Sail Rigs And Types - The Only Guide You Need

Sail Rigs And Types - The Only Guide You Need | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

July 17, 2020


A well-designed sailboat is a thing of pure beauty. Whether you're a proud owner of one, a guest on one, or a mere shore-side admirer, you'll fall in love with the gliding sails, the excitement of a sailing race, as well as the ecological nature of these sophisticated yet magnificent vessels. With good sails, great design, and regular maintenance, sails and rigs are an important part of a sailboat.

You're probably thinking of going sailing but still wondering about the right type of sails for you. Unlike old sailboats, modern sailboats don't need those huge and overlapping headsails just to get your sailboat moving. In the past, sailboats were heavy, keels were long, and the only way to get the boat moving was a large sail area. You needed as much square footage as you could just to get your sailboat moving. But with the invention of light masts and lighter rigs, sailboats have been designed to increase mast height without necessarily having those enormous sails of yesteryears. Again, there are various sail types and rigs that you can choose from. The most important thing is to know the different types of sails and rigs and how they can make your sailing even more enjoyable.

There are different types of sails and rigs. Most sailboats have one mainsail and one headsail. The mainsail is generally fore-and-aft rigged and is triangular shaped. Most sailors use different types of sails for different conditions. And with that, each sail has its use. Do you want to sail upwind or go downwind? You cannot hoist just any sail and use it. It's, therefore, of great importance to understand how and when to use each sail type. You should also know how to rig them so that they work properly.

In this in-depth article, we'll look at various sail types and rigs, and how to use them to make your sailing more enjoyable.

Table of contents for this article

Different Sail Types

It is perhaps worth noting that a sailboat is only as good and perfect as its sails. The fact that you need to capture the wind to propel your boat make sails a cog part of a sailboat and, of course, the art of sailing. Ask any good sailor and he'll tell you that knowing how and when to trim the sails efficiently will not only improve the overall performance of your boat but will elevate your sailing experience. In short, sails are the driving force of sailboats.

As such, it's only natural that you should know the different types of sails and how they work. Let's first highlight different sail types before going into the details.

  • Mainsail
  • Jib - triangular staysail
  • Spinnaker - huge balloon-shaped downwind sail for light airs
  • Genoa - huge jib that overlaps the mainsail
  • Gennaker - a combination of a spinnaker and genoa
  • Code zero - upwind spinnaker
  • Windseeker - tall, narrow, high-clewed, and lightweight jib
  • Drifter - a large and dominant on genoa that's made from lightweight cloth
  • Storm jib - a small jib meant for stormy conditions
  • Trysail - This is a smaller front-and-aft sail for heavy weather


The mainsail is the principal sail on a boat. It's generally set on the aft side of the mainmast. Working together with the jib, the mainsail is designed to create the lift that drives the sailboat windward. That being said, the mainsail is a very powerful component that must always be kept under control.

As the largest sail, the mainsail is tasked with capturing the bulk of the wind that's required to propel the sailboat. The horizontal part of the mainsail secures the boom, which is a long pole parallel to the deck. The vertical side is attached to the mast, which is a long upright pole. To allow the mainsail to harness as much wind as possible, you should horizontally rotate the boom 360 degrees.

In the old days, the mainsail used to be simple and sailors were happy with it. The mainsail had a moderate roach, a few reefs, sail-trim devices such as a flattening reef, and a Cunningham, as well as four battens to support the roach. Today, things have changed and mainsails come in various shapes and sizes. For instance, you can get a full-batten mainsail, a regular mainsail with short battens, or a two-plus-two mainsail with two full-length battens.

Features of a Mainsail

Several features will affect how a particular sail works and performs. Some features will, of course, affect the cost of the sail while others may affect its longevity. All in all, it's essential to decide the type of mainsail that's right for you and your sailing application.

Sail Battens and the Roach

The roach essentially is the area of the sail aft of a line between the clew and the head. It's vital in increasing the sail area but comes at a cost: the batten. The main aim of the battens is to enable the tweaking of the outhaul, mainsheet, or the halyard. Without the battens, you cannot tweak the above-mentioned components or prevent them from flopping or causing drag.

