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Sailboat: types, definitions and terms

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To properly define a sailboat, one has to take a look at the hull, attachments and rig

Sailing means: moving with the power of the wind. Quiet and clean, but rarely in a straight line from A to B. This is the same for all types of sailboats and yachts, regardless of whether they are small dinghies, such as the inflatable Tiwal 3.2, or medium-sized cruising vessels, such as one Hanse 455, to race racing yachts like the Melges 40 or gigantic luxury sailors like z. B. A, which with a length of almost 140 meters is currently the largest sailing yacht in the world. When it comes to the length of sailing boats, the next to, a distinction is made between length over all (Lüa) and the waterline's length (LWL), whereby these two values ​​can be very different, especially for older ships.

But how can the many types of sailing boats be classified and distinguished from one another? It all sounds pretty complicated to beginners, but with a little practice and with the help of our guide, this task shouldn't be difficult.

A traditional keel yacht, also known as a monohull, on an upwind course. Photo: Dieter Loibner

What defines a sailboat?

A rule of thumb: For the definition and categorization of sailing boats, what is decisive is what swims in the water, what is attached to it under water and what protrudes into the sky above the water. In detail:

  • hull: That's the part that floats in the water. It depends primarily on the number of hulls, because sailboats can have one, two or three hulls.

  • Attachments: What hangs under the trunk. This is a sword that is usually used on small, light and fast boats. It is mostly profiled and can be lowered or caught up. Larger boats, on the other hand, have a heavy keel, which usually consists of a fixed steel fin, with additional lead ballast.

  • Rigging / rigging: What soars into the sky. A distinction is made according to the configuration of the sails (e.g. sloop, cutter) and the number of masts.

At this point an important note: Small, light and sporty boats that have a hull and are equipped with a sword are called dinghies, while larger boats with a keel, especially those with a cabin, are called yachts.

The hull

Boats can have one, two or three hulls, which are made of either glass fiber reinforced plastic (GRP), wood, aluminum or steel. A distinction is made between

  • Monohull

  • Catamaran (two hulls) or

  • Trimaran (three hulls)

Monohulls (also called monohulls) are more traditional and therefore the most common. Larger boats have a keel with ballast, which ensures the righting moment, i.e. stability. But those who value performance will at least have to look at multihulls. They are generally lighter because they do not have a ballast keel, but are given stability by their much greater width. Due to the narrow hulls, they also have less frictional resistance, which means that they can also claim performance advantages for themselves, at least on certain courses.

A catamaran not only offers a lot of space due to its large width, but also sails without a strong incline to the side, which is why this type of boat is particularly popular with charter holidaymakers.

The attachments

In order to prevent lateral drift caused by the wind, every boat needs an attachment under the hull, which gives the boat stability and creates the buoyancy force with which a sailboat can move forward effectively. Put simply, it is pushed forward between the force of the wind acting on the sail and the lateral resistance created by the sword or keel, like a cherry stone that you squeeze between your fingers until it slips out. A distinction is made between the attachments

  • The keel, a vertical fin, under the boat that also contains ballast

  • The sword, which consists of a flat profile and is raised and lowered in a sword case

Different types of keels

In addition to creating lateral resistance, a keel bears a great deal of weight at the lowest possible point, which means that a sailboat will straighten up when it is put on its side (heeled) by the force of the wind. In the broadest sense, this phenomenon can be compared to the lead in the belly of a man standing up. Well-constructed keelboats with a great righting moment are considered impossible to capsize because the ballast will still straighten them up even if they heel 90 degrees or more. The disadvantage: you always have to carry a lot of weight around with you and sink in the event of a catastrophic water ingress. Even if keels have been known for centuries, they have developed significantly in the recent past due to technological progress, which is why we name the most common types of keel here:

Long keel: This is so called because it extends over almost the entire length of the underwater hull and the rudder is attached to the rear end. Such keel configurations are mainly seen on traditional sailing yachts. The advantage of long keels is the great directional stability when sailing straight ahead and good protection in the event of collisions with floating debris. The disadvantage is the large area that is in the water, which creates more frictional resistance, which makes the boat slower.

