A sailboat consists of hundreds of parts, each with its specific term and function. From stern to bow, keel to mast, each part and its equipment plays a vital role in making the vessel seaworthy and able to sail.
In this guide, I’ll show you most of the components so you can better understand what they are and their function. We’ll begin with the main components, move to the basic features, and finish with our interior and equipment.
The main parts of a sailboat
The main parts of a sailboat are the key components that make it a vessel able to sail. You’ll notice that the structure has several distinct differences from powerboats.
We can categorize the main parts into the following:
- Hull: The main structure, or “body” part of a boat.
- Keel: The heavy fin at the bottom allows stability under sail.
- Rudder: The fin sticking down at the stern, allowing us to steer the vessel.
- Mast: The “spars” or “poles” holding the sails.
- Rigging: The standing rig is the wires that supports the mast. The running rigging is all the lines that control the sails.
- Boom: The horizontal spar supporting the bottom of the mainsail.
- Sails: The canvas used to harness the energy of the wind.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into each of the components.
Hull – The main structure
A sailboat’s hull is the vessel’s main body or structure. The shape is vital to the boat’s performance and stability, and you have probably seen boats in many different forms. Older vessels are typically narrow, with a rounded underbody and a small stern. Modern designs have a flatter belly and broad stern supporting dual helm stations.
One of the hull’s primary functions is to displace water and provide buoyancy to keep the boat afloat. The hull is also the structure that holds the vessel’s living compartments and all its equipment. The main structure must be strong enough to withstand the forces of the water and any rough weather conditions that Mother Nature might throw at it.
Fiberglass (GRP), steel, aluminum, and wood are the most commonly used hull materials, each with pros and cons.
You can learn more about hull materials and their strengths in this article.
A monohull is a type of sailboat that has a single hull. Monohulls are classified into two categories based on weight and shape: planing and displacement hulls.
Sailboats with more than one hull are called multihulls. There are two types of multihulls: catamarans, which have two, and trimarans, which have three. These boats are typically designed with planing hulls.
Keel – The fin under the boat
The keel of a sailboat is a structural fin that extends downward from the bottom of the hull. There are several types of keels, each with unique characteristics and advantages. They all serve the same fundamental purpose of stabilizing the boat when we sail by adding lateral resistance in the water and weight at the vessel’s bottom.
Standard keel designs include:
- Fin Keel
- Bulb Keel
- Long Keel
- Wing Keel
- Bilge Keel
- Lifting Keel
Some sailboats have a retractable centerboard functioning as their keel, allowing them to take the boat into shallower areas.
Rudder – To steer the boat
The rudder is a flat surface that sits perpendicular to the waterline. It is connected to the boat by a pivot point, allowing it to swivel left and right. When the steering wheel or tiller is turned, the rudder moves, creating drag in the water causing the boat to turn. The size and shape of the rudder can vary depending on the size and type of boat.
The most commonly seen rudder designs:
- Full skeg-supported
- Semi skeg-supported
Skeg-supported rudders are structurally one of the most reliable and robust constructions, but they are less efficient than a balanced rudder performance-wise. Balanced rudders pivot around their vertical center, giving less drag in the water and higher maneuverability at the cost of being a more vulnerable construction.
Twin rudders are often seen on modern performance sailboats with a wide stern. When the sailboat heel over, the leeward rudder gets better track through the water than a single rudder placed at the vessel’s center line. Contrary to some misconceptions, they can’t be controlled individually, even if the boat has two steering wheels.
Mast and Rigging – Supporting the sails
The mast is the long vertical spar that extends upward from the deck of a sailboat and holds the sails. It is the tallest part of the boat and is typically made of wood, aluminum, or carbon fiber. The mast is held in place by stays and shrouds, which form the sailboat’s standing rigging.
Depending on the rig the boat is manufactured with, there are several different types of masts. For example, a sloop-rigged sailboat will have only one main mast, while a ketch-rigged vessel will have a smaller additional mizzen mast placed further aft from the main mast.
There are two types of rigging:
- The Standing rigging consists of the stays and shrouds that keep the mast or masts in place.
- The Running rigging is the lines we use to hoist, lower, and control the sails.
Pro Tip: “Spar” is a general term for a pole made of a solid material like wood, metal, or composite and is used to support a boat’s sail. The mast, boom, spreaders, and poles are defined as spars.
Boom – Supporting the mainsail
The boom is a horizontal beam extending from the mast and supporting the mainsail’s tack and clew (bottom two corners). It is attached to the mast by a hinge called a Gooseneck.
