Best Sailboats For Lakes

Best Sailboats For Lakes | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

December 28, 2023

Lake sailing is a popular recreational activity, and it's easy to get started. But which sailboats are best for freshwater lakes?

The best sailboats for lakes are the Optimist dinghy, the Sunfish racing sailboat, the Herreshoff 12 1/2, the West Wight Potter 15, the West Wight Potter 19, and the Cal 20 sloop.

In this article, we'll review six of the best small sailboats for cruising on lakes. Additionally, we'll go over the qualities to look for when choosing a lake sailboat, along with how to choose the right boat size for your sailing destination.

We sourced the information in this article from boat design and identification guides along with our experience sailing American lakes.


Table of contents

What Makes a Sailboat Good for Lakes?

There are a few things that most lake sailboats have in common. For one, they're trailerable—and thus enable the owner to pull them out of the water and store them in a reasonably small space. They must be light enough to fit on a trailer and also have a centerboard or swing keel and collapsible mast.

Additionally, they must be light and nimble on the water and handle well. Lakes don't have consistent wind like oceans do, so lake sailboats must be able to utilize small amounts of wind but also contend with the occasional gust. In a way, lake sailboats have to be more carefully designed than larger ocean-going boats.

The largest lake sailboats have a small cabin with a berth and a place for a stove and possibly a sink. These small cabin cruisers are ideal for camping, and they're the best type of lake sailboat for large lakes and extended cruising.

Smaller recreational boats have open tops and are easy to sail. Their small size makes them relatively safe and also easy for beginners to handle. Many of them are filled with positive flotation foam, which makes them virtually unsinkable. These are the best kinds of open-top boats for lakes.

There's a difference between a practical lake sailboat and a fine lake sailboat. Classic sailboats are considered fine lake sailboats in the sense that they're valuable and fun for experienced sailors. These vessels are less suitable for beginners and recreational sailors, as they require skill to operate and maintain.

The best kind of lake sailboat for most people is a medium-sized lightweight fiberglass sailboat. These boats have been produced by various manufacturers in many configurations, and tens of thousands still exist on lakes and rivers around the country.

Do Lake Sailboats Have to Be Small?

Not necessarily—it all depends on the size of the lake and the intentions of the sailor. Full-size ocean-going sailboats can be found on some of the nation's bigger lakes, such as Lake Michigan and even Lake Cumberland.

But in most cases, the size of lake sailboats is limited to about 22 to 25 feet. A boat in this size range can sail anywhere that ski boats and pontoon boats can operate.

Best Sailboats for Small Lakes

Small lakes have the least flexibility when it comes to sailboat selection, and for obvious reasons. Thankfully, there are tons of great small sailboats that work well on small lakes. Plus, these sailboats can be carried by a couple of people and stored in a garage. Here are two of the best sailboats when navigational space is limited.

1. Optimist "Opti" Dinghy Sailboat

The Optimist is one of the most popular youth and instruction sailboats ever built. It's small, lightweight, and (almost) impossible to capsize under normal circumstances. The boat itself is basically a fiberglass (or wooden) box with a slanted bow and a centerboard.

The Optimist dinghy measures 7 feet 9 inches long and 3 feet 8 inches wide. It weighs just 77 pounds dry and has a 7-foot aluminum mast. It utilizes a spirit rig, which is a simple two-spar system that reduces the height of the mast.

The centerboard, mast, and tiller come off with little effort, and the vessel is essentially unsinkable. This makes it perfect for kids and teenagers who don't know how to sail or for smaller adults who just want a cheap little sailboat to cruise around the lake.

Optimist dinghies are remarkably easy to sail and offer a great platform for learning the basics of tacking, windward sailing, and sailboat recovery. They're available widely on the used market, as over 150,000 have been produced over the years. Plus, it's a popular racing boat, and hundreds of them show up for regattas around the world.

2. Sunfish Sailboat

The Sunfish is the ideal upgrade from an Optimist, and it's much more suitable for adults. Sunfish sailboats are designed for racing, and they're significantly larger than sailing dinghies. They require more skill to operate, but they're a ton of fun on the water and easy to master.

The Sunfish is designed for a crew of one or two adults, though it can be easily operated by just one. The hull is 13 feet 9 inches long and 4 feet 1 inch wide, and it weighs 120 pounds dry. In other words, two adults can easily lift this boat in and out of the water, and it's small enough to navigate small lakes.

The Sunfish has a lateen sail, which is an ancient design that's easy to rig and reduces mast height. For its size, the Sunfish has a very large sail area. This makes it efficient in light winds but also quite squirrelly in gusts. However, careful attention can prevent capsizing—and capsizing the Sunfish isn't actually a big deal. Simply stand on the centerboard, grab the boat and lean back to right the vessel.

Sunfish are common on the used market, as thousands have been produced since 1943. You can still buy a new one from Laser Performance for under $5,000, and used Sunfish are available for much less.

