The Anatomy of a Sailing Boat: How It’s Made and Why

You can’t expect to become a world-class skipper unless you start with the fundamentals.

In this case, it’s learning the design, structure and scientific exploits of your boat before you cast off from the dock.

It’s important to know your boat from the inside out for a variety of reasons, especially if you need to perform makeshift repairs in a jiffy.

You’re curious as to how it’s made and what makes it work, which is what we’ve laid out here.

From the historical origins of sailboats to modern manufacturing techniques, we’re going to cover everything as concisely as possible to give you a crash course in sailboat structure, and then some.

If you’d like to see a graphical breakdown of the anatomy of a sailing boat, we got you covered:

Anatomy Of A Sailing Boat

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The Parts of a Sailing Boat Explained

Sailing Boat Parts

There’s a lot of working parts that all play on hydrodynamics and toying with wind power, and each serve their own dire purpose in your sailboat.

We’ll also talk about different types of sailboats, and the variations in certain anatomical aspects that are present in them.

Sailboats were originally crafted out of animal skins, wood and bone, and originate to 4000 BCE and beyond (depending on what historical information you’re able to find).

They began in Egypt, branching to Scandinavia, Italy, Greece and beyond.

Nowadays, they’re primarily made out of dacron and fiberglass, and have very little physical labor that goes into them—it’s all factory-produced, and in some ways, that’s a good thing.

It’s cheaper than getting a wooden sailboat, lasts longer, but when repairs pop up, they can be a bit more expensive. It all depends on what endures damage, so let’s take a look at each individual aspect of your sailboat and see how they all work.


Boat Stems

The stem is built as an extension of the keel, which rests underneath your boat and helps fortify your ship’s strength when facing particularly tough or abrasive waves.

Your stem also helps cut down on drag while cruising through the water, and can be found on racing sailboats that are designed to circumnavigate the world.

While these were larger on old wooden ships, they’re still in practice today to maximize the speed and stability of your boat.


Rudder on a boat

The rudder works to change your direction while in the water, and can be found on just about any nautical or aerial vessel: planes, submarines, sailboats and more.

Even though the keel (which we’ll get into in a moment) helps with stability during steering, the rudder is how you steer in the first place.

This blade-like piece is attached to the read of the boat, and as it changes the direction, water pressure and force change with it.

This forces the stem to turn with the rudder, and before you know it your entire boat is moving in the direction you want.

If you’re on a large sailboat (generally over 30 ft long), you might still have steering wheel that turns the rudder, but in smaller boats you’ll have something else: a tiller.


Boat Tiller

Your tiller is a manually operated turning device for your rudder, found on smaller vessels and dinghies.

Larger boats use a steering wheel or additional steering mechanism to make the rudder turn, but the tiller allows you to sit at the rear of the boat and manually shift the direction of your voyage,

These are sometimes made of wood, but thanks to modern manufacturing, they are usually made of high-grade corrosion-resistant aluminum to prevent rusting from constantly being in the water.

It’s extremely rare to exert too much force and break or damage a tiller, but if your tiller does go out you’re going to have a very difficult time getting your boat to go where you want it to.


Sailing boat wooden deck

The deck of the ship is where you, the commander of this vessel, will be located.

The deck of a ship is strategically placed to allow gravity and force to evenly distribute among the boat, so that you aren’t putting too much weight on one side and raising the risk of capsizing.

Pressure, weight and gravity on the deck directly affect the buoyancy of your boat, which is why a lighter ship that travels with less people and cargo will move faster.


Sailing Boat full mast

Masts used to be made out of a ridiculous amount of wood, and in larger ships, they would have to use methods to build masts that took months since there were no trees that were as thick as they needed to make the mast properly.

You will find aluminum and wooden masts in modern manufactured sailboats.

If there’s one component of a sailboat that people universally know, it’s the mast. This is where you hang your sails, on the tall spar that juts up from the center of your boat.

Depending on the size of your vessel, you may have multiple spars (some smaller than the others) that host multiple sails.


Sailing boat sails

Mainsails used to be these large, square sheets that took an unbelievable amount of time to make.

They’re still not an easy thing to manufacture even with modern day methods, but they’re also more diverse than they’ve ever been. Today, you can get a mainsail in a variety of shapes and materials that were previously unavailable.

Mainsails get complicated, because you need to ensure that they cover exactly what you need for your sailboat, and they affect multiple areas. Your mainsail will affect:

The Keel

When your mainsail picks up wind towards the bottom of the back end, that wind power works with the keel to give you a bit of lift when sailing upwind.

When it isn’t working upwind, the full profile of the entire sail will help you when sailing downwind, which is what you want to strive for.

