Types of Sails: Explained

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While all sailboats rely on wind, the types of sails used can vary greatly based on weather and craft type!

The reason for all the different types of sails is important to understand. Depending on the time of day and location of the water body, you might experience varying weather conditions. The sail acts like a motor, propelling your sailboat forward. The performance depends heavily on wind conditions. Different sails work to navigate weather conditions to maximize your performance.

In this article, we’re going to look at the most common types of sails found on sailboats.

  • A mainsail is the most commonly-used sail.
  • The gennaker is a cross between the genoas and spinnakers.
  • A popular sail used in sailboats is the headsail/jib.

It’s important to know that various sails pose different dangers when it comes to strong winds, which is why knowing which to avoid or use is extremely helpful. Here we discuss the different types of sails and when to use them.


Types of Sails

Let’s look at the most common types of sails here.

1. Mainsail

Most sailboats have a mainsail. It’s the most commonly seen sail on boats and the first thing you think of when you think of sails. The mainsail is attached to the mast behind the boom, so it’s easy to keep an eye on since it occupies a lot of space.

Regarding incoming winds, mainsails have a large surface area, mainly due to how they are mounted on the boom.

Due to their large surface area, they do not require powerful winds to propel a sailboat forward. As the mainsail position is easily adjustable using the boom, you can reach all points of sail. 

2. Spinnaker

Due to the large dimensions and vivid colors of spinnakers, they are considered one of the most whimsical sails you can use. The sails are also often balanced, making them more suitable for reaching various points, including the sail’s running point.

Sails of this type are lighter, unlike genoa sails attached to the mast (see below). The spinnaker is not attached to the forestay, but stretches past the boat’s bow.

A spinnaker’s broad surface makes choosing the right conditions for use even more critical. When the wind is too strong, you and your passengers can be seriously injured by deploying this sail. This is why you should only deploy a spinnaker in calm conditions such as low winds.

3. Genoa

Genoa (sail). Source: Wikipedia.

A genoa is a sailboat with a genoa sail attached. The genoa sail is similar to a headsail, with large jibs mounted on the forestay. Compared to a normal headsail, a larger genoa sail partly or completely covers the main sail behind the mast. 

A genoa sail is used when there is light to moderate wind or when your sailboat is mostly in dead run sailing (with the wind blowing directly behind).

A genoa sail with such a large surface area is best in low-wind conditions. If you don’t, you’ll be moving very fast, which can lead to a potentially dangerous situation if you’re not careful.

4. Gennaker

Gennaker Sail. Source: Wikipedia.

Since 1990, gennaker sails have been a more recent sail type on sailboats. Gennakers are sails that resemble both genoas and spinnakers. They are larger than genoas but have a different shape from a spinnaker, unlike genoas and headsails, which are attached to the forestay.

To take advantage of lighter winds, sailors invented the gennaker without resorting to a spinnaker if the wind was strong. Overall, regarding a sail’s performance, a gennaker sail bridges the gap between genoas and spinnakers by taking advantage of relatively softer winds while allowing a greater range of motion.

5. Headsail/Jib

Jib Sail Source: Wikipedia.

Headsails, or the jib, are second in popularity among sailboat sails. In most cases, it goes with the mainsail, the most common type. 

Generally, the headsail hangs over the boat’s bow on a sailboat. The sizing is often smaller than the mainsail.

You can especially benefit from a smaller headsail when a strong wind blows. As a result, you won’t want to use the main sail (or trim it heavily) to move more slowly and avoid being thrown around. The smaller the sail, the less wind it catches, so it doesn’t propel your boat as effectively as a larger one.

It is extremely important to have a good headsail, regardless of how wild or unpredictable the seas are.

6. Drifter Reacher

A drifter is a sail designed for light wind conditions, and they are larger genoas that can only be used in light weather conditions. Compared to a genoa, it has a larger sail area that increases performance downwind. It is primarily made up of nylon, which is a synthetic fiber.

7. Code Zero

Racing fans love these sails. Code zero sails have large genoas that overlap the mast heavily. The gennaker is roughly 200% larger than a regular jib and resembles a spinnaker and a gennaker combined. This sail is flatter than most. The design does not resemble a balloon, so it allows for better close-reaching, which makes it faster and easier to maneuver.

Common Types of Sailboats


A sloop is a classic sailing vessel with a single mast and two sails. A headsail may be a variety of jibs attached to the mast forestay and extends to the mast cap.


A sailing boat with multiple masts with several sails. Schooners have tall aft masts and can have as many as six masts.


The boat is easy to cruise with due to the cutters and two forestays capable of storing two headsails and varied sail points for varying wind conditions.

Fractional Rig Sloop

Fractional riggers sail sloops differently because their forestays don’t reach the mast top. The sailboat’s headsail occupies a fraction of the sail area, so less wind is captured, so the sailboat moves slower.


A ketch has a mast similar to a sloop, so its mainsail and headsail can reach up to the forestay. There is also a smaller mast positioned right between the stern of the boat and the mainmast. 

Cats have one mast and one sail, similar to dinghies. You can find the sailboat mast at the bow.


Sails are essential to the performance of your sailboat. Using the correct one for the water and weather conditions is important for success out on the water! You can become a more competent and knowledgeable sailor by understanding the common types of sails and mast configurations. 

After reading this article, we hope you will feel more comfortable in your sea skills. The danger levels associated with different sails also vary according to the strength of the wind, making it essential that you know what to look out for.