Parts of a Sailboat

Parts of a Sailboat | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

September 28, 2022

Sailboats share many parts with other boats, such as keels, decks, and sometimes engines. But parts like halyards, sheets, and blocks are unique to sailboats.

Sailboats require four main parts to operate: a hull, mast, sail, and rudder. The hull is the body of the boat, and all other parts are directly or indirectly connected to it. The mast is a long pole that serves as a guide and mounting point for the sail. The sail catches the wind and propels the boat, and the rudder directs the boat and acts as its steering.

Here are all the main parts of a typical cruising sailboat, including hardware, lines, controls, cabin items, and a rundown of common sailing terminology.


Table of contents

Port, Starboard, Bow, Stem, and Stern

Before we get into the parts of a sailboat, let’s get a handle on sailboat direction. The bow of the boat is the front (forward), and the stern is the rear (aft). The stem is the forward-most part of the bow and determines its shape. These words describe the general area of front and back.

When determining port and starboard, picture looking down on the boat with the bow oriented forward. The port side is the left side of the boat, and the starboard is the right side. Now picture yourself at the controls of your boat.

If your lookout sees an obstacle off the port bow, which direction should you look? That’s right—the obstacle is forward and to the left of you. Now, we’ll go over the basic parts of a sailboat.

Basic Parts of a Sailboat

What are the basic parts of a sailboat? These are items that are essential to the operation of the boat and universal across most sailing craft. Every sailor should know where these parts are and what they do. Here are nine fundamental sailboat parts, their function, and why they’re important.


The hull is the ‘boat’ itself. It comprises the frame of the boat, the skin that keeps the water out and serves as the mounting point for everything else on the boat (both directly and indirectly). Simply put, if you punch a hole in the hull, water will come into the boat. Sailboat hulls are constructed most commonly out of fiberglass or hardwood (such as white oak), but some boat hulls are made out of aluminum, steel, and even a material called ferrocement.


The deck is the platform that covers the hull. It’s the place where you walk when you’re not inside the boat. Most people would consider the deck as any place ‘on top’ of the hull. The deck serves as a mounting point for essential boat hardware such as the mast and winches. We’ll get into those later; just think of the deck as the visible top area of the vessel. Decks are often made of fiberglass as well, but traditional boats use teak wood planking in this area. You’ll often find abrasive anti-slip material on the deck, as sailors often walk across it in wet conditions.


The keel is the structural backbone of the boat. It’s located in the bottom of the hull and serves as a sort of ‘spine’ to which all frame members are mounted during construction. The keel is an essential part of the boat and cannot be broken or damaged. You’ll often hear the term ‘keelboat’ in the sailing community. This word describes a sailboat with a long and deep keel, which is like a thin fin that runs the length of the hull. Keelboats are seaworthy vessels, as the elongated hull adds stability and keeps the boat on a straight track.


Many sailboats don’t have a long, deep keel, but they still need some sort of fin to keep the boat tracking straight. To substitute a long keel, many boats utilize a dagger-like board called a centerboard. This plate protrudes underneath the center of the boat, usually between one and three feet below the bottom of the hull. Centerboards are often retractable, which is great for towing and beaching. Centerboards are most common on small sailboats designed for inland or coastal cruising.


The cockpit is usually located in the rear of the boat. It features seating for the crew and controls for the steering, sails, and engine. The cockpit is the command center of the sailboat and often features storage lockers under the seats. Many cockpits are self-draining, which means they’re located above the water line and clear themselves of water accumulation. Some sailboats have enclosed cockpits for off-shore sailing. In a typical cruising sailboat, the cockpit usually takes up ⅓ of the total length of the boat or less.


The mast is the big pole extending from the deck of the sailboat. It connects the sail to the boat and serves as a frame for all sails carried by the vessel. The mast is a key part of the sail plan and helps determine what kind of boat you’re looking at. Most sailboats have just one mast, but others have numerous masts. A schooner, for example, has two masts and a specific sail plan. A yawl also has two, but each mast serves a separate function.