Battens are typically made from fiberglass or wood in batten pockets. They're meant to offer support to the roach and offer additional drive. You should keep in mind that short battens may not be the most effective. This is because they can bend and crease the sail, especially at the forward end of the pocket. As a result, this will create chafe and wear out the sailcloth and this is something that you don't want, especially if you take into account that sails are very costly. With that in mind, long battens are the best way to go. They should extend from the luff to the leech.

Fully Battened Mainsails

They're generally popular on racing multihulls with their main duty being to support the large roach. In cruising sailboats, fully battened mainsails have a few benefits such as:

• They prevent the mainsail from flogging. This will extend the life of the sail, and give the crew an easier job, especially when coming up to the wind and looking to reduce sail.

• It provides drive in conditions where short-battened mainsails would collapse, particularly in light winds.

On the other hand, fully-battened mainsails offer more weight and chafe, especially if the battens rub against the rigging when sailing off the wind.

No Battens

The first area of the mainsail that will wear out and require maintenance is generally the batten pockets. The main aim of having battens on the mainsail is to support the leech. However, the leech can support itself if it's slightly hollow and the battens will be redundant. This can be possible if you accept to reduce the sail area. By doing this, your sail will last longer and require less maintenance than if your mainsail has battens. On the contrary, a sail with no battens will be less powerful than a battened mainsail. To make it work for you, you can use a sail with a roach at the head of the sail and support it with two battens and a hollow leech but with no battens below.

How to Hoist the Mainsail

Here's how to hoist the mainsail if it relies on a slab reefing system and lazy jacks and doesn't have an in-mast or in-boom furling system.

  • Maintain enough speed for steerageway while heading up into the wind
  • Slacken the mainsheet and the kicker or the vang
  • Make sure that the lazy jacks do not catch the ends on the battens by pulling the lazy jacks forward.
  • Ensure that the reefing runs are free to run and that no reefs are tied in.
  • Heave on the halyard by using the halyard winch to hoist the mainsail as far as you can.
  • Tension the halyard to a point where a crease begins to form just behind of the luff
  • Release the topping lift and re-set the lazy jacks
  • Trim the mainsail properly while heading off to your desired course

So what's Right for You?

Your mainsail will depend on how you like sailing your boat and what you expect in terms of convenience and performance. That being said, the best way to purchase and use a mainsail is by being aware of what you want from the sail, how you like to sail, and how much you're willing to spend on the mainsail.

How to Rig the Mainsail

Attached to the back of the mainmast, the first sail to rig is the mainsail. You can connect the halyard to the head of the sail. You can do this if you knot it in place and then pull on the halyard but only after putting the top of the sail in the mast track.

Given that the mainsail is typically the lowest and largest sail on a fore-and-aft rigged boat, you can control it along its foot by a spar known as the boom. In essence, rigging the mainsail is a methodological process that revolves around attaching the masts, shrouds, boom, centerboard, sheets, sail, and rudder to a sailboat.


The headsail is principally the front sail in a fore-and-aft rig. Although Dutch sailors use rectangular headsails, they're commonly triangular and are attached on a stay that runs forward to the bowsprit. They include a jib and a genoa. 


A jib is a triangular sail that is set ahead of the foremost sail. The jib is easier to set with a roller on the forestay. The best way to work the jib is to fix the tack to the bowsprit. Together with spinnakers, jibs are the main type of headsails on modern sailboats. In short, a jib is a foresail that causes an increased flow of air by directing the wind across the forward side of the mainsail. The low pressure draws the mainsail forward, thereby pulling the sailboat faster than when just using the mainsail. This is per the Bernoulli's Principle, which lowers air pressure on top of the aircraft wing to lift it and keep it aloft.

The main aim of the jib is to allow a sailboat to have more sail area for the same sized mast. It improves the aerodynamics of the mainsails so that your sailboat can catch more wind and thereby sail faster, especially in low wind conditions. This means that you can choose not to use the jib when the wind is very strong. In essence, a jib is more about making sailing more pleasant and less of survival experience.

