Sailboat types explained

1st December 2021 Elena Manighetti

Sailboat types explained

With so many sailboat types out there, it’s hard for newbies to recognise and memorise all their names and specifications. In this article, we are going to look at the most common modern sailboat types you’ll likely see out on the water. We will also talk about their uses and characteristics, which will help you figure out which type of boat to start learning on.

First, we need to make a distinction, which applies to any type of sailboat. Based on the number of hulls they have, sailing vessels can be:

  • Monohulls (one hull)

  • Catamarans (two hulls)

  • Trimarans (three hulls).

Most sailboats are monohulls. However, cruising catamarans are experiencing a rise in popularity, thanks to their stability, performance, and spaciousness. Trimarans are less common. Monohulls have a deeper keel and heel - they tip to one side or the other because of the force of the wind and waves. Multihulls have a shallower draft and don’t heel or roll as much.

Now let’s delve into sailboat classifications, which can apply to any of these three categories.

Sailing dinghy

These are the smallest type of sailboats you can find - they’re usually under 15 feet (4.5m) in length. They can accommodate a maximum of one or two people. On a sailing dinghy, you sit very low on the water, so you are bound to get wet. 

Dinghies are often used to teach people to sail because the small size and high maneuverability allow you to quickly get a grasp of how the sails work in relation to the wind. Expect to fall overboard often the first time you have a go. Sailing a little dinghy can be a lot of fun.

Athletes also use high-tech dinghies, which can sail at incredible speeds, to race in competitions at all levels. Dinghy racers compete in the Olympics every four years.

Daysailer

Daysailers (also known as dayboats or day cruisers) are slightly bigger than dinghies - between 14ft (4.3m) and 30ft (9.1m). They don’t have sleeping accommodation but feature a cuddy or small cabin where to store gear or cook something to eat. Most daysailers can fit a small outboard, which can be handy to get out of trouble.

Daysailers are usually trailerable and make for an excellent first boat for new sailors who have already taken a dinghy sailing course. While they aren’t usually used in races, sailors often organise non-official friendly competitions locally.

Cruising sailboats

There isn’t an official size range for cruising sailboats. They can be as small as 25ft (7.6m) in length or as big as 80ft (24.4m) in length. Larger vessels tend to fall into the superyacht category. These are crewed professionally.

What defines a cruiser is the presence of a cabin designed for extended cruising. Onboard, you’ll find a galley (kitchen), head (bathroom), and berths (beds). While performance is still important, cruising boat designs focus a lot on comfort. The crew needs to be able to eat and sleep comfortably in order to sail well.

If you’d like to go on longer sailing trips, this is the kind of boat you’ll need to be able to handle. You can learn the basics on a sailing dinghy, step up to daysailer, and then apply the same knowledge to a cruiser. Bear in mind that these vessels are a lot heavier. Some cruising sailboats can cross oceans and take you around the world. We wrote a whole article talking about bluewater sailboats here.

Racing sailing boat

Racing sailboats are generally anywhere from 20ft (6.1m) to 70ft (21.3m) long. They are lightweight vessels with little to no onboard comforts. Every piece of equipment is carefully selected to offer the best possible performance. Racing boats often have fin keels and laminate sails. Smaller racing yachts can fit one to three people on board, while bigger offshore racers are handled by big teams of athletes. If you want to learn how to sail well and make the most of the wind, crewing on a racing sailboat is a great way to do it. 

Most sailing clubs organise local races in which their members can participate for fun, but yacht racing is a popular sport at various levels. The greatest sailing race is the Vendée Globe, which takes place every four years and entails sailing around the world, solo, non-stop, and unassisted.

Cruiser-racer

A cross between a cruising and a racing sailboat, a cruiser-racer merges comfort and speed. The result is a lightweight sailboat with decent amenities. Cruiser-racers are a compromise for sailors who want to travel far and fast. Being lightweight, they aren’t as stable and comfortable as many cruisers. However, they can reach much higher speeds, taking you to your destination sooner.

If this is your dream boat, you’ll need to master sailing a racer first, so you can make the most out of the boat’s performance to enjoy her comforts. 

Motorsailer

Motorsailers are sailing boats powered by inboard engines, which can cover long distances under sail or engine. They feature bigger inboards than cruising boats, so they can keep up the speed even when the wind drops. However, the rig of a motorsailer is smaller. This, together with the added weight of a bigger engine, leads to a poorer sailing performance.

Motorsailers offer the security of being able to make progress in almost any wind conditions. To prepare for sailing one, you can learn how to sail a daysailer.

Whatever sailboat you aim to own or crew on, it’s best to try out the sport on a sailing dinghy first. There are short courses that will teach you the basics and give you a test for the experience. Even if you end up buying a motorsailer, you need to enjoy sailing to a certain degree. Otherwise, you’re better off choosing a powerboat instead.


Download the Deckee app from the App Store or Google Play today to plan your next sailing trip. You’ll have access to our detailed map, accurate weather forecasting, warnings from your local marine safety authorities, and more.

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