Types of Sailboat Hulls

Types of Sailboat Hulls | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Sailboats come in numerous hull shapes. These include single-hull monohulls, along with double and triple-hull multihulls.

There are two main categories of sailboat hulls: monohulls and multihulls. Common monohull types include flat-bottom vessels, fin-keel racers, bulb and bilge keel cruisers, heavy semi-displacement sailboats, and dense full-keel displacement cruisers. Multihull designs include catamarans and trimarans.

In this article, we'll cover the most common types of sailboat hulls along with their best uses. We'll explain the difference between monohulls and multihulls, along with how keel shape influences sailboat performance.

We sourced the information for this article from sailing experts, hull shape guides, and the written wisdom of famous sailboat designers. Additionally, we researched sailboat sales figures to determine the most popular vessel configurations available today.


Table of contents

Importance of Sailboat Hull Design

A sailboat is defined by its rig and hull shape. Sailboat hull shape is one of the deciding factors on how it will handle. Additionally, the shape (and displacement) of a sailboat hull can be used to determine its strengths and weaknesses. Learning about sailboat hull shape can help you understand what kind of boat you need and what your vessel is capable of.

You can easily categorize sailboats based on their hull shape. For example, a heavy deep-draft displacement hull is likely a slow, steady, and comfortable cruiser. In contrast, a sleek flat-bottomed sailboat or catamaran is likely built for speed and could easily outpace even the most nimble displacement cruisers.


The most common kind of sailboat is the monohull. When you think of a sailboat, probably think of a monohull. The term simply means that the vessel has one single hull and nothing more. This is in contrast to multihulls such as catamarans, which are easy to spot and differentiate from traditional designs.

Monohulls are popular because they work. They're easy to build and narrow enough to fit in most marina dock spaces. Monohulls are also generally easy to handle in a variety of conditions, both fair and foul.

One drawback of monohull designs is that they are not quite as stable as most multihulls, though monohulls can recover more easily from a serious roll or capsize. They also cost a lot less, as the vast majority of production sailboats ever constructed were of the same basic single-hull configuration.

Centerboards and Swing Keels

The windward performance of sailboats is greatly improved by the use of a long keel or centerboard. The centerboard is the most simple type of stabilizing device used on sailboats. Usually, the centerboard is simply a long fin that protrudes from the bottom of the hull.

The centerboard keeps the boat on track when the wind is not moving in the boat's direction of travel. This is why sailboats can sail at different angles to the wind without being pushed to the side. A key characteristic of centerboards is that they can be raised and lowered, which is convenient on small boats that need to be trailered or beached.

Swing keels are similar to centerboards in that they can be raised and lowered, though they pivot on a hinge instead of sliding up and down in a truck. Swing keels are either recessed into the hull or held in a housing just below it, which usually also contains much of the boat's ballast. Swing keel designs free up cabin space that would normally be occupied by a bulky centerboard trunk.

Centerboards and most swing keels are an alternative to a permanently affixed keel. They're generally not considered to be as seaworthy as other hull designs, so their use is confined primarily to inland and coastal cruising.

Monohull Sailboat Hull Shapes

When in the water, it's difficult to distinguish between the different types of monohull shapes. In most cases, you have to pull the boat out of the water to figure out what hull shape you're dealing with. Next, we'll go over the most common monohull sailboat shapes and their uses.

Flat-Bottom Sailboats

Flat bottom sailboats are the easiest to build and often the fastest. These vessels have a very shallow draft and are often lightweight, so they slide easily and quickly across the water. Flat bottom sailboats make excellent racing boats and 'gunkholers,' which are primarily used for camping and hopping between shallow Islands.

Flat bottom sailboats usually have centerboards or swing keels, which makes them great for shallow water, beaching, and towing on a trailer. The use of flat bottom sailboats is confined primarily to inland and coastal waters, as a flat bottom does not handle well in swells and rough weather. Flat bottom sailboats pound hard on chop, and they lack the low center of gravity that's necessary for good stability.

