The Different Types of Sails On A Sailboat: An Easy Guide
If you’re interested in sailing but unsure about the various types of sails used on a sailboat, you’re in luck! The sails are vital parts of the vessel, and there are many different sail types to choose from. However, three of them are by far the most widely used.
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.
This guide will explain today’s most commonly seen sails and their different functions on modern sailing vessels. We’ll also take a quick look at the three most common rig configurations to understand why they use different sail plans.
By the end, you should have a solid understanding of the sails and their various functionalities!
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 of them serves different purposes depending on the vessel’s rig configuration and the sail’s functionality.
The standard sails
Standard sails are the ones that are used most frequently on a sailboat and are usually set up to be ready to go quickly.
These sails usually form the vessel’s basic sail plan and include the following:
- The Mainsail
- The Jib
- The Genoa
- The Staysail
- The Yankee
- The Mizzen sail
Headsails are often rolled up on a furler, while the mainsail is stored on the boom or furled in the mast.
The halyards and sheets are kept within easy reach, making these sails the primary choice in most situations. Let’s dive 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 an important 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 is a headsail that does not overlap the mainsail. It is typically between 100% and 115% of the foretriangle, but it 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. It is best to use the correct terminology to be precise and avoid confusion!
A Genoa sail looks like 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 is similar to 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.
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.
The light-wind sails are large, made of thin nylon, and typically shaped like a half-balloon. They 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
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 when flying them.
Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
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, as it does not require a pole. The sail is effective at angles between 90 degrees and almost all the way down to 180 degrees. A very versatile sail 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.
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, making 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.
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.
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 great for maintaining stability.
A storm Jib is used when the headsail has been furled to the point where it is no longer effective. 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 understand which lines go where.
Let’s zoom in on a sail and break down the terms.
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.
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. The luff typically runs along or close to the forestay on a headsail.
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 allows 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 is the lower aft corner of the sail 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.
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 have the tack connected 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.
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.
Popular sail and mast configurations
There are many different rigs and variations 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 some 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Well done, you now have a good grasp of the most common sails and their different 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.
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.
Delve deeper into the world of sailing! This guide is part of an exclusive series designed to equip you with the knowledge needed for your next sailing adventure.
Check out the others below:
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