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The Most Popular Types Of Sails On A Sailboat

Types of sails

A sloop-rigged sailboat typically features a mainsail, a headsail, and an additional light-wind sail, such as a spinnaker or Gennaker. The mainsail is rigged aft of the mast, while the headsail is attached to the forestay. The two most commonly used headsails are the Genoa and Jib.

The sails are vital parts of a sailboat since you obviously couldn’t sail without them! There are many different sails depending on the type of sailboat and its rig configuration, and we’ll walk through them together in this article.

The different types of sails on a sailboat

We can divide the selection of sails on a sailboat into three categories:

  • Standard sails
  • Light-wind sails
  • Storm sails

Each category serves different purposes depending on the vessel’s rig configuration and the sail’s functionality. 

The standard sails

The standard sails usually form a sailboat’s basic sail plan and include:

These sails are the ones that are used most frequently on sloop, ketch, and cutter-rigged sailboats and are usually set up to be ready to use quickly.

Standard Sails

Headsails are often rolled up on a furler, while the main and mizzen sail are stored on the boom or furled into the mast. 

The halyards and sheets are kept within easy reach, making these sails the primary choice in most situations. Let’s dive further into each of them.


The mainsail is a triangular sail that 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.”

It is a vital sail, and keeping the sail shape trimmed properly on every point of sail is crucial for the stability and performance of the boat.


A Jib sail is a headsail that does not overlap the mainsail. It is typically between 100% and 115% of the foretriangle but can also be smaller. The foretriangle is the triangular area formed by the mast, deck, and forestay. The Jib is often used with a self-tacking system involving a sheet traveler in front of the mast.

This sail is often seen on newer boats with fractional rigs, which typically have a larger mainsail area than the headsail area. However, the Jib is versatile and also used in other configurations.

People often mix the terms Genoa and Jib. Many refer to any headsail as a Jib, which is incorrect. I personally prefer to use the correct terms to avoid confusion.


A Genoa sail resembles a large Jib but extends past the mast and overlaps the mainsail. Genoas are usually larger than 115% of the foretriangle, with sizes ranging from 120% to 150%. They are often used on vessels with masthead rigs and smaller mainsails but are also common on fractional rigs.


The Staysail is typically found on cutter rigs and is set on the inner forestay or cutter stay. It can be combined with other sails, such as a Jib, Genoa, or Yankee, or on its own in stronger winds.

The Staysail is also useful when sailing downwind, as it can be paired with a headsail and extended to opposite sides of the boat using a pole.


The Yankee sail resembles a Genoa and Jib but has a high-cut clew. This shape allows for improved airflow when used with another headsail. The Yankee is often used on cutter-rigged boats in combination with a staysail and is known for its versatility in different wind conditions. 

Mizzen Sail

A mizzen sail is similar to the mainsail, only smaller. It is set on the aft mast of a boat with multiple masts, such as a ketch rig. The mizzen sail is usually used to provide balance and stability to the vessel and provides additional power when sailing downwind.

Another handy usage is to fly the mizzen at anchor to keep the bow up against waves and swell.

Light-wind sails

The light-wind sails are large, made of thin nylon, and typically shaped like a half-balloon. They are a type of headsails that are great when the winds are too light to fill the standard headsail and are often used when sailing downwind.

The four most commonly used light-wind sails are:

  • The Spinnaker
  • The Gennaker
  • The Code Zero
  • The Parasailor
Light-wind sails

They all provide excellent forward propulsion on a sailboat but usually require some extra rigging to be set. 

Experienced cruisers love to use light-wind sails in nice weather, but they have a critical weakness to be aware of. These sails easily get overpowered when the wind increases, and I strongly advise being careful and observant of the wind conditions when flying them.

(Yes, I have managed to rip mine on one occasion due to getting overpowered, but that’s a different story…)

Let’s continue and take a closer look at each of the light wind sails.


A Spinnaker sail is a large, lightweight downwind sail used at deep angles between 120 and 180 degrees. It is symmetrical in shape with two clews and is often brightly colored. 

