Learn About the Various Types of Sailboats and Rigs

Learn about the ten most common types of sailboats and rigs.
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01
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The Modern Sloop

Sailboat on San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, California, USA
Barry Winiker/ Photodisc/Getty Images

The most common type of small-to-midsize sailboat is the sloop. The rig is one mast and two sails. The mainsail is a tall, triangular sail mounted to the mast at its leading edge, with the foot of the sail along the boom, which extends aft from the mast. The sail in front called the jib or sometimes the headsail, mounts on the forestay between the bow and the masthead, with its trailing corner controlled by the jib sheet.

The Bermuda or Marconi Rig

These tall triangular sails are called the Bermuda rig, or sometimes the Marconi rig, named for their development more than two centuries ago in Bermudan boats. Because of the physics of how force is generated by wind blowing past a sail, tall thin sails generally have more power when the boat is sailing into the wind.

02
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Racing Sloop

Puma racing sailboat
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

Here is another example of a sloop with a Bermuda rig. This is the sailboat Puma in the 2009 Volvo Ocean Race, one of the fastest monohull sailboats in the world. The sails are much bigger than found on most cruising sailboats, but the general rig is the same. In both of the sloops shown so far, the jib reaches to the top of the masthead. These are sometimes called masthead sloops.

03
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Fractional Sloop Rig

Small Fractional Sloop
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

Here, notice a small racing dinghy with a sloop rig. This is still a Bermuda rig, but the mainsail is proportionally larger and the jib smaller, for ease of handling and maximum power. Note that the top of the jib rises only a fraction of the distance to the masthead. Such a rig is called a fractional sloop.

04
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Cat Rig

Cat Rig Sailboat
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

While a sloop always has two sails, a cat-rigged boat generally has only one. The mast is positioned very far forward, almost at the bow, making room for a very long-footed mainsail. The mainsail of a cat rig may have a traditional boom or, as in this boat, a loose-footed mainsail attached at the aft corner to what is called a wishbone boom.

Compared to Bermuda Rigs

A primary advantage of a cat rig is the ease of sail handling, such as not having to deal with jib sheets when tacking. Generally, a cat rig is not considered as powerful as a Bermuda rig, however, and is more rarely used in modern boats.

05
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Cat-Rigged Racing Dinghy

Cat-Rigged Racing Dinghy
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

In this photo, there is another cat rig, which works well on small racing dinghies like this Laser. With a small boat and one sailor, a cat rig has the advantages of being simple to trim and very maneuverable when racing.​ Learn more about the Laser sailboat.

06
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Ketch

Ketch rig sailboat
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

A popular rig for midsize cruising boats is the ketch, which is like a sloop with a second, smaller mast set aft called the mizzenmast. The mizzen sail functions much like a second mainsail. A ketch carries about the same total square footage of sail area as a sloop of the equivalent size.

Make Sail Handling Easy

The primary advantages of a ketch are that each of the sails is usually somewhat smaller than on a sloop of equivalent size, making sail handling easier. Smaller sails are lighter, easier to hoist and trim and smaller to stow. Having three sails also allows for more flexible sail combinations. For example, with the wind at an intensity that a sloop might have to double-reef the main to reduce sail area, a ketch may sail very well under just jib and mizzen. This is popularly called sailing under “jib and jigger”—the jigger being an old square-rigger term for the aft-most mast flying a triangular sail.

While a ketch offers these advantages to cruisers, they may also be more expensive because of the added mast and sail. The sloop rig is also considered faster and is therefore used almost exclusively in racing sailboats.

07
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Yawl

Yawl
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

A yawl is very similar to a ketch. The mizzenmast is usually smaller and sets farther aft, behind the rudder post, while in a ketch the mizzenmast is forward of the rudder post. Aside from this technical difference, the yawl and ketch rigs are similar and have similar advantages and disadvantages.

08
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Schooner

Schooner
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

A typical schooner has two masts, and sometimes more, but the masts are positioned more forward in the boat. Unlike in a ketch or yawl, the forward mast is smaller than the aft mast (or sometimes the same size). One or more jibs may fly forward of the foremast.

Traditional Schooners

While some modern schooners may use triangular, Bermuda-like sails on one of both masts, traditional schooners like the one shown here have gaff-rigged sails. At the top of the sail is a short spar called the gaff, which allows the sail to extend back along a fourth side, gaining size over a triangular sail of the same height.

Gaff-rigged schooners are still seen in many areas and are well loved for their historic appearance and sweeping lines, but they are seldom used anymore for private cruising. The gaff rig is not as efficient as the Bermuda rig, and the rig is more complicated and requires more crew for sail handling.

09
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Schooner With Topsail and Flying Jibs

Topsail Schooner
Photo © Tom Lochhaas.

Above is another gaff-rigged schooner that is using a topsail and several flying jibs. Tacking or gybing a complicated sail plan like this takes a lot of crew and expertise.

10
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Square-Rigged Tall Ship

Square-Rigged Tall Ship
Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images.

In this illustration, notice a large three-masted square-rigger flying five tiers of square sails, several headsails, and a mizzen sail. Although this is a modern ship, one of many still used around the world for sail training and passenger cruise ships, the rig is essentially unchanged from centuries ago. Columbus, Magellan, and the other early sea explorers sailed in square-riggers.

Generating Power

Remarkably efficient sailing downwind or well off the wind, square sails do not generate power from their leading edge as in the Bermuda rig, which has become predominant in modern times. Thus, square-riggers generally do not sail upwind. It was due to this limitation that the great trade wind sailing routes around the world were developed centuries ago.