The jib can be de-powered by releasing the sheets, especially when docking under in a leeward direction. The idea here is that the mainsail is quite difficult to de-power under this condition. You should, therefore, drop the mainsail and sail under the jib and release the jib sheets as soon as you position the boat where the wind can haul it and push it towards the dock.

You can as well head somewhere near the dock before heading downwind at the last moment before heading for the dock. All you have to do is practice, rely on your luck, and you won't crash your sailboat on the dock. After all, sailing is a technology that revolves around how you properly use textiles and ropes and the jib is an integral part of this technology. Along with other types of sails, a jib can be stayed, gaffed, boomed, or even attached to the hull to power the boat.

Using Jibs on Modern Sailboats

Modern sailboats can be sailed using a jib alone.   However, jibs are commonly used to just contribute to powering the boat. As we noted earlier, its main aim is to increase the performance and overall stability of the mainsail. The jib can also reduce the turbulence of the mainsail on the leeward side.

On Traditional Vessels

Traditional vessels such as schooners have about three jibs. The topmast is known as jib topsail, the main forestay is called the jib while the innermost jib is known as the staysail. The first two are not normally used except by clipper ships, especially in light winds.

How to Rig the Jibs

There are three basic ways to rig the jib.

Transverse Sheet - Although this technique is straightforward, it can be costly given that it may cause friction. This is because the boat tacks all the blocks in the sheet system roll along with the sheet. There are certain conditions where transverse sheeting may be the best method of rigging the jib but you should consider other methods too.

Sheet up the Mast - This is a very popular approach and for a good reason. Hoist the jib sheet up the mast high enough to ensure that there's the right tension through the tack. Whether internally or externally, the sheet can return to the deck and then back to the cockpit just like the rest of the mast baselines. The fact the sheet doesn't move through the tacks is essential in reducing friction.

Sheet Forward - This method revolves around ensuring that the jib sheet stays under constant pressure so that it does not move through the blocks in the tacks. This is possible if the through-deck block is extremely close to the jib tack. Your only challenge will only be to return the sheet to the cockpit. This is, however, quite challenging and can cause significant friction.


Another important headsail, genoa sail is a large jib that usually overlaps the mainsail or extends past the mast, especially when viewed from the other side. In the past, a genoa was known as the overlapping jib and is technically used on twin-mast boats and single-mast sloops such as ketches and yawls. A genoa has a large surface area, which is integral in increasing the speed of the vessel both in moderate and light winds.

Genoas are generally characterized by the percentage they cover. In most cases, sail racing classes do stipulate the limit of a genoa size. In other words, genoas are usually classified by size.

A top-quality genoa trim is of great importance, especially if the wind is forward of the beam. This is because the wind will first pass over the genoa before the mainsail. As such, a wrongly sheeted genoa can erroneously direct the wind over the mainsail and this can spell doom to your sailing escapades. While you can perfectly adjust the shape of a genoa using the mast rake, halyard tension, sheet tension, genoa car positioning, and the backstay tension, furling and unfurling a genoa can be very challenging, especially in higher winds.

That being said, here are the crucial steps to always keep in mind.


• Ease out the loaded jib sheet by going to a broad reach

• Do not use the winch; just pull on the furling line

• Keep a very small amount of pressure or tension on the loaded jib sheet

• Secure the furling line and tighten the jib sheets


• Get on the point of sail by raising the mainsail

• Have the crew help you and release the lazy jib sheets

• Maintain a small tension while easing out the furling line

• Pull-on a loaded jib sheet

• Close or cleat off the rope clutch when the genoa is unfurled

• Trim the genoa

To this end, it's important to note that genoas are popular in some racing classes. This is because they only categorize genoas based on the foretriangle area covered, which essentially allows a genoa to significantly increase the actual sail area. On the contrary, keep in mind that tacking a genoa is quite harder than a jib as the overlapping area can get tangled with the mast and shroud. It's, therefore, important to make sure that the genoa is carefully tended, particularly when being tacked.

