Types of sailing boats: How to find the right boat

Types of sailing boats are a dime a dozen. If you have never owned a sailing boat before, but would like to fulfil your dream of owning your first one, you may feel a bit overwhelmed at first. The choices on the first- or second-hand boat market are plenty. With this blog, we want to help you find the right type of sailing boat for you, from learning to sail to cruising full-time.

Which type of sailing boat is suitable for (absolute) beginners?

The sailing dinghy is the type of sailing boat for beginners. They are light, affordable, easy to handle and difficult to capsize. Although the dinghy is designed for children up to the age of about 15, it can also be used by adult sailing beginners in their first practice runs.

Beginner-friendly features of the sailing dinghy

The sailing dinghy has an open cockpit, has a centreboard and removable tiller, and can be beached or transported on a car without much effort. The mast is removable, and all parts are easy to stow.

Sunfish & Co.: variations of the dinghy for advanced beginners

The Sunfish is a small but also fast sailing boat. This small racing dinghy is four metres long and brings a lot of fun and learning with it. For its size, the Sunfish has a relatively large sail area and a very shallow draft. It tilts or heels very easily, but this also teaches novice sailors where the limits of a sailing boat are and how to avoid capsizing.

Catboat – a type of sailing boat for adult beginners and advanced sailors

A catboat is a type of sailing boat with only one mainsail, such as the West Wight Potter. Catboats are famous for their easy handling and power. They make excellent sailing boats for adult beginners. These boats come with different centreboards, keels and cabins and can be sailed equally well on the open sea and in coastal waters. Most catboats are between four and six metres long and are built of wood or fibreglass.

Types of sailing boats for experienced sailors

Those who are beyond the entry level of sailing will eventually become interested in the variety of sailing boat types. With experience, interest eventually grows in different options, such as longer tours or even small or large sailing regattas and races. For this, first- and second-hand sailing boats or yachts have to meet other requirements. Matching one’s own wishes with the characteristics of different types of sailing boats is therefore essential. In the following, the differences will be explained using three essential characteristics of sailing boats.

Types of sailing boats: these are the essential distinguishing features

The simplest way to classify types of sailing boats is to look at the most important components. In all sailing boats, the hull forms the floating base, keel and centreboards provide stability, rigging and sails shape propulsion.

The hull as a feature of different sailing boat types

The hull gives the sailing boat its buoyancy. A sailing boat can have one, two and more rarely three, four or five hulls. Typical materials used are wood, steel or glass-fibre reinforced plastic.

Monohulls or single-hulled boats

Sailing boats with one hull are the most common. Monohulls usually rely on ballast for stability and are therefore so-called displacement boats, i.e. they are in the water at all times with the entire underwater hull and displace it.

Advantage: Monohulls are more stable and therefore capsize less often.

Disadvantage: The ballast causes a loss of speed.

Catamaran and other multihulls

So-called multihulls can have two (catamaran) or more hulls. This increases the stability of the sailing boat many times over, even without ballast in the keel. Weight is also saved.

Advantage: Increased performance in terms of acceleration, top speed and steering ability.

Disadvantage: Righting after capsize and turning manoeuvres are more difficult/slower.

Keel and centreboard as characteristics of different sailing boat types

The keel is the main component and backbone of a sailing boat, running lengthwise along the centre of the hull bottom from stem to stern. It can be made of wood, metal or another strong, rigid material.

The keel on a sailing boat

All sailing boats have one or more foils, or vertical fins, under the hull to minimize drift, which is the tendency of a boat to be blown sideways in a crosswind. Depending on the design, the foils use the forward motion of the boat to provide lift, analogous to an aircraft wing.

In dinghies and multihulls, foils have no additional weight. Larger monohulls have ballast in the keel to provide buoyancy to improve the boat’s stability. The greater the weight of the ballast – or the deeper it is placed under the hull – the greater the stability it provides.

Fin keel

A fin keel has a narrow plate attached to the keel of a sailing boat amidships and projects downwards to provide lateral resistance. It stabilises the sailing boat and makes steering easier.

