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Sailboat: Types, definitions and terms

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To properly define a sailboat, you need to take a look at the hull, the attachments and the rigging.

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, medium-sized cruising ships, such as a Hanseatic 455, racing racing yachts such as the Melges 40 or gigantic luxury yachts such as A, which is currently the largest sailing yacht in the world with a length of almost 140 metres. In the case of the length of sailboats, the one beside with, one differentiates between length over all (Lüa) and land of the waterline (LWL), whereby these two values can be very different particularly with older ships. But how can the many types of sailboats be divided and distinguished from each other? For beginners, this all sounds complicated, but with a little practice and the help of our guide, this task should not be difficult.

What does a sailboat define?

A rule of thumb: For the definition and categorization of sailboats it is crucial what floats in the water, what hangs under the water and what rises above the water into the sky. In detail:


This is the part that floats in the water. It depends primarily on the number of hulls, because sailing boats can have one, two or three hulls.


What hangs under the hull. 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.


What rises into the sky. A distinction is made between the configuration of the sails (e.g. slup, cutter) and the number of masts.
At this point an important note: Small, light and sporty boats, which 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 may have one, two or three hulls made of either glass fibre reinforced plastic (GRP), wood, aluminium or steel. A distinction is made between
  • monohull
  • Catamaran (two hulls)
  • Trimaran (three hulls)

Monohulls (also called monohulls)

are more traditional and therefore most common. Larger boats have a keel with ballast, which provides 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 rather get stability through their much larger width. They also have less frictional resistance due to the narrow hulls, which means that they can also claim performance advantages on certain courses.

The Appendices

In order to prevent lateral drift caused by the wind, each boat needs an attachment under the hull that gives the boat stability and the buoyancy force that a sailboat can effectively propel forward. Simply put, it is the force of the wind acting on the sail and the lateral resistance created by the sword or keel pushed forward like a cherry stone pressed between the fingers until it floods out. The appendages are distinguished as follows
the keel, a vertical fin, under the boat, which also contains ballast The sword, which consists of a flat profile and is caught up and lowered in a sword box.
Different types of keels
In addition to creating lateral resistance, a keel carries a great deal of weight at the lowest possible point, which causes a sailboat to straighten up when it is put on its side (heeled) by the force of the wind. This phenomenon can be compared in the broadest sense with the lead in the belly of a stand-up man. Well constructed keelboats with a large uprighting moment are considered to be capsize impossible because the ballast still upsets them when they heel 90 degrees or more. The disadvantage is that they always have to carry a lot of weight and sink in the event of catastrophic water ingress. Even though keels have been known for centuries, they have developed greatly, especially in the recent past, as a result of technological progress:
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 high tracking accuracy when sailing straight ahead and good protection in collisions with flotsam. The disadvantage is the large area in the water, which creates more frictional resistance and slows the boat down.
Fin keel:
Modern and light built sailing yachts are equipped with fin keels, which go much deeper than long keels but are therefore also much shorter, which gives two advantages at the same time: Better manoeuvrability 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 uprighting momentum without too much extra weight. Originally such keels were used in the America's Cup, but cruising yachts can also benefit because they produce a better righting moment with less draught and because boats with less draught can also sail in shallower waters. On T keels, a long lead ballast bomb sits at the bottom of a very slender keel fin. The aim is to keep the weight as low as possible in order to increase the keel lever, i.e. the righting moment, without unnecessarily increasing the draught. With a larger lever, a keel can also manage with less weight, which benefits a regatta yacht in space sheet and downwind courses through more speed.
A somewhat rarer form, but infinitely practical in areas with a large tidal range or in the mudflats, where yachts like to dry out even when the water has run out. Boats with bilge keels then stand upright at the bottom, whereas boats with normal keels lie on their side. The disadvantage: Very much wetted surface (thus friction) and less effective against lateral drift.
Swing keel/stroke keel:
Variable draught is interesting for many sailors, because not only shallower harbours or bays can be reached with it, but also because the necessity of a crane is eliminated, with which one would otherwise have to lift the boat from the trailer into the water and out again. The keel is caught at a pivot point similar to a large centreboard until it almost disappears into the hull, while the keels are raised or lowered vertically, either by means of hydraulics on larger boats or mechanically with a boom and a manual winch, as is usual on smaller and sportier boats.
Since the mid-1990s, tilting keels have been used on racing yachts that can be tilted to windward almost to the horizontal with a hydraulic mechanism in order to increase the uprighting moment. The advantage: The ballast does not have to be as heavy as with conventional, rigid keels, which means that the boat is lighter and faster. However, yachts equipped in this way also have to carry swords that counteract drift.
Keel sword:
As the name suggests, this is a hybrid between the two appendages. Strictly speaking it is a combination of a retractable sword and ballast, which is carried deep in the hull or even on a small keel stump, whereby a retractable sword is also used.
Different types of swords
Boats with swords are considerably lighter than keel yachts and have the advantage that the sword can be completely folded in or raised, so that they can hardly have more draught and can sail into very shallow water. A second advantage is the road transport on a small trailer, which can be towed by a car and the watering and lipping up at the ramp, which saves crane fees. Sword-boats get their stability from the weight shift of the crew to windward, either by hanging overboard (riding out) or by the so-called trapeze, which allows the crew to stand quasi outboard. This also means that boats with swords are very athletic to sail and can capsize. As with the keels there are also differently constructed swords, of which we list the most important ones here:
Such swords are attached to a bolt in the bottom of the ship and are raised or lowered by means of a line and a system of deflection blocks. This type of heavy-duty installation is relatively complex and can often be found on older constructions.
Putting sword:
This thing is even easier on small and sporty boats like dinghies or beach catamarans, on which flat, profiled swords are simply put into the sword box from above, and are also lifted up again when lifted up.
Foiling swords:
For some years now, light and fast boats have been able to "fly" thanks to special swords made of carbon fibre and shaped like an L or J. The swords can be lifted up from the top and lifted up. This means that the hull is completely lifted out of the water during acceleration due to the special shape of these sabers, which drastically reduces the braking friction resistance and enables breakneck speeds of 60 km/h or more. This type of sailing is called "foiling" and is used by Moth Dingis, for example, or by extremely fast catamarans in the America's Cup or other international regatta series.