Downwind Sails

Modern sailboats are a lot easier to maneuver thanks to the fore-and-aft rig. Unfortunately, they catch less wind, and downwind sails are a great way of reducing this problem. They include the spinnaker and the gennaker.


A spinnaker will, without a doubt, increase your sailing enjoyment. But why are they often buried in the cabin of cruising boats? Well, it's because many sailors are very terrified of using spinnakers and distrust them. However, spinnakers are quite straightforward and are easier to use and handle but with teamwork and enough practice. More importantly, spinnakers can bring a light wind passage to life and can save you from using the engine.

Spinnakers are purposely designed for sailing off the wind and can fill with wind and balloon out in front of your sailboat. Structured with a lightweight fabric such as nylon, the spinnaker is also known as cruising kites or chutes as they look like parachutes both in structure and appearance. Generally, a spinnaker is used to sail with the wind direction.

A perfectly designed spinnaker should have taut leading edges when filled. This will not only mitigate the risk of lifting and collapsing. A spinnaker should have a smooth curve when filled and devoid of depressions and bubbles that might be caused by the inconsistent stretching of the fabric. The idea here is that anything other than a smooth curve may reduce the lift and thereby reduced performance.

Types of Spinnakers

There are two main types of spinnakers: Symmetric spinnakers and asymmetric spinnakers.

Asymmetric Spinnakers

Flown from the spinnaker poles or a bowsprit fitted to the bow of the boat, asymmetric spinnakers resemble large jibs and have been around since the 19th century. The concept of asymmetric spinnaker revolves around attaching the tack of the sail at the bow and mounted on a bowsprit.

Asymmetric spinnaker has two sheets just like a jib. The difference is that these sheets are not attached to the forestay along the length of the luff. Instead, these sheets are attached at the corners and don't necessarily require a spinnaker pole. This is because it is fixed to the bowsprit. Asymmetric spinnaker works when you pull in one sheet while releasing the other. This makes it a lot easier to gybe but less suited to sailing directly downwind.

On the contrary, the asymmetric spinnaker is perfect for fast planing dinghies. This is because such vessels have speeds that generate wind on the bow, thereby allowing them to effectively sail more directly downwind. In essence, the asymmetric spinnaker is vital if you're looking for easy handling.

Symmetric Spinnakers

Symmetric spinnakers are a classic sail type that has been used for centuries for controlling boats by lines known as a guy and a sheet. The guy, which is a windward line, is attached to the tack of the sail and stabilized by a spinnaker pole. The sheet, which is the leeward line, is attached to the clew of the spinnaker and is essential in controlling the shape of the spinnaker sail.

When set correctly, the leading edges of the symmetric spinnaker should be almost parallel to the wind. This is to ensure that the airflow over the leading edge remains attached. Generally, the spinnaker pole should be at the right angles to the apparent wind and requires enough care when packing.

How to Use Spinnaker Effectively

If you decide to include the spinnakers to your sailboat, the sailmaker will want to know the type of boat you have, what kind of sailing you do, and where you sail. As such, the spinnaker that you end up with should be an excellent and all-round sail and perform effectively both at broad-reaching and close reaching.

The type of boat and where you'll be sailing will hugely influence the weight of your spinnaker cloth. In most cases, cruising spinnakers should be very light, so if you've decided to buy a spinnaker, make sure that it's designed per the type of your sailboat and where you will be sailing. Again, you can choose to go for something lighter and easier to set if you'll be sailing alone or with kids who are too young to help.

Setting up Spinnakers

One of the main reasons why sailors distrust spinnakers are because they don't know how to set them up. That being said, a perfectly working spinnaker starts with how you set it up and this revolves around how you carefully pack it and properly hook it up. You can do this by running the luff tapes and ensuring that the sails are not twisted when packed into the turtle. If you are using large spinnakers, the best thing to do is make sure that they're set in stops to prevent the spinnakers from filling up with air before you even hoist them fully.

But even with that, a bear away is the easiest way to set up a spinnaker. Just raise the pole as you approach the mark closed-hauled. You should then bear away to a reach before hoisting. Just don't hoist the spinnakers from the bow as this can move the weight of the crew and equipment forward.