The Spinnaker is set by using a pole to extend the sail’s clew to the vessel’s side. Then, a sheet is attached to the other clew and led back to the stern of the boat. 


A Gennaker sail combines the characteristics of the Genoa and Spinnaker. It is made of nylon like the Spinnaker but is asymmetrical like a Genoa and rigged slightly differently. The tack is attached to the bow, and the clew has a sheet led aft to the cockpit. The Gennaker can be equipped with a snuffer to make it even easier to set up and take down.

It is popular among cruisers because it is simpler to use than a spinnaker and it doesn’t require a pole. The sail is effective at angles between 90 degrees and almost all the way down to 180 degrees, making it versatile for various light-wind conditions.


A Parasailor is similar to the Spinnaker in many aspects but has some distinct differences. It has a double-layer wing that inflates as the sail is filled with air, creating a batten-like effect pushing the leech out while providing lift to the bow. 

The wing also helps to prevent the rolling movements you get with a Spinnaker and the collapsing of the leech that can occur with a Gennaker at deep angles.

This makes the parasailor effective at sailing angles between 70 and 180 degrees dead downwind. Parasailors can be set like a Gennaker when reaching or with a pole like the Spinnaker for running downwind.

Code Zero

A Code Zero sail combines some elements of the Genoa and Gennaker. Unlike the Gennaker, the Code Zero has a different shape, allowing it to be used while sailing upwind.

Another benefit is that it can be used with a furler which makes it easy to roll in and out. However, it can’t replace the Gennaker or Spinnaker entirely, as it is not effective at sailing angles deeper than 120 degrees.

If you see a big yacht with three forestay’s, the forward one probably holds a code zero sail. A bow spirit allows the ability to fly additional light wind sails as well!

Storm Sails

The storm sails consist of a small Mainsail and Jib in heavy-duty materials designed for rough conditions. These sails enable us to maintain speed and stability in the boat in severe weather too strong for the standard sails.

Storm sails are often brightly colored, such as red, orange, or yellow, to make them more visible at sea.

The Most Popular Types Of Sails On A Sailboat

Storm Mainsail

A storm mainsail is used when the reefing setup doesn’t allow the standard mainsail area to be reduced enough to prevent overpowering. The sail can handle rough conditions and is excellent for maintaining stability.

Storm Jib

A storm Jib is used when the headsail has been furled to the point where it is no longer effective. It is especially useful for sailboats rigged with a Genoa, as the Genoa gets inefficient when heavily reefed. As the storm Jib is smaller than the standard headsail, it also lowers the center of gravity, making the vessel heel less and become more stable.

Explaining the terms for the parts of a sail

Let us talk some more about sails. The goal is to go sailing, right?

Identifying the different parts of the sails is crucial to understanding which lines go where.

Let’s zoom in on a sail and break down the terms:

Parts of a sail


The head is the top corner of the sail. Most mainsails have a headboard or plate where the halyard is connected, while headsails use a metal ring. A halyard is a line we use to raise and lower sails with.


The leech is the aft part of a sail, located between the clew and head. We use a combination of the outhaul, main sheet, and traveler to trim and adjust the leech on the mainsail.

The headsail’s leech is trimmed by adjusting sheet tension and angle according to the wind speed and direction. A traveler is a track with a movable car or pulley system for adjusting the position and angle of a sheet, and most sailboats have one main traveler for the mainsail and car tracks along the side decks for the headsail. 


The luff of a sail is the front part of the sail between the tack and head. On a mainsail, the luff runs vertically along the mast and along or close to the forestay on a headsail. Headsails are often equipped with luff foam to help maintain their shape when partially reefed on a furler.


Battens are slats or tubes inserted into pockets on the mainsail to help the sail maintain its shape and increase its lifespan. A traditional sail hoisted and lowered on the boom typically has horizontal battens. Vessels with in-mast furling can use vertical battens instead of horizontal ones. 

  • A fully battened Mainsail has the battens run through the entire sail length from the luff to the leech.
  • A standard battened main sail has the battens along the sail’s leech.