Traditional and robust: cruising yacht with a long keel. Has advantages when colliding with floating debris, but is slow due to the large wetted area. Photo:

Fin keel: Modern and lightly built sailing yachts are equipped with fin keel that go much deeper than long keel but are therefore also much shorter, which has two advantages: better maneuverability and less friction, i.e. more speed.

Wing and T-keels: By adding small wings or so-called winglets that protrude laterally at the bottom of the keel, designers achieve more righting moment without adding too much weight. Originally such keels were used at the America’s Cup, but cruising yachts can also benefit from them because they produce better righting moment with less draft and because boats with less draft can also sail in shallower waters. With T-keels, a long lead ballast bomb sits at the bottom of a very slim keel fin. The aim that is pursued with this is to apply the weight as low as possible in order to increase the keel lever, i.e. the righting moment, without unnecessarily increasing the draft. With a larger lever, a keel gets by with less weight, which benefits a regatta yacht with more speed on spaced sheets and downwind courses.

Contemporary history: an old and a new yacht from the Swan shipyard hang on the crane. The modern boat (front) has a slim T-keel with a ballast bomb, while the older one still has a traditional fin keel.

Kimmkiel: A somewhat rarer shape, but infinitely practical in areas with a large tidal range or in the mudflats, where yachts like to dry out when the water has run out. Boats with keel keels then stand upright on the bottom, whereas those with normal keels lie on their side. The disadvantage: a lot of wetted area (i.e. friction) and less effective against lateral drift.

Fallen dry: a yacht with a keel demonstrates the advantages of these attachments. Photo:

Swing keel / lifting keel: Variable draft is of interest to many sailors because it not only enables shallower harbors or bays to be approached, but also because it eliminates the need for a crane with which the boat would otherwise have to be lifted from the trailer into the water and back out again . The swivel keel is caught up at a pivot point similar to a large center sword until it almost disappears into the hull, while lifting keel is raised or lowered vertically, either by means of hydraulics on larger boats or mechanically with a gallows and a manual winch, as on smaller and sportier boats common.

Swing keel: The advantage of a retractable keel is illustrated in this drawing.

Tilt keel: Tilt keel has been used on racing yachts since the mid-1990s, which can be swiveled to windward almost to the horizontal with a hydraulic mechanism in order to increase the righting moment. The advantage here: the ballast no longer has to be as heavy as with conventional, rigid keels, which means that the boat is lighter and faster. However, yachts equipped in this way must also wield swords to counteract the drift.

Racing yacht with tilting keel (white), plug-in sword and double rudder

Kielschwert: As the name suggests, it is a hybrid between the two attachments. Strictly speaking, it is a combination of a retractable sword and ballast that is carried deep in the hull or even on a small keel stub, whereby a lowerable sword is also used.

Different types of swords

Boats with swords are significantly lighter than keel yachts and have the advantage that the sword can be completely folded in or raised so that they hardly have any more draft and can sail into very shallow water. A second advantage is the road transport on a small trailer that can be pulled by a car and the watering and slipping on the ramp, which saves crane fees. Sword boats get their stability by shifting the crew's weight to windward, either by hanging overboard (riding out) or by the so-called trapeze, which allows the crew to stand outboard. But that also means that boats with swords are very athletic to sail and can overturn. As with the quills, there are also swords of different construction, the most important of which are listed here:


An Olympic two-man sailing dinghy of the 470 class. When there is a lot of wind, the crew stands in the trapeze to give the boat stability. The sword under the boat is visible in the crest of the waves. Photo: World Sailing / Daniel Forster

Swivel sword: Such swords are attached to a bolt in the ship's bottom and are raised or lowered by means of a line and a system of deflection blocks. This type of sword installation is relatively complex and you can often find it on older constructions.

