Buying a Sailboat - Sloop vs Ketch

Sailing on a traditional Friendship Sloop
WIN-Initiative / Getty Images

You should consider many different questions when deciding what kind of sailboat is best for you. Start with this article on How to Buy a Sailboat.

If you are looking for a cruising sailboat, depending on your preferred size range, you may be choosing between a sloop and a ketch, the two most common types of cruising sailboats. Each offers certain advantages.

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© Tom Lochhaas.

A sloop is generally the most common type of sailboat rig. A sloop has a single mast and usually only two sails: the mainsail and a headsail such as a jib or genoa. A sloop may also use a racing or cruising spinnaker.

Sloops come in all sizes, from 8-foot dinghies to maxi boats over a hundred feet long. A sloop uses what is called a Bermuda or Marconi rig: the tall, thin, triangular mainsail we're all so used to seeing on the water.

The sloop rig generally is simpler to use and cheaper to build. Because of the wind and sail dynamics involved, a sloop is almost always faster than other rigs in boats of comparable size, especially when sailing to windward.

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© Tom Lochhaas.

A ketch is a common rig for cruising sailboats. It has two masts: a traditional mainmast as on a sloop, plus a smaller mast in the rear of the boat, called the mizzenmast. Technically, the mizzenmast must be mounted forward of the boat’s rudderpost to be a ketch; if the mizzen is mounted further aft, behind the rudderpost, it is considered a yawl. The mizzenmast is typically smaller on a yawl than on a ketch, but otherwise these rigs are similar.

A ketch, therefore, uses three primary sails: the mainsail and headsail, as on a sloop, plus the mizzen sail aft. A ketch may also use a spinnaker.

The fact of three sails does not necessarily mean that the sail area is larger than on a sloop of the same size, however. Sail area is usually planned by boat designers based on the boat's size, displacement (weight), and hull shape and configuration - not the number of masts or sails. This means that the mainsail and headsail of a ketch are generally smaller than on a sloop, but the mizzen sail roughly makes up the difference.

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Benefits and Disadvantages of Sloops vs. Ketches

Ketch vs Sloop
© Tom Lochhaas.

Sloops and ketches each have their own benefits but also disadvantages. When deciding what type of boat to buy, be sure you have considered these differences:

Advantages of a Sloop:

  • Generally faster and sails closer to the wind
  • Fewer sails to buy and maintain
  • Less standing and running rigging with one mast - less to manage and maintain
  • Most popular contemporary boat - a wide variety of sloops available

Disadvantages of a Sloop:

  • Sails generally larger and heavier, requiring more strength for handling, hoisting, and trimming (on a larger boat)
  • Fewer options to reduce sail area with stronger winds (only reefing or furling)

Advantages of a Ketch:

  • Smaller sails - more easily managed and hoisted on a larger boat (preferred by many older sailors)
  • Different combinations using only two sails at a time have benefits for different conditions, such as stronger winds

Disadvantages of a Ketch:

  • Ketch rigs generally do not sail as fast or as close to the wind as a sloop
  • More standing rigging (shrouds and stays) and running rigging (halyards and sheets) to manage and maintain
  • Mizzenmast takes up space in stern
  • Fewer ketches available – more popular as an older boat

Finally, most ketches are intended as cruising boats that are easy to handle and comfortable for cruising, while many sloops, even cruising sloops, are designed also for greater speed and participating in club races. Many ketches, therefore, are different from sloops in ways other than just the masts and sails. Designed as cruisers, many ketches are heavier, more stable in sea conditions, and more commodious down below. On the other hand, contemporary builders produce few ketches anymore, so there are a greater variety of sloops available as new boats.

As in other decisions when shopping for a sailboat, the preferable rig depends mostly on your preferred uses of the boat. The same is true when comparing fixed keel and centerboard sailboats.