The rudder steers the boat and is located on or under the stern of the vessel. Rudders are an essential part of the boat, and they’re particularly sensitive to impact or misalignment. On some boats, the rudder is completely invisible when in the water. Other boats have retractable rudders for beaching or towing. Fundamentally, a rudder is just a plate that’s hinged to move side to side. It’s connected to the tiller or the helm, which we’ll cover in a bit.


The sail is what propels the boat, and most boats have more than one. The aft (rear) sail on a single-masted boat is called the mainsail, and it’s the largest of the two primary sails. The triangular forward (front) sail is called the jib, and it’s generally smaller than the mainsail. Other sails include the spinnaker, which is like a loosely-mounted parachute that flies in front of the boat during conditions of low wind.


The boom is a hinged rod that extends perpendicular to the mast. It’s mounted on the lower part of the mast, and it controls the side-to-side position of the mainsail. The best way to remember the boom is to consider what happens when it swings side to side. If you’re not paying attention, a swinging boom could give you a nice crack on the head. Think of the boom as the throttle of the boat. If you’re properly pointed relative to the wind, pulling in the boom will increase the speed of the boat. This is where the bottom of the sail connects to the mast. The boom is also connected to the deck and adjustable using a winch and a crank.


Here is some of the hardware you’ll find on a typical sailboat. These items are usually mounted to the hull, on the deck, or to the mast. Boat hardware consists of control systems and other items that are essential to the operation or integrity of the boat.


Cleats are the universal mounting points for ropes on the deck. Cleats are used for tying up to the dock, securing lines, and tethering important items that can’t fall overboard. There’s a special kind of knot called a ‘cleat knot,’ which is essential to learn before sailing. A properly tied cleat will stay secure in almost all conditions, and it’ll be easy to untie if the need arises. An important distinction must be made for clam cleats, which are spring-loaded sets of jaws that secure rigging lines that need to be adjusted frequently.


Block is a nautical word for a pulley. Blocks (pulleys) are everywhere on a sailboat, and they’re an essential part of the rigging system. Blocks distribute and regulate force. For example, a deck-mounted block can change the direction of a line from vertical to horizontal, allowing you to apply a horizontal force to lift something vertically. Blocks also reduce the force required to lift heavy loads and help make adjustments more precise.


Winches are cylindrical mechanical devices that transmit force. Winches are often located on either side of the boat. They’re multi-directional like a socket wrench and feature one-way locking mechanisms for raising, lowering, tightening, and loosening lines. Winches have a hole in the top for a crank, which makes it easy to wind rope in and out. Winches are present on almost every medium to large sailboat. They’re either manual or electrically-powered.


A hatch is a watertight or water-resistant door used to enter the cabin or storage compartment of a boat. Hatches can be flush with the deck and hinged, threaded like a large screw, or they can slide back and forth. The purpose of a hatch is to keep water out when closed and allow easy access to the interior parts of the boat.

Tiller and Helm

The tiller and helm are used to control the direction of the rudder and steer the boat. Usually, a boat has either a tiller or a helm. The tiller is the most basic steering control and consists of a simple rod connected to the rudder or rudder shaft. Tillers move side to side and point in the opposite direction that the boat steers. The helm is essentially a steering wheel, and it operates the same way that a car steering wheel does. The helm is connected to the rudder by complex mechanical or hydraulic linkage.

Mast and Sail Components

Mast and sail components are referred to as ‘rigging’ in most cases. These items are part of the wind-powered propulsion system of the boat. You’ll operate these systems to control the speed of the boat. Here are three common sail components that you’ll need to understand before hitting the water.


Stays are the lines that secure the mast to the boat. Usually, the mast is bolted or tied to the deck of the boat; but much of the load and pressure created by the wind is transferred to the stays. Stays are usually made of strong stainless steel cable. Losing a stay at sea is a serious problem, as these small cables keep the mast from collapsing.