Long keel

The long keel or ballast keel is a vertical, V-shaped extension of the boat’s hull. It is usually ballasted, weighted and can be up to three quarters of the length of the boat. The long keel helps the sailing boat to be more stable and drift less.

Bilge keel

The bilge keels are two flat plates located on either side of the centreline of the hull. Sailing boats with bilge keels can stand upright on sand or mud at low tide. The bilge keels also reduce the tendency to roll as they act like stabilizing fins.

Lift keel

Lift keels slide up and down in a vertical slot. This allows the draft of the sailing boat to be altered. This is particularly advantageous when sailing in shallow bays and inland waters. In addition, the sailing boat can be loaded directly onto the trailer without a crane.

Canting keel

Swing keels offer the same advantages as lifting keels. Swing keels, however, rotate on a pin that allows the lower part to swing upwards until it almost disappears into the hull of the sailing boat.

Tilt keel

Tilt keels or canting keels are mainly used on racing yachts. The special feature of canting keels is that they can be extended almost horizontally towards the windward side of the sailing boat. This arrangement allows the boat to be sailed with less heel, which significantly increases speed.


In sailing dinghies, other small sailing boats and ultra-modern racing yachts, a keel construction with ballast is usually dispensed with in order not to restrict speed and manoeuvrability. Instead, various types of centreboards are attached to the hull to counteract drift.


Plug-in centreboards are pushed through the hull from top to bottom through the so-called centreboard box. They are the most common form of sailing centreboard and are used in many recreational and training dinghies.

Swivel centreboard

The swivel centreboard is attached directly to the keel and can be raised or lowered with the help of a line.

Foiling centreboard

Foiling daggerboards or hydrofoils are mainly used on sailing boats that are trimmed for speed. Due to the so-called foil, which looks like an “L” or an “Ʇ”, the hull lifts out of the water at speed and, driven by the wind, flies over the water surface only on the foiling daggerboards. Without the hull drag, above-average speeds are then possible.

Rigging and sails as characteristics of different sailing boat types

Sailing boat types can also be differentiated by the type of rigging, i.e. the arrangement and number of masts, or by the different types of sails.

Cat-rigged sailing boats

Sailing boats with cat-rigging can have one or more masts, but the foresail is always missing. Various forms of square rigged sails can be used as typical main sails.

Typical representatives of these sailing boat types are the cat-boat, the cat-schooner (with two masts of the same height) or the cat-ketch (two masts, with the aft mast being slightly smaller).

Sloop-rigged sailing boats

Sloop-rigged sailing boats, on the other hand, always have one mainsail and one foresail. This combination is most commonly found on modern recreational sailing boats.

Cat-rigged and sloop-rigged sailing boats are found on most sailing boats and yachts in the recreational industry. Generally, these two types of sailing boats with a maximum of two masts and sails are considered easier to handle, which fulfils the recreational suitability for most sailors.


Sails are divided into groups and types. The first classification by groups is according to the way the sails are aligned to the direction of travel. Square sails are mounted transversely to the direction of travel, while square sails are mounted longitudinally to the direction of travel.

Within the two groups, a distinction is then made between the types of sails, which can take many forms and all have their individual advantages and disadvantages.

Square sails

Square sails are usually rectangular or trapezoidal and are mostly found on larger sailing ships. They are attached to a round timber, called a yard, across the line of the keel and are used to propel the sailing boat.

More common in the recreational sector are types of square rigged sails that are attached to the mast along the direction of travel. Typical examples of square sails are Bermuda sails, gaff sails, spritsails and the staysail, which is often used as a foresail.

Other types of sailing boats with special forms of rigging and sails

Different combinations of rigging and sails have resulted in different types of sailing boats.


A ketch is also often called a one-and-a-half-master. It has two masts, whereby the aft mast (mizzen mast) is smaller than the main mast. A ketch can be used to cover long distances on the high seas.


Like the ketch, the yawl also has two masts, with the corresponding differences in size. The big difference to the ketch is that the smaller mizzen mast is outside the construction waterline.

This is the line that results from the intersection of the water surface with the side of the floating sailing boat. Yawls can generally be steered a little more elegantly.


The schooner may have two or more masts, with the forward mast not being the highest. There is usually a schooner sail on the first mast, with the main sail attached to the second mast. In three-masted schooners, the mizzen sail is attached to the aft mast.