Moving upwind is moving against the wind, making it far more difficult to maintain a viable speed or travel long distances.

The Tiller

If you’re manually tilling your boat, you’re going to encounter times where it’s more difficult to get it to move in the direction that you want.

It won’t physically feel harder or offer more resistance when trying to use it, but when the mainsail is full, it will require a longer time spent tilling in order to turn where you want.

Your mainsail shape and material matters. Ideally, you want a mainsail with as little drag as possible (lightweight materials), which adds to maneuverability and make them easy to manage.

The wind power you achieve is going to add resistance to the maneuverability of the sail during peak performance, which is when you would batten down.


The battens of a sailing boat

Battens are going to come in a variety of sizes and lengths.

You will see the attachment of your batten in the roach of your mainsail, which will allow you to cast more wind into the top of your mainsail to increase speed and gain additional wind power.

The battens are the veins that keep the boat going, otherwise you would have an out of control sail. On modern sailboats, they are kept to a minimum as to not congest the deck and sails.

There are an average of six battens in most mid-sized sailboats, but it will depend on manufacturer and personal preference.

Different Keel Types

Different Keep Types On Sailing Boats

Your keel is essentially the underdog of your boat.

It’s not talked about often enough, but the keel rests in the water beneath your boat, and feels everything that happens on top deck.

These are used to manage the motion of your boat by essentially recycling sideways wind power, and using the sway of your boat to increase momentum and counteract those negative winds.

They come in a variety of different types, each aimed at different boat styles. The main issue with standard keels (also called daggerboards from time to time) is that they can create a small water vortex beneath your boat, which increases drag by a marginal amount.

This isn’t a large enough issue to lose sleep over, because the benefits of your keep are so necessary and well carried out anyway.

Your keel’s second job is to provide ballast, which in a nutshell provides better stability to your boat.

If you and your friends were loaded up with about 200 lbs of cargo (bags, drinks, a grill maybe, etc.), then you’re adding top weight to your boat.

It’s already sustaining a lot of pressure from the wind filling the sails, and the sideways wind trying to knock you over. Your keel balances everything out to prevent capsizing, and acts as a counterweight against excessive wind force that tries to pull your sails down towards the water.

Bilge Keel

A bilge keel is two evenly spaced, angled plates beneath the water that add to your speed capabilities.

Bilge keels are often seen as the most reliant when it comes to preventing capsizing and maintaining stability in the water.

These tend to be a couple of feet long, and usually don’t impede upon your ability to pull in between two docks, despite the fact that they stick out from the hull.

Full Length Keel

Keel Full Lenght

Most keels are fairly small, as we just discussed with the bilge keel.

A full length keel is designed to match most of the boat’s length, and provide a highly hydrodynamic solution for cutting down on water resistant and maximizing speed.

A full length keel is often the most expensive to repair, based on size and the associated materials alone. If your boat has a full sized keel, then it is likely working in tandem with the stem to provide a self-righting attribute to your sailboat.

Wing Keel

Smaller than a full length, a wing keel is just what you would expect—wings beneath the water in a small area which regulate water flow in a similar fashion to other keels.

The difference between wing keels and a full length is that wing keels don’t create a water vortex beneath your boat, which is why they are often revered by competitive sailors who race on a regular basis.

Wing keels are also excellent in counterbalancing weight from sideways wind, because when the boat tries to tip sideways, you have two additional plates that are pulling back down on the water to keep everything steady.

Wing keels are also ideal for competitive sailing when traveling upwind, which is usually not recommended, but a wing keel will help when it meets the waterline by providing a slightly softer dip back into the water, keeping the boat moving forward into the next wave.

The plates are usually angled at about twenty degrees to promote a better way to cut through the water.

Bulb Keel

Similar to the wing keel, this provides a blimp-like shape beneath the water that also does not create a water vortex.

Bulb keels have a lot of ballast, which is why they’re usually used in self-righting boat designs to help you return topside if you were to capsize.

The good thing is that bulb keels are generally pretty small and easy to repair or replace if you were to run into issues, and due to that small size, it’s unlikely that you’ll scrape against anything as you pass by shallow waters.

Types of Boat Hulls

types of hulls on boats

The boat hull is more than just where below deck resides, it’s where the buoyancy and hydrodynamics are.

Different hull types and shapes are used for different purposes.

Vee hull shapes are designed to plane on top of the water, whereas flat bottoms (commonly seen on cruise ships) are designed to cut through the water while using low power. There are three main hull types to understand, each of which can have their own differing shapes.


A monohull is the most common type of boat.

Approximately 95% of all boats are monohull, and as you would suspect from the name, it means that there is specifically one hull.