Telltales are small ropes, bands, or flags attached to a sail to give an indication of the airflow around the sail. They help us understand how the wind affects the sail and allow us to fine-tune the trim for optimal performance. Telltales are usually found on the mainsail’s leech and in the front of the headsail’s leech.


The clew of a sail is the lower aft corner and where the outhaul is connected on a mainsail. Headsails have sheets attached to their clew for controlling and trimming the shape and tension.


The tack is the lower, forward corner of a sail. On a traditional Mainsail, the tack is attached to the Gooseneck, a hinge in front of the boom attached to the mast.

With in-mast furling, the tack is connected to the furling mechanism. This mechanism is used to roll the sail into the mast.

The headsails tack is connected to a furler drum on the forestay on most sailboats. Vessels using traditional hank-on headsails connect the tack to a fixed point on the bow.


The foot of the mainsail is the bottom portion of the sail between the clew and the tack. It is trimmed using the outhaul, a line attached to the clew, and used to adjust the tension on the foot of the sail. Some mainsail are configured loose-footed, and others are attach-footed.

The foot of the headsail is trimmed by adjusting the tension and angle of the sheets, which are the lines used to control the headsail’s clew. We use cars, or pulleys, to adjust the angle of the sheets and thus the trim of the headsail.

Traditional and less commonly seen sails

We’ve now looked at the most commonly used sails and walked through the different parts of them. But what about the less common ones? The art of sailing has a rich history, with some unique sail designs that we rarely see today.

Read on if you want to peek into some traditional sails, or skip straight to popular sail and mast configurations here.

Square sails

Square sails are rectangular and usually set across a ship’s mast, mostly seen on traditional square-rigged sailing ships and Viking ships. These sails are efficient for downwind sailing and are hung from horizontal spars called yards. Though not as agile as modern fore-and-aft sails when sailing upwind, they were central to naval exploration for centuries. Today, they’re mainly seen on traditional vessels and tall ships, symbolizing maritime heritage.

If you’ve been to Martinique in the summer, you may also have noticed the round skiff sailboats the local fishermen traditionally used for fishing in the Atlantic Ocean with their distinctive big squared sails. Tour de Martinique des Yoles Rondes is a popular yearly event where the locals race and show off these beautiful old boats with colorful sails!

Gaff Sails

A gaff sail is a traditional four-sided sail held up by a horizontal spar called the “gaff.” They are used on classic gaff-rigged sailboats and allow for a larger sail area with a shorter mast. Gaff-rigged boats were traditionally popular and usually carried 25% more sail area than the equivalent Bermudan rig, making them fast on a downwind run. The Gaff rig could also carry a topsail between the gaff and the mast.

However, they don’t sail well to windward, and modern designs have shifted towards triangular sails for better upwind performance.

Jib-headed topsail

The Jib-headed topsail is a small triangular sail used on gaff rigs and is set between the gaff and the top of the mast.

Lug sails

A lug sail is an angled, four-sided sail that attaches at a point on its top side, making it hang tilted. The sail is simple to use and often found on smaller or older boats. There are different types, like standing, dipping, and balance lugs, each hanging differently around the mast.

The lug sail evolved from the square sail to improve how close the vessels could sail into the wind. Because of their upwind performance, fishermen used them widely in Europe from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.

Sprit sails

The spritsail, with its unique four-sided design, stands out thanks to a diagonal support called the “sprit.” It was traditionally popular in Thames sailing barges due to its ability to accommodate high-deck cargo. These days, it’s primarily found in smaller boats like the Optimist dinghy in a variant called “leg of mutton spritsail.”

The spritsail was also used in traditional wooden boats like the fearing version of the Oselvar wooden boat traditionally used in western Norway.

It is also commonly used by the indigenous Guna Yala tribes in Panama in their dugout Ulu’s up to this day. We saw plenty of them when we cruised along the coast, and some of them approached us to sell us their delicious catch of the day!

Lateen sails

A lateen sail is a triangular sail set on a long spar angled on the mast. It was originally popular in the Mediterranean and on Arab shows, and its design enhanced maneuverability and played a crucial role in historic sea exploration.