Used when sailing downwind, a gennaker is asymmetric like a genoa and not symmetric like a spinnaker. This makes it a cross between a genoa and a spinnaker. In other words, a gennaker is a free-flying asymmetric spinnaker that is tacked to the bowsprit without necessarily being attached to the spinnaker pole.

Let's put it into perspective. Even though the genoa is a great sail for racing and cruising, sailors realized that it was too small to be used in a race or for downwind sail and this is the main reason why the spinnaker was invented. While the spinnakers are large sails that can be used for downwind sail, they are quite difficult to handle especially if you're sailing shorthanded. As such, this is how a gennaker came to be: it gives you the best of both worlds.

A gennaker is typically distinctive thanks to its amazing color but that's beside the story. It's a stable and easy to fly sail that will add to your enjoyment and downwind performance. It may be deemed as a reaching or running option, but a gennaker is a crucial sail type that is used specifically when the wind is blowing the boat forward as it comes from the back corners of the boat. In short, the gennaker is a great sail when sailing downwind.

The Shape of a Gennaker

As we've just noted, the gennaker isn't symmetrical like the spinnaker. It is asymmetrical. Again, it doesn't attach to the forestay like the genoa but has a permanent fitting from the mast to bow. It is rigged exactly like a spinnaker but its tack is fastened to the bowsprit. This is fundamentally an essential sail if you're looking for something to bridge the gap between the genoa and the spinnaker.

Setting a Gennaker

When cruising, the gennaker is set with the tack line from the bow, a halyard, and a sheet that's led to the aft quarter. Attach the tack to a furling unit and attach it to a fitting on the hull near the very front of the sailboat. You can then attach the halyard that will help in pulling it up to the top of the mast before attaching it to the clew. The halyard can then run back to the winches to make the controlling of the sail shape easier just like when using the genoa sail.

In essence, a gennaker is a superb sail that will give you the maximum versatility of achieving the best of both a genoa and a spinnaker, especially when sailing downwind. This is particularly of great importance if you're cruising by autopilot or at night.

Light Air Sails

Even though downwind sails can be used as light air sails, not all light air sails can be used for downwind sailing. In other words, there's a level of difference between downwind sails and light air sails. Light air sails include code zero, windseeker, and drifter reacher.

Code Zero

A cross between an asymmetrical spinnaker and a genoa, code zero is a sail type that's generally used when sailing close to the wind in light air. Although the initial idea of code zero was to make a larger genoa, it settled on a narrow and flat spinnaker while upholding the shape of a genoa.

Modern boats come with code zero sails that can be used as soon as the sailboat bears off the beat. It has a nearly straight luff and is designed to be very flat for close reaching. This sail is designed to give your boat extra performance in light winds, especially in boats that do not have overlapping genoas. It also mitigates the problem of loss of power when you are reaching with a non-overlapping headsail.

In many conditions, a code zero sail can go as high as a sailboat with just a jib. By hoisting a code zero, you'll initially have to foot off about 15 degrees to fill it and get the power that you require to heel and move the boat. The boat will not only speed up but will also allow you to put the bow up while also doing the same course as before you set the zero. In essence, code zero can be an efficient way of giving your boat about 30% more speed and this is exactly why it's a vital inventory in racing sailboats.

When it comes to furling code zero, the best way to do it is through a top-down furling system as this will ensure that you never get a twist in the system. Similarly, unfurling a code zero is very simple and less of a headache.


Generally used when a full size and heavier sail doesn't stay stable or pressurized, windseeker is a very light sail that's designed for drifting conditions. This is exactly why they're designed with a forgiving cloth to allow them to handle challenging conditions.

The windseeker should be tacked at the headstay with two sheets on the clew. The idea here is that the sail can fill on whichever tack it sees appropriate. But to make it a lot easier, you can heel the sailboat on the leeward side and let gravity help you in filling the wind by close reaching. You shouldn't try downwind as you'll lose the apparent wind. As such, the ideal angle of a windseeker should be about 60 degrees.