Best Sailboats for Medium-Sized and Large Lakes

People who want to sail on large lakes have a ton of flexibility in the kind of boat they use. Some people sail small sailboats, like the Sunfish or the Optimist, near shore in large lakes. However, large lakes can also accommodate much bigger boats with better accommodations, up to and including full-size cabins. Here are the best sailboats for large lakes.

1. Herreshoff 12 1/2


The Herreshoff 12 1/2 is a beautiful classic boat with incredible handling capabilities and excellent efficiency. The Herreshoff 12 1/2 is essentially a pocket ship, as the hull is designed in the same way that classic full-size ocean-going sailboats were.

The Herreshoff 12 1/2 features a full-length displacement keel and a spacious cockpit, as there's no centerboard trunk in the way. It's also remarkably stable and suitable for use in dodgy weather. This vessel is open-cockpit and doesn't include a cabin, though some people use a boom tent to go camping aboard.

Despite being similar in length to the Sunfish, this vessel is not even in the same class. It's a full gaff rig and includes a headsail and traditional rigging. More experience is required to operate one of these sailboats, as it's a scaled-down version of a full-size cruising boat.

However, once you learn to operate the pulleys, you'll find that sailing a Herreschoff 12 1/2 is a joy in almost all wind conditions. It's small enough to use on medium-sized lakes and to tow on a trailer, and it's stable enough for comfortable and safe sailing for the entire family. Four adults can sit aboard, and it can be piloted by just one.

If you're looking for a beautiful and classic lake sailboat with ocean-going seaworthiness, it's tough to go wrong with a Herreschoff 12 1/2. These vessels are available on the used market starting around $5,000 to $10,000, and most of them can be found in New England.

2. West Wight Potter 15


The West Wight Potter 15 is a fiberglass trailerable sailboat that was designed to be safe, fun, and easy to transport. These vessels are designed for stability, and they're unsinkable thanks to positive floatation foam. Additionally, the West Wight Potter 15 is one of the smallest sailboats you can buy with a cabin.

This 15-foot boat uses a Bermuda rig, similar to what you'll find on the vast majority of large recreational sailboats. The mast and standing rigging was designed to be extremely easy to deploy and stow, making it a great weekender for low-stress operation.

Additionally, the West Wight Potter 15 has a very shallow draft and a centerboard, making it suitable for beaching at the lake. West Wight Potter sailboats have very few unnecessary metal parts, and thus they're extremely light. Most standard full-size cars and trucks can tow this vessel without trouble.

The West Wight Potter 15 was produced until recently, and there are hundreds on the used market that you can purchase. Prices fluctuate widely, but a West Wight Potter 15 in usable condition can be found for $3,500 to $15,000.

3. West Wight Potter 19


If you're looking for a larger centerboard cruiser with better accommodations, then the West Wight Potter 19 is an excellent choice. This vessel follows the basic design principles of the West Wight Potter 15, but the cabin is much more spacious. Additionally, the rigging sets up and disassembles just as easily.

The West Wight Potter 19 is an extremely comfortable and safe boat, and it's a wonderful little pocket cruiser for extended lake trips. Additionally, the cabin is spacious enough for two adults to sleep comfortably, and there's room for a stove, a sink, and a portable head.

The West Wight Potter 19 is trailerable and lightweight. It has a centerboard, which allows the owner to reduce its draft from several feet down to just a few inches. A vessel like this can last for years in freshwater, and they're popular for saltwater cruising as well.

The West Wight Potter 19 is also quite affordable. Due to its popularity, you can find one in excellent condition for between $5,000 and $12,000 in many areas. These boats are also remarkably seaworthy, as one individual sailed his from San Francisco to Hawaii—over 2,000 nautical miles of open ocean. In other words, you'll be safe and comfortable on the lake.

4. Cal 20


The Cal 20 is a classic sailboat that has been around for decades, and it's one of the most popular 'big' boats on America's freshwater lakes. It's a cruising sloop that measures about 20 feet in length and features a cabin with a unique flush deck.

The Cal 20 is much more typical of large coastal and ocean-going sailboats, and it's operated in exactly the same way. It has a tall Bermuda rig with traditional controls, so it's a great platform to practice sailing full-sized boats.

The Cal 20 features a small cabin with basic amenities, such as a sink, a place for a camp stove, a portable toilet, and a V-berth. Additionally, it's exceptionally water-tight for a boat of its kind, so it can be left in the berth year-round without serious problems.

Cal 20 sailboats are extremely robust. There's no flimsy material anywhere aboard, as they're designed for saltwater cruising and racing. They have a large sail plan which makes it easy to sail in light winds, and they're stable enough to make handling easy in the occasional gust.

The Cal 20 can be found in abundance on the used market, with prices as low as $2,000 for a functional and leak-free boat. The best places to look for Cal 20 sailboats are on the West Coast, but they can be found inland as well.

Best Sailboats For Lakes
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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