The lateen sail was used on lateen rigs, the predecessor to the Bermuda rig – one of today’s most commonly used rigs!

Which brings us to the following topic:

Popular sail and mast configurations 

There are many different rigs and sail configurations between sailing vessels. From the old-school square rigs to schooners, gaff rigs, and more. However, this article will focus on the three most popular rigs seen on modern sailboats:

  • The Bermuda Sloop Rig
  • The Cutter Rig
  • The Ketch Rig

The three rigs have similarities and differences between their sail and mast configurations. We’ll walk through each of them to understand how they utilize their different types of sail.

If you want to learn more about other rigs, take a look here.

Bermuda Sloop Rig

The Bermuda sloop rig is the most common rig on modern vessels. It is characterized by a single mast, a triangular mainsail, and a headsail. This rig is named after the Bermuda Islands, where it was developed in the 17th century. 

Bermuda Sloop Rig

Some of the key features of the Bermuda sloop rig:

  • The mast is typically tall and raked, which allows for a large sail area and excellent stability.
  • The mainsail is attached to the mast and boom. It is usually combined with a single headsail at the front of the boat, making it powerful and easy to sail.
  • The Sloop is usually equipped with a masthead or fractional rig and flies a Jib or Genoa as its primary headsail.

The Bermuda Sloop rig is known for its simplicity, is often used for racing and cruising, and is popular among sailors worldwide.

Cutter Rig

The cutter rig is very similar to the sloop rig. The significant difference is that it has a single mast and two headsails – a Staysail and a Yankee. The cutter rig is known for its versatility due to the multiple options in sail plans and the double headsail setup.

Some key aspects that separate the Cutter from the Sloop:

  • The rig is often more robust than its Sloop sister because of the additional cutter stay and running backstays.
  • The mast is located closer to the center of the boat.
  • The Cutter has a staysail on the inner forestay and a Yankee sail on the outer. The sails can be used in combination with each other or independently.
  • Tacking the headsail between the forestay and cutter stay is more involved than on a sloop.
  • The Cutter rig has two similar variations: the Slutter rig and the Solent rig.

Like the Sloop, the Cutter rig is relatively easy to operate. Still, the additional headsail and rigging make it costlier to maintain. It is also less suitable for racing than the Sloop, but the added versatility helps in different weather conditions and makes it an excellent choice for cruisers.

Ketch Rig

The ketch rig is also similar to the Sloop but has an additional mizzen mast placed further aft of the main mast. Another mast gives it the advantage of even higher versatility in sail plans. The ketch typically uses three sails. The mizzen sail, a mainsail, and a headsail. The mizzen mast also allows it to fly a second light-wind sail. 

Here are a few more distinctions of the ketch rig:

  • The ketch typically carries a smaller mainsail than a similarly sized sloop and a smaller mizzen sail.
  • A small mizzen and a medium mainsail are easier to handle than one large mainsail.
  • The additional mizzen sail makes the vessel easy to balance and gives extra stability downwind.
  • The ketch usually doesn’t point as close to the wind as the Sloop and Cutter.

The headsail setup on a ketch is generally the same as for the Sloop. But the ketch can also be rigged as a cutter ketch, which gives it the benefits of the cutter rig! The tradeoff with a cutter-rigged ketch is the higher complexity and additional rigging, hardware, and sails required.

Final words

Well done, you now have a good grasp of the most common sails and their strengths. We have discussed a few rigs and how they utilize different kinds of sails in various sail plans. Remember that more sail types, other rigs, and even more variations are available. It is a complex topic, but this guide covers the basics and gives you a great starting point.

If you still have questions, look below at the FAQ, or leave me a comment. I’m more than happy to help you out!

A sailboat is only as good as its sails, and sails need wind to work. The next logical step is learning how the wind works when we sail and practicing some wind awareness! Head to the following guide to continue your research: Learn The Difference Between True And Apparent Wind Speed.

FAQ: The Different Types of Sails On A Sailboat

What is the foretriangle on a sailboat?