Fin Keel Sailboat Hulls

The fin keel is a popular alternative to centerboards, and vessels utilizing this low-profile hull shape have proven to be quite seaworthy. Fin keels are popular on fast racing boats and lightweight cruisers. A fin keel resembles a centerboard, but it usually extends much further from the base of the hull.

The majority of a sailboat's draft comes from the fin keel, as the hulls of these sailboats tend to be rounded and shallow. They resemble flat-bottom designs, but slight rounding significantly increases comfort. Fin keel sailboats are ideal for racing and coastal cruising, and some models can be used for extended offshore passages.

Bulb Keel Sailboat Hulls

A bulb keel sailboat hull usually resembles most fin keel varieties. The hulls of these vessels tend to be shallow and rounded, with a long and thin fin extending from the base of the hull. A bulb keel is essentially just a thin blade with a bulb on the bottom.

Bulb keels are different from fin keels as they usually contain additional ballast weight for stability. The hydrodynamic properties of bulb keels are proven to be efficient. As a result, these boats can also be quite fast. In a direct comparison, a vessel with a bulb keel will likely be more seaworthy than the same sailboat with only a fin keel or a centerboard.

Bilge Keel Sailboat Hulls

The hull shape of a bilge keel sailboat usually resembles that of a bulb or fin keel sailboat, with one major distinction. Instead of one long and thin keel descending from the center of the hull, a bilge keel sailboat has two lengthier fins offset on the port and starboard side.

The idea behind the bilge keel design is that when the vessel heels to one side, one of the two keels will be straightened out. This, in theory, provides better tracking and improves stability. It also distributes ballast evenly on both sides. Bilge keels can also improve motion comfort, and they can reduce the vessel's draft by a small margin.

Bilge keel sailboats offer a balance between seaworthiness and speed. These vessels can be used as bluewater cruisers and coastal cruisers. They can also hold their own in any yacht club regatta.

While a bilge keel sailboat may not be ideal for cruising the North Atlantic during the winter, it can certainly make a safe and comfortable passage maker that can gain a knot or two of speed above its heavier counterparts.

Semi-Displacement Sailboat Hulls

Now, we'll look at some true bluewater cruising designs. The semi-displacement hull features a long and deep keel that runs from about the center of the hull all the way back to the rudder. Semi-displacement hulls get deeper the further back you go, reaching their longest point at the very aft end of the boat.

The offshore benefits of a long and deep keel are numerous, as this hull shape provides an enormous amount of stability and a very low center of gravity. The design itself it's quite old, and it's featured on many classic cruising sailboats and workboats.

Though less common in the modern era than more contemporary fin keel designs, a traditional semi-displacement sailboat offers easy handling and enhanced motion comfort. Semi-displacement hulls tend to have a deep draft and therefore are not ideal for shallow water. They handle confidently in all conditions, though they usually aren't as fast as newer designs.

Displacement Sailboat Hulls

Displacement hulls, also known as full keel hulls, are the bulldozers of the sailboat world. These traditional vessels are deep, heavy, relatively slow, and capable of plowing through the roughest weather conditions.

Displacement hulls have a long keel that begins at the bow and extends all the way after the rudder. Like semi-displacement hulls, full keel sailboats offer excellent motion comfort and confident handling.

Displacement hulls have the best directional stability and downwind maneuvering abilities. Their handling is more forgiving, and they're less jumpy at the helm. Many of these boats heel gently and give the crew more time to respond to changing conditions.

The primary downside to displacement hulls is their high cost and sheer mass. Displacement boats are large and take up a lot of space. They're usually too tall and heavy for trailering, so they tend to remain in the water most of the time.

Displacement hulls aren't made to just sit at the dock or jump around the lake; they're designed for real-deal offshore sailing. They also have the roomiest cabins, as the hull extends further down and longer than any other hull shape.


Now, let's examine multihull sailboat designs and why you may want to consider one. Some of the earliest seagoing vessels had multiple hulls, usually featuring one long hull (occupied by the crew) and a small stabilizing hull off to one side.

Multihulls have only recently become popular, and they make up a decent portion of the modern production boat market. This is because of their numerous design benefits and spacious cabins. Multihulls are almost guaranteed to be more expensive than monohulls (both new and used), and the used market is still saturated with expensive luxury cruising sailboats.