Plug-in sword: This thing is even easier on small and sporty boats such as dinghies or beach catamarans, on which flat, profiled swords are simply inserted into the sword case from above and are also lifted up again when slipping on.

This sailor uses the plug-in sword of his dinghy to free himself from an awkward position after capsizing. Photo:

Foiling swords: For some years now, light and fast boats have been able to “fly” thanks to special swords made of carbon fiber and shaped like an L or J. This means that the hull is lifted completely out of the water by the special shape of these swords when accelerating, which drastically reduces the braking frictional resistance and breakneck speeds of 60 km / h or more can be achieved. This type of sailing is called "foiling" and is used, for example, by Moth dinghies, or by extremely fast catamarans at the America’s Cup or other international regatta series.

A catamaran in foiling mode. the swords are made of carbon fiber and are shaped so that they lift the boat out of the water at a certain speed.

Rig and sail configuration

The number of masts and the position on deck and the resulting combination of the different types of sail are another feature that distinguishes sailboats from one another. Below we list the most common types of rig that are relevant for pleasure boats. But first a short word about the individual sails that appear:

  • Mainsail: Always driven behind the mast.

  • Headsail: Are placed in front of the mast. A distinction is made between the jib, a small to medium sail and a genoa, a large foresail that extends up the entire mast and is mostly used in light winds.

  • Spacer and Downwind sail such as spinnaker, gennaker or Code Zero, which are set up in space sheets (across the wind direction) or on figure-eight courses (with the wind).

A note on this: Modern boats and yachts have a so-called high or Bermuda rigging, i.e. the mainsail and headsail are triangular. Older boats, on the other hand, often still carry a traditional gaff rig, i.e. at least the mainsail is square, with the upper edge attached to a diagonal spar, the gaff.

Slup: This is the most common type of sailboat that has only one mast, but two sails, a fore and a mainsail. More modern slups have different types of headsails that are attached to the top of the mast (i.e. at the top of the mast) or a little below. Larger headsails such as Gennaker and Code Zero are often attached to a bowsprit, a “nose” that protrudes from the bow because it allows them to have more sail area.


This Alerion 30 Sport is an example of a sloop. Note the small bowsprit and the gennaker attached to it, which is rolled out on space sheet courses.

Kutter: This type looks very similar to a sloop, but the mast is often a little further back on deck, so that space is gained for two headsails, which are attached to the deck separately, one behind the other. The larger (jib or genoa) at the front on the so-called forestay, the smaller (staysail) aft on the cutterstay. This rig configuration is very popular on cruising ships because the crew is very flexible and can easily adapt the sail area to the prevailing conditions.

The traditional cutter Lizzie May with good speed. One "flying" foresail is driven at the bowsprit, the second is attached straight to the bow. Photo:

Ketsch: That brings us to the two-masters. A ketch has a main mast in the fore and a shorter one in the aft, called a mizzen. The advantage of this configuration is similar to that of the cutter: it is easier to adapt the sail area to the conditions. Small, fine detail: the mizzen is in front of the rudder of the ketch.

Vollzeug: The mizzen mast of this large ketch is far in front of the stern. If you look closely, you will also see that the two foresails are set one behind the other like a cutter.

Yawl: Looks very similar to a ketch, i.e. with a long head and a short mizzen mast, but unlike the ketch, the latter is behind the rudder, which also means that the mizzen sail of a yawl is usually smaller than that of a ketch.

Yawl rigging: Recognizable by the small mizzen mast that stands further aft, which means that the mizzen sail clearly protrudes over the stern.

Schooner: That is pure tradition, many famous yachts with several masts, such as America, the ship after which the America’s Cup is named, carry this type of rig. The number of masts varies from two to six. But what they all have in common is that the main mast, i.e. the foremost, is shorter than the (or the) mizzen mast (s). Many of the old schooners are still equipped with a traditional gaff rig.