The foretriangle on a sailboat refers to the triangular area formed between the mast, forestay, and deck. If you want to order a new headsail, for example, you’ll have to measure and supply the sailmaker with these details.

What is the difference between a loose-footed and attached-footed mainsail?

A loose-footed mainsail is attached to the boom only at its corners, leaving the rest of the sail’s bottom edge free. An attached-footed mainsail, on the other hand, is secured to the boom along its entire length. The main difference lies in how the bottom of the sail connects to the boom, with the loose-footed design offering more adjustability in the sail shape.

What is a high-cut clew on a sail?

A high-cut clew refers to the design of a foresail, such as a jib or genoa, where the back lower corner (the clew) is raised or “cut” higher above the deck compared to standard designs. This design allows for better visibility beneath the sail and makes it easier to sail over waves without the sail touching the water, which is especially beneficial for offshore or blue-water cruising. Very high-cut clews are commonly seen on yankee sails on cutter-rigged sailboats.

What is luff foam on a sail?

Luff foam is a padded strip sewn into the forward edge of roller furling sails. It ensures the sail is appropriately shaped when partially rolled up, especially in strong winds. This foam not only helps with sail performance but also protects the sail when it’s furled.

What are the most common sails?

The sloop rig sailboat is the most common and usually features a mainsail, a headsail, and an additional light-wind sail, such as a spinnaker or Gennaker.

What are the different types of sails?

There are several different types of sails, and we can divide the most common into three categories:

The standard sails:

  • Mainsail
  • Jib
  • Genoa
  • Staysail
  • Yankee
  • Mizzen sail

The light-wind sails

  • Spinnaker
  • Gennaker
  • Code Zero
  • Parasailor

The storm sails:

  • Storm mainsail
  • Storm jib 

What is a spinnaker sail?

A Spinnaker sail is a large, lightweight downwind sail used at deep angles between 120 and 180 degrees.

What is a Jib sail?

A Jib sail is a headsail that does not overlap the mainsail and is set on the forestay. The Jib can also be set up with a self-tacking system, making it very effective when sailing into the wind.

Is Genoa sail the same as a jib?

People often mix the terms Genoa and Jib. The Genoa is different from a Jib sail as it is larger and overlaps the mainsail, whereas the Jib is smaller and does not overlap the mainsail.

What is a Genoa sail?

A Genoa is a headsail larger than the Jib extending past the mast and overlapping the mainsail. The advantage over the Jib is the larger sail area, making it more effective when sailing off the wind.

How many types of sail plans are there?

Sail plans refer to the configuration and arrangement of sails on a boat or ship. While there are countless customizations and variations, the three most common sail plans are:

Sloop: Characterized by a single mast, a triangular mainsail, and a headsail.

Cutter: Similar to a sloop but has a single mast and carries two or more headsails.

Ketch: Features two masts, with the aft mast (called the mizzen) shorter than the main mast.

What is a Mainsail?

The mainsail is a triangular sail that flies behind the mast on top of the boom.

What is a Gennaker?

A gennaker is basically an asymmetrical spinnaker. A hybrid sail that combines the characteristics of a Genoa and a Spinnaker, designed for sailing off the wind and often used in light to moderate wind conditions.

What is a Storm Jib?

A storm jib is a small, heavy-duty sail used in strong winds or stormy conditions. It is commonly used when the headsail has been furled to the point where it is no longer effective.

What factors determine the type of sail to be used?

The type of sail to be used depends on various factors such as wind conditions, points of sail, sailboat size, and sailing experience. It’s smart to choose the appropriate sail for optimal performance. A Jib, for example, will be more effective than a Genoa while sailing to windward, and vice versa.

How do sails affect the performance of a sailboat?

Sails are the engine of a sailboat. Their design, size, and trim influence the boat’s speed, direction, and stability. Properly adjusted sails capture wind efficiently, allowing the boat to move faster and in the desired direction.

The balance and condition of the sails also impact comfort and safety, with well-maintained sails ensuring optimal performance. The sails are essential in determining how a sailboat performs in various wind conditions.

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