This controls all the buoyancy of the boat by keeping a certain amount of air beneath the water level, which helps to keep you afloat.

Monohulls could either have a vee bottom, flat, or any different range of shapes that help with cutting through the water.

The difficulty with this concept is that you are moving one mass through the water, and trying your very best to make it as hydrodynamic as possible without sacrificing in power.

While there are many racing boats that are monohull, when we get into the other two main hull types, those are built for speed.

These hulls displace water by using a keel to glide through it, and a stem to disperse the water to either side, allowing the boat to plane on top of the water with enough speed and momentum.

This is common in speedboats and high-powered motorboats, where the goal is to “skip” across the water like a stone.

These hulls are lightweight enough to make you bounce on the water, and the keel can provide additional speed and water displacement for maximum efficiency.


Catamaran Type Boat

A catamaran is traditionally a dual hull system, where a deck rests above the water, and not as part of the hull.

Two hulls will operate side by side to provide buoyancy in a more balanced fashion.

While any ship can be capsized, a catamaran is easier to tip over since there’s no massive hunk of weight bobbing in the water like there is with a monohull.

Catamarans make excellent racing boats due to the decreased drag, but also provide the best sailing conditions.

A little bit of wind can go a long way. Catamarans are generally smaller boats (under 40 ft on average), ideal for solo or small group sailing, though you will never see them in commercial environments aside from boat tours.


In the same spirit as a catamaran, this boat comes with three hulls.

The two outlying hulls are connected to the larger central hull, and work to provide buoyancy and maintain stability without sacrificing speed.

Trimaran boats are a rarity to see in personal use, but are more utilized by military grade uses and larger racing yachts.

Do Sailing Boats Have Engines?

engines on a sailing boats

When a sailboat is classified as a keelboat, they usually do have an available engine.

You can modify or purchase a boat to no longer use an engine, though it is recommended to leave it onboard to help when the winds are low.

If you were to travel three miles out to sea, only to have the wind suddenly and inexplicably stop, you wouldn’t be able to get back home.

Many boaters will head out to sail while still having the engine in shipshape in the event of a wind drop.

Small sailboats (under 16 ft) are less likely to come with an engine because you could use a paddle to row yourself to the edge of shore if the wind were to drop.

However, you’re not going to have much luck with manpower while trying to push a much heavier and larger boat.

For sailboats between 20 ft and 40 ft, a two-cylinder engine is usually enough to maintain a viable speed of five or six knots to get you back home safely.

These boat engines require more maintenance than your car engine would, partially because they are exposed to the elements.

If you store a sailboat engine without covering it properly or running it every once in a while during the offseason, you could damage the motor by leaving it idle for too long.

How do You Maintain a Sailboat Engine?

While you can compare some elements of your boat engine to the one in your car, there is likely one difference that makes a huge impact: boat engines are diesel operated.

Diesel engines are more simplistic to maintain, and with enough preventative maintenance, you’ll be able to keep it for years to come. You can maintain a sailboat engine by:

  • Lubricating the engine after every 50 hours of use
  • Drain water and sediment from the tank after every 50 hours of use
  • Replace the coolant once every year, or every 6 months if in constant use

On a daily basis, inspecting fluid levels and keeping an eye on the cooling system while the engine operates is best practice.

Once every 1,000 hours of use, you’ll have to get a full tune-up on it, which may include replacing the fuel filter, injector, and the pump impeller in your cooling system.

What’s the Difference Between a Sailboat Engine and a Powerboat Engine?

For one, the size is a major difference that can’t be overlooked.

Sailboat engines are designed to offer assistance with moving through the water, and help with additional power if you were to keel up on a sandbar, for example.

These motors aren’t measly, but they aren’t going to have you planing across the water like a powerboat motor would.

Part of planing is related to the shape of the hull and how it cuts through the water, but it requires a lot of power behind it in order to even reach the velocity required to plane in the first place.

Powerboat motors are an integral part of operation since there is no sail or option for paddling a powerboat.

Motors for powerboats are usually six-cylinders, which is the same amount of power that many SUVs have.

There’s also a maintenance difference. Replacing or maintaining a sailboat engine is fairly straightforward if you read the previous point, but with powerboat engines, everything gets more complex.

Are Sailboats Built to Last Through Winter?

Sailing Boats Wintering

Just about any sailboat on the market these days can be used to sail in the winter.

While there are an entirely different set of difficulties that come along with winter sailing, temperatures and frigid waters won’t damage most modern day sailboats in the way that they are manufactured.

The main issues that come with sailing in winter come down to battery death, motors freezing up, and insurance costs going through the roof. If it’s the dead of winter, just do your best not to pile through solid ice or patch ice, or you could damage your keel.