Furthermore, a distinction is made between staysail schooners (sails are arranged between the masts) and topsail schooners (with a square sail on the front mast).

Other distinguishing features of sailing boat types

Types of sailing boats can also be distinguished on the basis of length, equipment, material or rudder type. However, these are distinctions that should only be used for fine classification after the main criteria of hull, keel and rigging.


The rudder is used on sailing boats to change direction. It generates torque from the water flowing around it. To enable the steering effect, the sailing boat must first be set in motion.

The more the rudder is perpendicular to the direction of travel and the larger its area, the greater the steering effect. The following rudders can be used in different types of sailing boats.

Balancer rudder

The balancer rudder is found on long keel boats and is also called a floating rudder. In contrast to the fixed rudder, the rudder blade is partly in front of the rudder axis. With a balancer rudder, less power is needed to lay the rudder, but it requires a greater rudder angle to steer, which in turn increases resistance and makes the boat slower to steer.

Skeg rudder

The skeg is used on sailing boats with a shorter keel. The skeg (rudder fin) serves as the attachment point, with the rudder behind it.

On the one hand, this arrangement provides a better flow of air to the rudder, which makes for more direct steering, and on the other hand, it gives sailing boats greater course stability when sailing straight ahead.

Spade rudder

The spade rudder is found on most modern types of sailing boats. The rudder blade is usually constructed around a metal shaft that extends upwards into a tube inside the hull to give it support.

Good spade rudders give optimum control with the greatest stability.

Double rudder

Double rudders are most common on cruising yachts and long-distance racing yachts. At high speeds and sudden increases in wind, twin rudders tend to be more efficient than single, central rudders.


The different types of sailing boats can also be distinguished from each other by the material. Depending on your wishes and budget, the hull and other components can be made of wood, steel, aluminium, carbon fibre or glass fibre reinforced plastic.

Each building material has its pitfalls and advantages, also during a boat restoration. In modern sailing boats, glass-fibre reinforced plastic (GRP) is mostly used to build the hull and deck. This material is characterised by its high load-bearing capacity and excellent corrosion behaviour, i.e. a sailing boat made of GRP is better protected from the effects of weather and salt water than a sailing boat made of wood or steel.


Length can also play a role in the classification of different sailing boat types. The European Parliament has defined the exact lengths. A sailing boat is therefore between 2.5 and 24 metres long. Above a boat length of 24 metres, one speaks of a sailing yacht.

So how do I find the right type of sailing boat for me?

There are many factors that influence the answer to this question. However, when choosing the type of sailing boat, you should pay particular attention to two specific points.

  1. What budget is available?

  2. How will the sailing boat be used?

From experience, it can be said that both points cannot be considered without the other. But dreams can grow just like budgets. If you start out with a used sailing boat or charter one, you have the opportunity to save some money over the years and just update the boat with newer technology.

Adapt the type of sailing boat to your own needs

The needs of sailors are infinitely varied. Sailing boats can be used in different places at different times in all kinds of ways. Before buying a sailboat, you should therefore take a close look at your own needs. In order to be able to optimally determine the type of sailboat, three decisive questions help:

Q: Where will the sailing boat be used?

A: Offshore, coastal or inland areas

Q: How should the sailing boat be driven?

A: Sporty or leisurely

Q: With how many people do you want to use the sailing boat?

A: Alone, with a partner or the whole family

If you want to buy a new or used sailing boat or even a yacht, always be aware of the purpose the vessel will serve. This includes questions about your preferred cruising area, your sailing style and your crew size. For enthusiastic sailors who want to live on their sailing boat themselves, the question of space naturally plays a very important role.

Those who want to sail around the world’s oceans need a type of sailing boat that is up to the challenge, and sporty weekend sailors on Lake Garda probably have more demands on transportability, lightness and speed. One thing is certain, there is something for everyone on the sailing boat market, you just have to define your favourite sailing boat precisely.

Ultimately, of course, everyone can learn to sail on their dream sailing boat and does not necessarily have to start on a sailing dinghy.

AyeAye® is the boat system for every sailing boat.