Modern multihull sailboats feature a large pilothouse in the center and plenty of cabin space in each full-size hull. They offer excellent motion comfort and achieve very high speeds. Due to their wide beam, they provide spacious living spaces and excellent stability. Here are the two main types of multihull sailboats.


From above, a catamaran looks like two thin monohull sailboats lashed together and spaced apart. Fundamentally, that's exactly what they are. Except catamarans have a very shallow draft and the capability to reach very high speeds.

Catamarans have two hulls instead of one, and each hull is typically a mirror of the other. They achieve their space using width rather than length, so a 30-foot catamaran has significantly more interior room than a 30-foot monohull.

Their primary drawback is that, due to their width, catamarans usually require two standard dock spaces instead of one. But at sea, they don't heel over dramatically like monohulls, which makes them much more comfortable to eat, sleep, and cook inside of.


Trimarans follow the same basic design principles as catamarans, except they have a third hull in the center. From above, a trimaran looks like a monohull with two smaller hulls lashed to the sides. Unlike a catamaran, the primary living space of a trimaran is in the large center hull. Trimarans are essentially just monohulls with stabilizers on the side, resembling ancient sailing canoes.

Trimarans have the same spatial and stability benefits as catamarans, though they can achieve higher speeds and better sea keeping. This is because of the additional stability provided by the center hall. Trimarans tend to be costlier than catamarans, though many sailors believe that the benefits outweigh the cost.

Best Sailboat Hull Shape for Speed

If we take wave height and weather conditions out of the equation, the fastest sailboats are usually the longest. Sailboats are limited by hull speed and sail plan size regardless of their hull shape. That said, the fastest sailboats tend to be flat bottom monohulls, fin keel monohulls, and trimarans.

Best Sailboat Hull Shape for Motion Comfort

The best sailboat for motion comfort is the catamaran. These wide and seaworthy vessels 'stance up' and minimize rolling. They also come close to completely eliminating heeling.

Wide and stable multihulls are popular because they alleviate some of the most common complaints of sailors. Trimarans are also an excellent choice for comfort, as their stabilizers minimize the effect of rolling in heavy seas.

Most Seaworthy Sailboat Hull Shape

Today, many people consider multihulls to be the most seaworthy design on the market. However, seaworthiness is more than just average stability in rough weather. Many Sailors argue that traditional displacement sailboat hull designs are the most seaworthy.

Displacement hulls have a low center of gravity which improves their knockdown survivability. In other words, in the (rare) event of a displacement boat knockdown, the weight of the keel is more likely to swing the boat back up and out of trouble. Multihulls cannot recover from a knockdown, as they like the pendulum-like recoil ability.

Most Spacious Sailboat Hull Type

The most spacious hull sailboat type is the catamaran. Catamarans have two nearly full-size hulls (one on each side) plus a large central pilothouse that resembles the main cabin of a large powerboat.

Many typical catamarans fit an entire kitchen into the Pilot House along with four private births and two full-sized heads in its hulls. Some mid-size catamarans even come with a bathtub, which is essentially unheard of on equivalent monohulls.

Spaciousness varies on small monohulls. Larger cabins are usually found on bulb and bilge keel designs, as swing keel and centerboard boats need somewhere to hide their skegs. Centerboard boats are the least spacious, as the centerboard trunk must occupy the middle of the cabin space.

Types of Sailboat Hulls
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.

Read more articles

by this author

Home /

Types of Sailboat Hulls

Types of Sailboat Hulls
7 Best Places To Liveaboard A Sailboat >>Can You Live On A Sailboat Year Round? >>

Most Recent

Important Legal Info

Similar Posts

Popular Posts

Get The Best Sailing Content

Welcome aboard! Check your email...
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Lifeofsailing.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon. This site also participates in other affiliate programs and is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.

(866) 342-SAIL

© 2024 Life of Sailing
Email: contact@lifeofsailing.com
Address: 11816 Inwood Rd #3024 Dallas, TX 75244
DisclaimerPrivacy Policy