Rig and sail configuration

The number of masts and the position on deck and the resulting combination of the different types of sails are a further characteristic that distinguishes sailing boats from each other. Below we list the most common rig types that are relevant for recreational craft. But first, a short word about the individual sails that occur:
Mainsail: Always driven behind the mast. Headsail: Set in front of the mast. A distinction is made between the jib, a small to medium sail and a genoa, a large foresail that reaches up the entire mast and is usually used in light winds. Space sheet and downwind sails such as spinnaker, gennaker or code zero, which are set space sheets (transverse to the wind direction) or on aft courses (with the wind).
A note: Modern boats and yachts have a so-called high or bermuda rigging, i.e. the mainsail and foresail are triangular in shape. 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.
This is the most common type of sailboat, which has only one mast, but two sails, fore and main. More modern slups have different types of fore sails that are attached to the top of the mast top or a bit below. Larger foresails such as gennaker and code zero are often attached to a bowsprit, a "nose" that protrudes forward from the bow because they can have more sail area.
This type looks a lot like a slup, but the mast often stands a little bit further back on deck to make room for two headsails, which are attached separately on deck one behind the other. The larger one (jib or genoa) in front on the forestay, the smaller one (staysail) aft on the cutterstay. This rig configuration is very popular on cruise ships because the crew is very flexible and the sail area can be easily adjusted to the prevailing conditions.
Now we are with the two masters. A ketch has a main mast at the front and a shorter aft mizzen. The advantage of this configuration is similar to that of the cutter: it is easier to adjust the sail area to the conditions. Small, fine detail: the mizzen stands in front of the rudder during the ketch.
Looks like a ketch to be confused with, with long head and short mizzen mast, but the latter, unlike the ketch, stands behind the rudder, which also means that the mizzen sail of a Yawl is usually smaller than that of a ketch.
This is pure tradition, many famous yachts with several masts, such as America, the ship after which the America's Cup is named, carry this kind of rigg. 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 mast, is shorter than the mizzen mast(s). Many of the old schooners are still equipped with a traditional gaff rig.
Anyone who has ever seen or sailed a laser dinghy knows about this super-simple riggart, which only has a mast and a mainsail. The mast is positioned far in front of the ship. The advantage: It's simple, it's cheap. The disadvantage: little variance when adjusting the sail area.

Use of sailboats

Man has been sailing since time immemorial. Until the emergence of steam and internal combustion engines in the late 19th century, it was the only way to move efficiently along the water over greater distances and also carry payloads. The Egyptians were probably the first to equip their reed canoes with woven cloth in order to sail up the Nile against the north wind. Later, sailing ships became the instrument of globalisation, 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.
With the spread of internal combustion engines, however, sailing ships lost all commercial significance, so that today they are only used for leisure activities, such as chartering or cruising, weekend or day cruises. The pleasure of being on duty is also tempting, especially when you can go on board directly from the office and be on the move within a few minutes.
A popular area of recreational sailing is competition in regattas held on boats of all kinds, from the small children's dinghy Optimist to high-tech racing yachts or even mega yachts. Sailing is done on courses that lead around designed buoys close to the shore, or also cross oceans, or go around the world, sometimes even without a stop. The size of the crew varies greatly, from single-handed sailors on their way alone to professional crews, which can include a dozen or more sailors.
Cruise sailing is perhaps the most popular type of sport, which can be personalised to suit your mood, age, ability and financial means on a wide range of waters. The sailing area (ocean, lake, coastal waters) determines the type of boat used.

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