly gaff-rigged and they might still be seen today, while modern and new build boats are almost exclusively Bermuda rigged. The most common single-masted cruising sailboat types are:
The most common two-masted cruising sailboat types are:
Sloop is a boat with a single mast. In this blog and in Your First Sailing Handbook the most widespread modern type of sailing boat is considered and that is a Bermuda rigged sloop.
Cutter is a boat with a single mast that normally sails with two or more foresails (jibs) simultaneously. It is more demanding for sailing than sloop, as there is one additional sail to handle. However, cutters offer some advantages (primarily for offshore sailing) as discussed in this Cutter or sloop rig? article. The term cutter might also refer to:
- a small, light sail- or oar-powered boat carried by a larger vessels
- a fast and agile official vessel used by the authorities to enforce law (e.g. US Coast Guard cutter)
- a fast boat from the 18th century carrying both fore-and-aft and square sails.
Ketch is a boat with two masts, the taller foremast (mainmast) and the shorter after mast (mizzen mast). Ketch is characterized by the rudder post being positioned abaft the mizzen mast.
Yawl is a boat similar to a ketch, the difference being that the rudder post is positioned forward of the mizzen mast. Also, yawl’s mizzen mast is typically shorter than that of a ketch.
Schooner is a boat with two or more masts, where the foremast is no taller than the after masts. In case of a two-masted schooner, taller aftermast is called the mainmast.
Why Sloops are so Popular Nowadays
Cutters, ketches, yawls and schooners were once popular because they could have the same sail area as sloops with the individual sails being smaller and thus easier for handling. However, development of modern equipment made sail handling much easier irrespective of the sail size. This is one of the reasons why sloop has become the most widespread cruising sailboat type today. Another reason is that rigs with two masts are more expensive to build and maintain. Finally, sloops generally perform better when sailing upwind. For more information see the following post discussing two-masted sailboats.
.Modern sloops can be categorized to cruisers, racers and performance cruisers. Cruising sloops sacrifice sailing performance for comfort, meaning that the interior is well equipped but heavy, while sail handling is easy but suboptimal in terms of sailing efficiency. On the other hand, racing sloops usually have bare interior (in order to reduce weight), but large cockpits to give the crew enough space to handle many different sails and work with many lines. Finally, performance cruisers usually offer a good trade-off between cruisers and racers, providing good comfort below the deck and decent sailing performance above the deck.
Types of Sailboats by the Number of Hulls
All the cruising sailboat types mentioned above are monohulls (they have one hull). However, sailboats may have more than one hull and they are called catamarans (in case of two hulls) or trimarans (in case of three hulls). Catamarans and trimarans are jointly called multihulls. Multihulls are typically single-masted and Bermuda-rigged, while being built from modern materials like fiberglass.
Dinghy catamarans are usually very agile and fun for sailing, but they require a skilled crew. Due to their low weight, they heel easily during sailing, resulting in one hull being raised above the water, which in turn reduces water resistance and allows the boat to sail faster.
On the other hand, majority of cruising catamarans are heavy and don’t heel much during sailing in normal conditions. They might not be as fun for sailing as monohulls, but they offer a lot of comfort since their interior is quite spacious. Compared to similarly equipped and sized monohulls, cruising catamarans have poorer performance upwind, but are usually faster downwind.
There also exist performance catamarans and trimarans which are built for speed and they are much faster than monohulls of similar size. Such boats are not widely available for chartering since they require a skilled crew.
Types of Sailboats by Construction Material
Main part of any boat is its hull and it can be constructed from different materials. Trade-off has to be made between strength and weight. Generally speaking, you want the sailboat to be strong and safe, while at the same time you want it to be light and fast. Main boat building materials are:
- Composite materials.
Traditionally, sailboats of all sizes were made out of wood and there is still a fair amount of wooden boats sailing today. Even though wood does not have favorable characteristics like modern composite materials, many owners prefer wooden boats for aesthetic and nostalgic reasons. Also, there are still new wooden sailboats being built either for private owners (often dinghies or smaller cruisers) or as a part of maritime heritage preservation projects. Wooden boats are very nice and appealing, especially if maintained properly, however that requires a lot of time and dedication.
Sailboat’s hull can also be constructed out of metal, most often steel and aluminum. Steel is very strong, but heavy, while aluminum is much lighter, but not as strong as steel. Precautions must be taken to prevent corrosion of both materials. Steel suffers from rusting, while aluminum suffers from galvanic corrosion.
Vast majority of modern sailboats is made out of fiberglass, a composite material also known as glass-reinforced plastic or glass-fiber reinforced plastic. As the name suggests, this material is made from fine fibers of glass which are interwoven into fabrics and then reinforced with resin. Fiberglass is easily molded to form hulls and decks of different shapes. This allows fiberglass boats to be mass produced simply and cheaply, which is one of the reasons for their popularity. Fiberglass is very durable, so fiberglass boats have long life expectancy with relatively easy and simple maintenance. This is because fiberglass does not rot like wood, nor does it suffer from corrosion like steel and aluminum.
Modern high performance racing boats are typically made from carbon fibers which is a short name for carbon-fiber reinforced plastic. This technology is very similar to fiberglass, with the glass fibers being replaced by the carbon fibers. In comparison, carbon fiber technology offers much better strength-to-weight ratio, but it is also much more expensive than fiberglass. High price is the main reason hindering mass production of carbon cruising sailboats.