Halyards are the ropes used to hoist and lower the sail on the mast. They also hoist flags, spars, and other components that need to be raised and lowered. Halyards are usually found on the mast and are fixed to cleats or winches around the boat.


Sheets and halyards are often confused, but they serve a very different function. Sheets are the control lines of the sail. These ropes control how far in or out the sail is, and they’re usually found connected to the jib (jib sheet) and the mainsail (mainsheet). Sheets are controlled by winches and blocks and secured onto cleats or clam cleats on the deck. Sheets can be controlled from the cockpit of the boat.


Navigation components are the parts of the sailboat used to find direction and alert other boats of your position. These four items aren’t the only navigation items found on sailboats, but they’re the most common.


This item should be self-explanatory, but it’s essential nonetheless. A compass is arguably the most basic and important marine navigation item. It shows you what direction you’re heading. Sailboat compasses are precise instruments designed to display an accurate heading no matter how much the boat rolls up and down or side to side. Compasses are usually mounted in the cockpit, in clear view of the captain.


Charts are old-fashioned navigational tools and indicate important information such as water depth and the location of ship channels. Learning to read and purchasing charts is essential, even in the age of modern GPS navigation. When all else fails, a chart can help guide you and your vessel to safety and away from hazardous areas. No electricity is required.

Navigation Lights

Navigation lights are mandatory beacons located around the boat. These lights help other boats figure out where you are and where you’re going. Sailboats are required to have red and green bow lights. Red indicates port, and green indicates starboard. This is how boats determine if they’re looking at your bow or stern. Other lights, such as a white stern light, a mast light, are also necessary during specific circumstances. Check your state requirements for lighting.

VHF Radio

VHF radios are the standard marine over-the-air communication system. You can use a VHF radio to communicate with the coast guard, other boats, harbors, towing services, and drawbridges. It’s important to learn and write down the specific channels and call signs for each situation, as you need to be able to properly communicate on the radio.


The cabin is the ‘below decks’ area of the sailboat and usually contains living quarters for the captain and crew. Not all boats have cabins, and cabin size varies widely. Some sailboats have rudimentary cabins with basic sleeping accommodations and sitting headroom. Other boats have full standing headroom, shower and wash facilities, full-size kitchens, and separate staterooms for sleeping and sitting. The cabin is usually located forward of the cockpit. Here are some common sailboat parts located within the cabin.


The berth is the sleeping area of a boat. Berths are often convertible, which means they fold or rearrange into a table and seating area. There are numerous kinds of berths. The ‘V’ or ‘vee’ berth is a triangle-shaped sleeping area located in the bow of the boat. Side berths typically convert into couches or settees, and pole berths are essentially cots that roll up and stow away easily.


The bilge is the bottommost interior part of the boat. It’s usually located under the floor in the cabin. When water finds its way into the boat, it drains down to the bilge and gets pumped out by bilge pumps. Bilge pumps are an essential piece of hardware, as they keep the boat dry and prevent sinking. Some boats have a wet bilge, which means it’s always full of water (and supposed to be). Most boats have a dry bilge.


Portlights are watertight windows located in the upper part of the cabin. They can usually be opened or secured using threaded latches. Portlights are generally smaller than traditional portholes and offer a watertight barrier between the inside and outside of the cabin. They’re also useful for ventilation.

Gimballed Utilities

A gimbal is a special type of hinge that keeps an item vertical when the boat rolls. Oil lamps are commonly fitted to gimbals, so they stay upright when the boat bobs around. Stoves are also gimballed, which is extremely useful for cooking or boiling water when the weather gets rough.


Head is the nautical term for a toilet. Most medium-sized sailboats have compact wash facilities that sailors refer to as the ‘head,’ or a porta-potty at the bare minimum. A sailboat’s bathroom usually consists of a marine toilet, a sink, and often a shower with a drain in the floor.

Parts of a Sailboat
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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