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A Breakdown of the Different Types of Sailboats and Their Uses

Updated: Jan 8

To the untrained eye, all sailboats are pretty much the same (some are just bigger than others). They’re essentially floating vessels with a mast, a set of sails, and the ability to navigate the waters by harnessing wind power. But if you dive a bit deeper, you’ll see there are drastic differences in the designs, capabilities, and uses of each type of sailboat.


Whether you’re new to sailboats or already an American Sailing Association (ASA) certified skipper, knowing the difference between the different types of vessels is essential. We’ll provide you with a basic understanding of the different types of sailboats, the advantages of each, and which type of voyage they’re best used for.


Sailboat Rigging Types

When you start sailing, one of the first things you’ll notice is how complicated the rigging seems. The rigging system includes ropes, furling jibs, booms, winches, cables, chains, masts, and much more. It takes time to identify and understand each one, but each type of sailboat has a distinct rigging system. A few of the main types of rigging you can expect to see on the water include:

  • Sloop: The sloop is arguably the most common rigging system. With one mast and two sails (mainsail & headsail), this type of rigging is simple, but efficient and prepared for all types of situations.

  • Cutter: If you squint, you could easily mistake a cutter for a slope, but there are slight differences. A cutter has a smaller headsail and an additional staysail between the mast and forestay of the vessel. The extra sail allows for more stability and control in heavy winds.

  • Ketch and Yawl: Both the ketch and yawl rigging types have two masts. However, what makes them different is in a ketch rigging, the aft mast (mizzen) is taller than the one on a yawl. Also, it’s positioned in front of the rudder post. These riggings are known for their excellent balance and flexibility in most conditions.

Schooner: If you have ever toured older wooden ships built to sail around the world and explore the ocean, then you have probably been aboard a Schooner. This configuration can have two or more masts and the aft mast is taller than the forward one(s). These vessels are powerful and equipped for the long haul.


Types of Sailboats and Their Uses

There are many types of sailboats (not to be confused with rigging types), each with its own pros, cons, and uses. Here’s a look at five of the most popular sailboats and why sailors use them.


Dinghy

A guy on a Dinghy sailboat on the water.

When most people think of sailboats, they think of sailing dinghies. These small sailboats are less than 15-feet long and can be sailed by one person or a small crew. In most cases, they have small sloop rigs, are monohulls, and are excellent as a first sailboat. Dinghies are also great for racing or using as a lifeboat for bigger vessels.

  • Pros of a dinghy: Easily managed, relatively inexpensive, and great for beginners.

  • Cons of a dinghy: Not much space, only designed for short trips, and not recommended for rough waters or harsh weather conditions.

Daysailer


A Daysailer on the water with two sailors.

A daysailer is like the dinghy’s older brother. It’s usually about 14-20 feet in length and sloop-rigged. As the name suggests, they’re best for day trips on the ocean. In most cases, daysailers have a small cabin or open cockpit. They’re designed more for fun rather than long distances.


  • Pros of daysailers: Easy handling, stable, and great for outings with family or friends.

  • Cons of daysailers: Assmaller boats, they aren’t designed for overnight trips or long voyages.

Catamaran


Two Catamaran sailboats out on the water.

The catamaran is where luxury on the sea begins. Its two parallel and equal-sized hulls make the vessel much more stable and comfortable than its single-hull counterparts. It’s a highly customizable boat that can be small and sporty or large and luxurious, depending on your needs.


More experienced sailors use these types of sailboats for longer trips and smaller charter trips.


  • Pros of the catamaran: A lot of space, fast, and perfect for cruising at sea.

  • Cons of the catamaran: Since they have such a wide beam, it can be a challenge to find places to dock or maneuver in tight marinas.

Trimaran


A Trimaran sailboat out on the water.

If you’re drawn to the size and stability of the catamaran, but yearn for more speed and power then you’ll love the trimaran. Instead of two hulls, this bigger boat has three: a main hull in the middle, and two smaller outrigger hulls on its sides. It’s an excellent sailboat for racing and cruising due to its stability and speed.


  • Pros of trimarans: Ability to be very fast, stable, and less likely to capsize in rough waters than smaller sailboats.

  • Cons of trimarans: They’re larger boats, so it can be difficult and more expensive to dock or store them in certain places.

Cruising Keelboat


A Cruising Keelboat out on the water.

Suppose you want to take an overnight cruise or even a trip across the Atlantic Ocean. In that case, a cruiser is your best bet. These large-sized sailboats (usually more than 30 feet long) are designed to be comfortable and self-sufficient, which makes them ideal for long voyages.


  • Pros of Cruising Keelboats: Well-suited to go on long-distance cruises for weeks or months with the ability to support multiple passengers.

  • Cons of Cruising Keelboats: You’ll not only have to invest in the sailboat (including storage and upkeep), but it also requires a large crew and an experienced captain.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Sailboat Types


What is the most common type of sailboat?

Sloop-rigged sailboats (particularly daysailers and dinghies) are among the most popular types of sailboats. However, generally, the most commonly used sailboat depends on who’s using it. For example, a racer will have much different needs than someone who just wants the right boat for cruising.


What’s the difference between a sailboat and a yacht?

In the U.S., the determination between a sailboat and a yacht is that a sailboat only uses wind power, while a yacht can use wind, a motor, or a combination of both. However, internationally, sailboats and all other boats are usually considered “yachts.” Size can also be a determining factor. For example, some people consider any boat longer than 40 feet to be a yacht.


What’s the best beginner sailboat?

If you don’t have any sailing experience, the best sailboats are usually smaller, easy to maneuver, and less complicated than multihulls. Some of the best small sailboats for beginners have tiller steering and no winches.


This can include vessels like small dinghies, catamarans (though these are multihull boats), rotomolded boats, and those that can be easily trailered to different locations.


What is the safest type of sailboat?

In most cases, larger cruising keelboats are usually considered much safer than smaller dinghies and catamarans. That’s because they’re less likely to capsize and can handle adverse weather more safely, which is especially useful for new sailors. However, sailboat safety depends on the sailor, type of boat, and conditions.


What are the most popular sailboat brands?

There are countless high-quality sailboats on the market. Some of the most popular brands include Beneteau, Jeanneau, Hunter, Catalina, Dufour, Sunfish, Hobie, and many others. These brands have built a reputation of trust and reliability over the years, making them prime choices for new and seasoned sailors alike.


Which type of boat is best for offshore cruising?

If you want to take your sailboat for an offshore cruise, you’ll need something sturdy, reliable, and able to handle harsh sea conditions. In most cases, a cruising keelboat is your best bet for casual offshore cruising as they’re comfortable and self-sufficient vessels. In regards to rigging, ketch, cutter, and schooner rigs are best for sailing offshore because they are adaptable to varying wind speeds.


Learn How to Sail From The Experts

Are you interested in learning more about sailing or getting certified? First Reef Sailing is one of the top ASA sailing schools in the Boston area.


We can help you learn the basics of sailing so you can get out on the water with confidence. Our certification courses, such as the beginner ASA 101 and ASA 103 courses, will teach you how to sail everything from 20-foot keelboats to 50-foot catamarans.


Take a look at this timeline of how many of our students learn, gain sailing experience, and go on to buy their own sailboats.

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