We use the boom to control the shape and angle of the mainsail to optimize its efficiency and power. Some booms also have a Vang or Rod-Kicker installed to assist in trimming the mainsail.
Sails – The canvas used to harness the energy of the wind
Most vessels have at least two sails, depending on the rig type and boat setup.
The Mainsail flies behind the mast, on top of the boom. Although it may not always be the largest sail on the vessel, we commonly refer to it as “the main.”
Different types of sails are used for various sail plans and situations, and you can learn more about them in this guide.
Now that we had a look at the main parts of the boat, let us dive deeper and look at the rest of the vessel.
The starboard and port side of the boat
Learning about the boat’s components is very important, but we must also know how to orient ourselves on the vessel. Using the words “left and right” on onboard often leads to confusion.
If you refer to something on the left side of the boat, the person facing you will be confused. He won’t know if you are referring to his or your left. This is where the terms “Port” and “Starboard” make better sense.
When facing the front of the boat or the bow, your left side of the boat is the port side, and the right-hand side is the starboard. If you turn around and face the back of the boat or the stern, your right-hand side will be the port side.
- A red light identifies the port side of a vessel.
- A green light identifies the starboard side of a vessel.
Windward and Leeward
- The windward side of the boat is the side facing the wind. If the wind comes from your right-hand side while facing forward, the starboard side is windward. This will be the boat’s high side as the wind heels the boat over.
- The leeward side of the boat is the side opposite to the wind. This will be the lower side of the ship while sailing as the wind heels the boat over.
Windward and leeward are two of the most important aspects to understand when sailing and navigating. Not only to identify equipment and gear on each side of the boat but to avoid collisions when sailing close to other vessels. There are rules on the water dictating which boat is “Stand On” and which has to “Give Way” depending on whether you are the windward or the leeward vessel in the situation.
Read this article to access a free course on navigation rules.
Basic parts of a sailboat
The boat’s bow is the front part, typically shaped like a “V” to cut through the waves. Larger vessels often have a locker for their anchor chain in this section, holding the anchor at the front.
The midship section is the center of the boat. Some refer to this part as amidships.
The stern is the rear or back part of the boat. It is also referred to as the aft. I’ve had French crew calling the stern the butt of the vessel, which is funny but also correct!
The beam is the widest part of the boat. Also referred to as the sides on the middle.
The transom is a flat surface across the stern of the boat.
The waterline is the part where the hull (body) of the boat meets the water. Many vessels have a painted stripe to mark the waterline, indicating how loaded the ship is. If you have too much stuff on board, the waterline goes underwater, and it is time to do some housekeeping!
The freeboard is the vertical part of the ship side between the water and the deck. When you see a blue boat like Ellidah, the freeboard is the blue part.
The deck is the “floor” of the boat when you are outside. You have probably heard the term “All hands on deck!” The front deck is the deck space in front of the mast. Side decks are the decks on the boat’s sides.
The mid-deck is between the cockpit and the mast. The aft deck is the deck behind the cockpit. Sailboats with aft cockpits often don’t have any aft decks, but some have a swimming platform instead.
The cockpit is the boat’s steering position and where you will find the helm.
The helm is the position the helmsman uses to steer the boat. Smaller sailboats often use a tiller to navigate, while most bigger yachts have one or two steering wheels.
Main parts below deck (inside the boat)
Let us look at the interior to highlight and learn about the parts we have below the deck.
The companionway is the “front door” of the boat. This is where the steps lead from the cockpit or deck down below. It is usually opened and closed using a hatch, two doors, or a plate.
The galley is the boat’s kitchen. This is where sailors prepare their delicious meals.
The saloon is basically the boat’s living room, usually where you find the settee and dinette. This is where delicious meals from the galley are served together with refreshing beverages in good company.
The settee is the sofa or couch in a boat. It is also used as a sea berth to sleep in when sailing.
The dinette is the area where you can sit down at a table and eat your dinner. It’s also perfect for consuming rum and a game of cards in good company.
A cabin is often used as a bedroom in a boat but is not necessarily where you sleep. Many boats have more than one cabin.
A berth is a place in the boat where you can sleep. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bed and can often include the sleeping space in the saloon. Sea-berth usually refers to a sleeping position where you are tucked well in and can sleep when the boat is heeling over and moving around.
The head is the toilet on a boat. If your skipper tells you to go and clean the head, getting out the shampoo won’t do you any good!