Steam in: the schooner Isaac H. Evans off the coast of Maine. Note the difference in length between the two masts and the square sails that are typical of gaff rigged ships.

Catboat: Anyone who has ever seen or sailed a laser dinghy knows about this super-simple rigging, which only has one mast and one mainsail. The mast is in the front of the ship. The advantage: it's easy, it's cheap. The disadvantage: Little variance when adjusting the sail area.

Classic: a catboat with a gaff sail Photo: Vinyard Times

Use of sailing boats

Man has been sailing since time immemorial. Until the advent of steam and internal combustion engines in the late 19th century, it was the only way to move efficiently over long distances on the water and to carry a payload with you. In the beginning the Egyptians must have stood, who equipped their reed canoes with woven cloth in order to sail up the Nile against the north wind against the current. Later, sailing ships became an instrument of globalization, which began with voyages of discovery and the establishment of trade routes that at some point spanned the entire world and are still used today.

But with the spread of internal combustion engines, sailing ships lost all commercial importance, so that today they are actually only used for leisure purposes, such as for charter or cruising, for weekend or day trips. The pleasure blow after work is also tempting, especially when you can go on board directly from the office and be on the road within a few minutes.

A popular area of ​​recreational sailing is the competition in regattas, which are held with boats of all kinds, from the small children's dinghy Optimist to high-tech racing yachts or mega yachts. It is sailed on courses that lead close to the shore around laid out buoys, but also cross oceans, or go around the world, sometimes even without stopping. The crew size varies widely, from single-handed sailors who are all alone to professional crews that can comprise a dozen or more sailors.

Lifted off: This IMOCA racing yacht takes part in the Vendee Globe, a one-hand race that leads around the world. Such boats are now equipped with tilting keels and, more recently, additional foiling blades that lift the hull out of the water when the boat is moving fast. Photo: Vincent-Curutchet BPCE

Cruising sailing is perhaps the most popular variant of the sport, which can be designed very individually depending on your mood, age and ability and depending on your financial possibilities on a wide variety of waters. The sailing area (ocean, lake, coastal waters) determines the type of boat that is used.

How do you buy a sailboat?

Anyone who has never bought a sailboat has to make a number of considerations that have a decisive influence on the purchase. The size of the boat and the purchase price are important, but by no means the only questions that the prospective boat owner must first answer for himself before looking for the right vehicle. We recommend an article about the individual steps that must generally be observed when buying a boat and answering the basic question, which sailboat is ideal for me?

Perhaps just a word about the budget, which for most buyers defines the framework in which the search moves. Research is the magic word and it is easier than ever today in the age of the Internet. Regardless of whether it is about the ship, its equipment or the purchase price, you can find it very easily and conveniently for thousands of different boats on using a targeted search. Other items such as mooring (in the water, on land), insurance, maintenance, equipment, necessary repairs and winter storage must also be taken into account. Beginners will probably want to take a sailing course first, not only to gain practical knowledge of maneuvers and competent boat handling, but also to acquire a sailing license.

New or used?

It is a crucial question that everyone has to decide for themselves. Buying a new one has many advantages because you can order exactly the boat you want and, thanks to the shipyard guarantee, you hardly have to worry if there are problems at the beginning. The disadvantage here: As soon as you take over a new boat, you have a used boat that usually quickly loses value, as is the case with new cars. <

However, if you want to or have to budget with the euros, we recommend a look at our used boat market for sailing yachts. The advantages of used equipment are obvious: there are usually more boats for less money. A model that is five years old, for example, can cost a good 40 percent less than the new price. Secondly, used boats are usually more fully equipped than a new boat, for which m, an also has to pay extra for many extras.
The disadvantages that you should be aware of are the condition, which you should definitely check as part of a test drive and also have an appraiser confirmed before buying, and the need to replace certain items of equipment or even the sails if you have to they do not meet the expectations. And there is usually no guarantee for used boats.

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