A windseeker is indeed an important sail but you can use a spinnaker if you don't have one. All you have to do is set flying by adding a luff tape into the head foil.

Drifter Reacher

Many cruising sailors often get intimidated by the idea of setting and trimming a drifter if it's attached to the rig at only three corners or if it's free-flying. But whether or not a drifter is appropriate for your boat will hugely depend on your boat's rig, as well as other specific details such as your crew's ability to furl and unfurl the drifter and, of course, your intended cruising grounds.

But even with that, the drifter remains a time-honored sail that's handy and very versatile. Unlike other light air sails, the drifter perfectly carries on all points of sails as it allows the boat to sail close-hauled and to tack. It is also very easy to control when it's set and struck. In simpler terms, a drifter is principally a genoa that's built of lightweight fabric such as nylon. Regardless of the material, the drifter is a superb sail if you want to sail off a lee shore without using the genoa.


Generally stronger than other regular sails, stormsails are designed to handle winds of over 45 knots and are great when sailing in stormy conditions. They include a storm jib and a trysail.

Storm Jib

If you sail long and far enough, chances are you have or will soon be caught in stormy conditions. Under such conditions, storm jibs can be your insurance and you'll be better off if you have a storm jib that has the following features:

• Robustly constructed using heavyweight sailcloth

• Sized suitably for the boat

• Highly visible even in grey and white seas

That's not all; you should never go out there without a storm jib as this, together with the trysail, is the only sails that will be capable of weathering some of nature's most testing situations.

Storm jibs typically have high clews to give you the flexibility of sheet location. You can raise the sail with a spare halyard until its lead position is closed-hauled in the right position. In essence, storm jib is your insurance policy when out there sailing: You should always have it but always hope that you never have to use it.


Also known as a spencer, a trysail is a small, bright orange, bullet-proof, and triangular sail that's designed to save the boat's mainsail from winds over 45 knots and works in the same way as a storm jib. It is designed to enable you to make progress to windward even in strong and stormy winds.

Trysails generally use the same mast track as the mainsail but you have to introduce the slides into the gate from the head of the trysail.

Rig Types

There are two main types of rigs: fore-and-aft rig and square-rigged.

Fore-and-aft Rig

This is a sailing rig that chiefly has the sails set along the lines of the keel and not perpendicular to it. It can be divided into three categories: Bermuda rig, Gaff rig, and Lateen rig.

Bermuda Rig - Also known as a Marconi rig, this is the typical configuration of most modern sailboats. It has been used since the 17th century and remains one of the most efficient types of rigs.

The rig revolves around setting a triangular sail aft of the mast with the head raised to the top of the mast. The luff should run down the mast and be attached to the entire length.

Gaff Rig - This is the most popular fore-and-aft rig on vessels such as the schooner and barquentine. It revolves around having the sail four-cornered and controlled at its peak. In other words, the head of the mainsail is guided by a gaff.

Lateen Rig - This is a triangular fore-and-aft rig whereby a triangular sail is configured on a long yard that's mounted at a given angle of the mast while running in a fore-and-aft direction. Lateen rig is commonly used in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

Square Rigged

This is rig whereby the mainsails are arranged in a horizontal spar so that they're square or vertical to the mast and the keel of the boat. The square rig is highly efficient when sailing downwind and was once very popular with ocean-going sailboats.


Unquestionably, sailing is always pleasurable. Imagine turning off the engine of your boat, hoisting the sails, and filling them with air! This is, without a doubt, a priceless moment that will make your boat keel and jump forward!

But being propelled by the noiseless motion of the wind and against the mighty currents and pounding waves of the seas require that you know various sail types and how to use them not just in propelling your boat but also in ensuring that you enjoy sailing and stay safe. Sails are a gorgeous way of getting forward. They remain the main fascination of sailboats and sea cruising. If anything, sails and boats are inseparable and are your true friends when out there on the water. As such, getting to know different types of sails and how to use them properly is of great importance.

All in all, let's wish you calm seas, fine winds, and a sturdy mast!

Sail Rigs And Types - The Only Guide You Need

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Sail Rigs And Types - The Only Guide You Need

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