The navigation station is usually a chart table and a console with mysterious instruments like radios, switchboards, and complicated electronics. This is where adventures are planned and the skipper’s favorite seat onboard.
The bilge is a space in the bottom of the hull where water collects and sometimes a storage space for all sorts of things. It usually contains a bilge pump to pump out water that finds its way into the boat in various places.
A v-berth is a bed in the front cabin shaped like a V.
A bulkhead is a wall inside the boat, usually supporting the structure.
Hardware and Equipment
Sailboats come equipped with a variety of different hardware and equipment. While the specific items may vary from boat to boat, there are some essentials that nearly every sailboat has.
A winch is a metal drum that gives you a mechanical advantage and is used to control and tighten lines. These can be operated by turning a line around it and pulling manually or by a winch handle to get more force.
Most modern winches are so-called “self-tailing,” which means they lock the line on so you can winch the line without holding on to it. Some boats even have electrical winches operated by a button.
A cleat is a fitting used to fasten a rope. Most boats have at least 6 of these. One on each side on the bow, midship and stern. These are used to secure the boat to a mooring buoy or key. Many ships have more cleats than this for various lines and ropes, and they can be used for anything as they are strong points fitted to the hull.
The sprayhood is the boat’s windshield that protects the people in the cockpit from sea spray. Some vessels have a canvas sprayhood that can be folded down or removed. Others have solid sprayhoods, often called a hard dodger or a doghouse.
The bimini is the cockpit’s “roof.” It protects you from the elements and shelters you from spray, rain, and burning sun rays! A bimini can be made of canvas or hard material. A hard bimini can also be called a hardtop.
A dinghy is a little boat you use to get from the mothership to shore when you are at anchor, also called a tender or annex. It can be everything from a small inflatable rubber kayak to a RIB or even a solid boat.
An essential and valuable piece of kit as it is the daily driver for most cruisers. It is like the car of a land crab, used for all commuting on the water and hauling important stuff like beer, rum, and food onboard. Dinghies often have electric or petrol engines, which we call outboards.
Dinghies are also great to use for watersports, such as wakeboarding!
Like Captain Ron said in the movie, fenders are the rubber bumper things you hang off your boat to prevent it from scratching against something like the pontoon or another ship. It is conveniently also used to sit on or as a backrest while relaxing on deck.
A boat hook is a long stick with a hook at the end. Used to grab lines, items, and stuff that is too far to reach by hand, like cushions flying overboard. It is also convenient as a tool to push the boat away from another craft or the key. Most vessels have them on board.
The guard rail can be a flexible wire or a solid metal rail surrounding the boat to prevent us from falling overboard. Some also use a net as an addition for increased safety.
The pushpit is a metal guard rail around the stern of the boat. This is where the guard rail is secured on the stern: a common place to mount the BBQ, life raft, and the outboard for the dinghy.
The pulpit is the metal guardrail on the bow. This is where the guard rail is secured onto the bow.
The stanchions are the metal bars that keep the guard rail in place around the boat between the pushpit and the pulpit.
An arch is a typical structure made of stainless steel on the back of a boat and is often used to mount a variety of items like antennas, radars, solar panels, wind generators, etc. It is also convenient to use for lifting the dinghy and its outboard.
The ground tackle consists of several things:
- Your anchor
- Your anchor chain
- The link between the two
- The connection between the chain and your boat
It includes all equipment holding your boat to the ground. Larger boats sometimes have two anchors on the bow.
A windlass is a winch that hoists and lowers the anchor and chain. Most boats have one on the bow and some on the stern. These incredible things can be electrical or manual (some are both) and are essential to anchor your boat when not in a port or marina.
VHF stands for “Very High-Frequency Radio.” It broadcasts on the VHF network and allows you to communicate with others around you. Sadly, you won’t be able to tune in to your favorite radio show on these.
Still, they are essential for contacting other boats and port authorities. It is also the radio you will transmit an emergency mayday over in case of emergency. VHF radios sometimes require a license, depending on the country you are in.
A Chartplotter is a navigation computer that shows various information on a screen, like charts, routes, radar images, etc. It is another vital piece of equipment that helps you navigate and maneuver the boat.
I hope this guide has been helpful and not too overwhelming for you. We’ve covered many of the parts of a sailboat and its terms and functions, but this article only touches on the basics. If you want to keep learning about sailing, I have written several other guides to help you get started.
Now that you have a basic understanding of sailboats, it’s time to take the next step and dive into a sailboat’s standing rigging.