Learning about how there were different types of sails on sailboats for me was a bit strange at first. I thought something along the lines of “Don’t you just need to put some fabric on some polls and grab the wind?” Obviously, there’s far more to it than that.
So what are the most popular types of sails on sailboats? The mainsail, headsail (or jib), genoa, spinnaker, and gennaker are the most popular types of sails on sailboats. There are also a number of different configurations when considering the type of sail and mast in use including a sloop, fractional rig sloop, cutter, ketch, schooner, yawl, and cat.
Simply put, different sails serve different purposes when out on the water. Since the sail is kind of like the “engine” of your sailboat (of course, sailboats can have actual engines) in terms of it being the main source of forward propulsion, it’s important to know when best to use either type of sail and why.
Types of Sails
There are a number of reasons why you’d want to use one sail over another, but the most important points to consider have to do with the point of sail your sailing in and the wind strength. With that in mind, let’s check out the different types of sails!
The mainsail is by far the most popular type of sail on sailboats and is often the first image that comes to mind when thinking about a sailboat. Mainsails are found behind the mast and attached to the boom, which makes it a common part of the sailboat to keep an eye on as it takes up a lot of real estate on a sailboat.
Mainsails are able to cover a lot of surface area with respect to incoming winds, especially since they’re attached to the boom. The fact that they have a large surface area means they don’t require very strong winds to provide good forward propulsion on a sailboat. Also, since the position of the mainsail can be easily configured thanks to the boom, all points of sail are achievable.
The headsail (or jib) is probably the second most popular type of sail on sailboats since it usually accompanies the mainsail. The headsail is always placed at the front of the mast and can cover a good amount of the bow of the sailboat. It’s also smaller than a mainsail, making it more portable and easy to work with.
Headsails aren’t as big as mainsails, therefore they have a smaller surface area which results in the fact that they’re not capable of catching as much wind as a mainsail. This is an important point though since if the current wind is exceptionally strong and your mainsail has been trimmed as much as possible, being able to put away your mainsail and depend on your headsail alone is an excellent strategy to reduce speed.
When the wind is just too strong to keep your mainsail out, putting it away and using only your headsail is a great option. You won’t be grabbing as much wind as with the mainsail and you’ll be able to have a much more enjoyable (and safer!) sailing experience.
One of the most picturesque sailing images one can conjure up is the one with a sailboat using a genoa sail (see the image above on the right). A genoa is a type of large jib that’s attached to the front of the forestay just like a headsail. One of the main differences with the genoa sail is that it’s bigger than the normal headsail and often times extends behind the mast partially or completely covering the mainsail. It actually used to be called an “overlapping jib”.
Using a genoa sail means you have light to medium winds and your sailboat is more or less in a dead run point of sail (wind coming directly from the rear). Since the surface area of a genoa sail is so large, it’s important only to use it when winds are relatively low. Otherwise, you’ll be moving exceptionally fast resulting in a potentially risky situation.
A spinnaker sail is a fun sail to use since it’s quite large, colorful, and can pick up a lot of wind. Unlike a genoa sail, they’re often symmetrical making them more sensitive to the reaching points of sail and thus more appropriate for the running point of sail. They’re also lighter and have a “kite” kind of feel to them.
The reason they resemble a “kite” is not only that they’re generally lighter and more colorful than other types of jibs, but also they don’t cover the mast like a genoa sail. Instead, they don’t attach to the forestay and stretch out toward and past the bow of a sailboat. Since they’re bigger than genoa sails, you want to be even more careful to only use them in relatively low and non-volatile wind environments.
A gennaker sail is a more recent type of sail on sailboats since they were developed around 1990. Gennakers are a cross between genoa and spinnaker sails (as the name might suggest), which are big like a spinnaker, aren’t as symmetric as a spinnaker, and aren’t attached to the forestay like a genoa sail or headsail.
The reason for the invention of the gennaker is because sailors wanted to take advantage of lighter winds without having to resort to using a spinnaker if the winds change from a pure dead run to more of a reaching point of sail. All in all, the gennaker sail is able to bridge the performance gap between a genoa and spinnaker sail in terms of being able to take on a more flexible point of sail while taking advantage of relatively softer winds.
Popular Sail and Mast Configurations
Now that you’re familiar with the most popular types of sails on a sailboat, it’s good to get an idea of how these types of sails relate to the configuration of a sailboat’s mast. There are a huge number of combinations when it comes to sails and mast configurations, so I thought I’d lay out the most popular ones you’ll likely run into out on the water.
A sloop is the most common type of sail and mast configuration for sailboats. The sloop is the classic single mast, double sail setup. The sails on a sloop consist of a mainsail and a headsail. The headsail can be different types of jibs, including the genoa, spinnaker, or gennaker sails. The headsail is connected to the forestay on the mast and runs all the way to the top of the mast.
Fractional Rig Sloop
Similar to a sloop, a fractional rig sloop has a single mast, double sail setup. The only difference, however, is that the forestay doesn’t reach the top of the mast, resulting in the headsail being restricted to a fractional amount of space a normal sloop would allow for. This reduction of surface area for the headsail means that less wind can be captured and, thus, reduced sailboat speed.
A cutter is an interesting setup since it’s just like the sloop and fractional rig sloop setup, but instead of one forestay it has two. With two forestays on the mast, cutters are able to house two headsails. This can be a preferred setup because it allows for easy cruising due to it offering a diverse combination of points of sail for different strengths of wind.
A ketch is a less common setup when compared to the previous setups since it has two masts. Just like a sloop, it has a mast that allows for a mainsail and headsail with a full range forestay, but it also has a smaller sized mast between the mainmast and the stern of the sailboat. This mast configuration was commonly used in Northern European freighter and fishing boats and is called the mizzen mast.
If you’ve ever seen Pirates of the Carribean, you’ll have seen almost nothing but schooners. A schooner is when a sailboat has two or more masts, similar to a ketch, while having a number of sails to manage. The main differences between a ketch and a schooner are that a schooner’s aft mast (the rear mast) is tall than the forward mast and a schooner can have up to six masts (two being the most common).
A yawl is almost identical to a ketch with the only difference being that the mizzen mast is located directly behind the sailboat’s rudder post. The mizzen sail is also much smaller than the mizzen sail on a ketch due to its position on the sailboat.
A cat has one mast and one sail with the mast being positioned at the bow of the sailboat. This mast configuration is most commonly found on smaller sailboats, especially dingy sailboats. These types of sailboats are colloquially called “catboats”.