Sailboats have held and air of mystique and romance ever since the early explores sailed the globe.
However, the early trade ships were somewhat restricted in their ability to sail into, or against, the wind. As a result, the ships that discovered the new world were slaves to the directions the trade winds were blowing.
Today, thanks to advances in hull design, sail orientation and mast placement, there are numerous sailboat designs that use multiple sail configurations that can travel around the world in any direction at any time of year.
Over the years the types of sailboats have been reduced to a few well-performing designs. These designs are divided into the two main classifications of one-masted boats and those with two or more masts with each mast being capable of supporting one or more sails.
The sloop is the most common type of sailboat and has just one mast, placed roughly at midship, with up to three headsails attached to the mast by guy lines. Boats with 2 masts or more are the ketch, yawl, brigantine, brig and the schooner, with the schooners having two, three, or in rare cases, four masts.
Many sailors like the ketch-rigged design for its off-shore performance, comfort and overall balance. This design has a main and mizzen sail, with the mainsail set in approximately the same position as on a sloop, The mizzen is a smaller mast sail set towards the rear of the boat.
The concept behind the two-sail setup on the ketch-rigged sailboat is that it provides two smaller sails that provide more overall sail area than the single sail design.
In theory the smaller sails are easier to work with in heavy off-shore winds, making the boat much easier to sail in storms. Because of the smaller and easier-to-handle sails, the design is a good choice for long distance short-handed sailing.
The mizzen sail also acts as sort of a “rudder” in helping to keep the boat sailing in the proper direction because of the downward force the mizzen applies to the rear of the boat.
Comfort is another strong selling point of this design. Whereas most sailboats are designed with the cockpit at the stern of the boat, this sailboat has a center cockpit design to allow for the placement of the mizzen sail aft.
Having the cockpit in the middle of the boat allows for more headroom below deck at the rear of the boat and a larger aft cabin. Additionally, unlike an aft cockpit that usually has the rear open to the ocean, a center cockpit is fully enclosed. This offers protection from the elements while at sea and makes for a much nicer sitting area.
The ketch-rigged sailboat is a time-proven rig that has made untold circumnavigations of the globe. For sailors who like the two-mast design, this sailboat is a hard choice to beat.
The yawl is also equipped with a main and a mizzen mast. However, a yawl typically has a smaller mizzen with the mast set aft of the rudder post.
There are as many arguments about whether the yawl is a practical off-shore design as there are species of fish in the ocean. While there are some that site the sail plan of the yawl as more aesthetic than functional, there are many long-time professional sailors who swear by the yawl design.
In theory, at least, the rear mast works as a rudder similarly to the ketch-rigged sailboat. The arguments typically start over the size and placement of the mizzen mast.
Some claim that placing the mizzen further back aids in helping to steer the boat. The other side of the argument is the reduced sail size makes it less efficient.
There is also the point that some sailors feel the mizzen being placed further back aids in heaving, or changing direction, and helps with steadying the boat at anchor.
Still, most sailors familiar with both the ketch and yawl say that the mizzen on the yawl is not a match for that of the ketch-rigged sailboat.
Brigantine and the Brig
Of similar, but not identical design, the brigantine and brig fall into the category of “clipper” or merchant ships.
Both are two-masted boats with the brigantine having square sails on the foremost mast and gaff sails on the mainmast. Here note that the smaller foremast is set forward of mast for the main sail.
Gaff sails are a four-cornered sail design attached to horizontal pole that hangs from the mast. Because of the smaller design, gaffs sails are more easily handled. In contrast, the brig uses square sails on both masts.
Both ships handle both coastal waters and ocean crossings as the square sails are well suited for sailing the trade wind routes.
A schooner is another boat with 2 masts, but can also have more. Like the brig and brigantine, a two-masted schooner has a foremast and an aft mast, the latter essentially being the mainmast.
The main characteristic of the schooner is the masts are almost the same size, with the foremost mast sometimes being slightly shorter. The schooner is equipped with gaff sails on all masts, making it better equipped to handle strong seas.
This makes the schooner very versatile and well suited to crossing the ocean on the trade-wind routes as well as sailing coastal waters with varying wind directions.
Because of the versatile design, many pleasure sailboats during the 19th century were schooner-rigged.
While a square topsail is the most common schooner sail plan, some have sprit rigged topsails that run diagonally across the mast. However, sprit rigging is inefficient in adverse weather as the sails are not easily lowered.
Conversely, sprit rigging excels in coastal waters where the sails can more readily catch the light winds that tend to blow higher up.
While a schooner is easy to sail, can handle various wind and water conditions and is probably the most magnificent sight on the sea under full sail, the draw back of the schooner is it is definitely not the fastest sailboat design.