Of course, extreme temperatures in any sense will come with their own difficulties.

You want to avoid subzero temperatures (the kind where the ocean starts to freeze over), which will help you avoid engine damages, over-expanding windows, which could result in cracks or shattering, and ocean spray hitting the sail and freezing instantly.

Ice on deck may become a problem depending on how wild the waters get.

Experienced skippers or those who are seeking to live on a sailboat full-time will have to find ways to cope with extreme temperature difficulties, but as far as the hull of the ship goes, you’re going to be completely A-okay to sail in winter, as long as it’s not an inflatable vessel

What is a Self-Righting Sailboat?

One of the biggest fears that anyone has during sailing is the possibility of capsizing.

While this would have to happen from keel failure, extreme winds and a crazy hurricane overhead (for most medium-sized boats), it is a threat that is constantly on your mind while sailing. That’s where self-righting boat construction comes in handy.

Buoyancy is a variety of force that results in flotation. The weight and volume of the item in the water displaces a certain amount of water, and depending on the gravity and mass of the object, the volume will either float or sink.

The buoyancy in a self-righting boat is manipulated when the boat capsizes and the force flips, causing an immediate reaction for the boat to turn back over.

This isn’t a new concept, but it’s something that’s rarely talked about. Lifeboats have had this feature for well over two-hundred years, but what’s fascinating is that now a boat can be fully self-righting while keeping the crew dry and the engines running at full capacity.

Catamarans and trimarans are not self-righting boats, and cannot be due to the number of hulls. Those boats are generally harder to fully flip over unless you’re in a horrible storm.

Since there isn’t really a below deck that actually dips below the water level, it just wouldn’t work.

Self-righting boats also have nearly shatterproof windows that can withstand intense barometric pressure and water pressure.

A capsized boat may take a short while to self-right itself, and during that time, these features will maintain the “hull bubble” that helps it retain its upright position.

Do Sailing Boats Have Anchors?

Anchor for sailing boats

Yes, most sailboats do have anchors, if they are over a certain weight and length.

You wouldn’t need an anchor in a little dinghy or even a 12 ft boat (most likely), but if you’re going to take a trip out to open sea, you’ll want to drop anchor when the boat comes to a halt and you plan on enjoying your time.

Smaller recreational boats come with anchors for multiple reasons. For one, if you want to stop what you’re going out at sea and spend the night in one spot, maybe open a beer with your friends, then your boat needs to stay put.

Your anchor isn’t going to just drift through the water, and instead it will prevent you from moving from your designated spot and losing track of your course. GPS can only get you so far, after all.

Your anchor is also used to secure yourself during the event of a hurricane or natural disaster. Once the heavy metal anchor sinks into the water, it prevents the current from moving you along.

Think of an anchor as a way of negating the keel’s ability to glide you through the water, while actually making things more stable. Once you drop anchor, you’re turning your sailboat from a speed machine into a temporary home in the middle of the ocean.

Types of Sailing Boats

types of sailing boats

Different types of boats exist for different reasons.

Over time, different hull styles, shapes, rudders and sail masts have been developed, and they’re often grouped together in certain fashions to give you a base for multifunctional boats.

Let’s explore the different types, and the differences that make them excellent.


This type of boat uses two masts: the mainmast, which is the tallest, and the aft-mast which works towards the rear of the boat and retains less wind.

The secondary masts still help the boat move along, closer to the rudder. It’s not advised to solo sail on a ketch; having another set of hands to help batten everything down is the best approach.

There’s a similar type of boat called a yawl, though the differences aren’t worlds apart, it doesn’t require an entirely different section to describe it. A yawl simply has the mizzen mast in a different position than on a ketch, and both types are considered excellent for offshore sailing for days on end.

With a ketch, you’re able to cut wind against the sails in a much faster and more effective manner. If it’s you and a friend out on the boat, you can both manage everything needs to be done while sailing.


Also known as a cutter, a sloop boat has one or two headsails, and this practice is most commonly used in luxury yachts in modern day construction.

Unlike ketches and yawls, these stick to just one mast, and usually use the headsail(s) towards the front of the boat while the mainsail acts more as a way to steer the boat than anything else, which is called a Bermuda rig.


Brigantines are more of a historical lesson than anything else, because they’re not being built in very high quantity these days.

Brigantines were designed for piracy and espionage, and were also used in trade charter ships that wanted to stay silent while passing through the night.

Brigantines were one of the most sought-after boat and ship designs during the revolutionary war, as they were smaller than a full-sized brig ship, but larger than a sloop. Brigantines use two masts, the mainmast being fitted with three sails on average.

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