What Is a Ketch Sailboat?

What Is a Ketch Sailboat? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

August 30, 2022

Ketch sailboats are a common sight in some areas, and they have numerous handling benefits. But what is a ketch, and how does it differ?

A ketch is a two-mast sailboat similar to a yawl. The mainmast is shorter than a sloop, and the mizzenmast aft is shorter than the mainmast. A ketch usually has a triangular mizzen sail and a triangular or square headsail.

In this article, we’ll cover the general characteristics of a ketch and how to distinguish it from other two-masted sailboats. Additionally, we’ll go over the benefits of the ketch rig and how it compares to the similar yawl rig. We’ll also overview the most common types of ketch sailboats on the water today.

We sourced the information used in this article from sailboat identification guides and rig design diagrams.


Table of contents

General Description of a Ketch Sailboat

A ketch is a two-masted sailboat with a tall mizzenmast mast aft of the mainmast. A key characteristic of Ketch sailboats is that their mizzenmast is shorter than the mainmast.

The mainmast itself is typical and resembles a sloop mast. A ketch has a mainsail and one or more headsails on the mainmast, along with a single mizzen on the mizzenmast.

A ketch can easily be mistaken for a yawl, as these vessels have similar sail arrangements. Ketch sailboats can have square or triangular rigs, depending on the age and specific design of the boat.

A gaff headsail is usually accompanied by a triangular mizzen on a ketch, similar to a schooner.

Ketch Sailboat History

The ketch is a relatively old part of the sailing world. Based on the classic yawl design, the ketch was used extensively for workboats on the New England coast at the height of the sailing era.

Ketch sailboats were robust and easy to handle. They also tracked a naturally straight course due to their mizzen, which was used as a primitive form of self-steering. This was helpful for small fishing boats, as the crew didn’t need to attend to the rudder quite so often.

Ketch sailboats continued working the New England coast well into the era of steam. In the mid to late-1800s, ketch-rigged workboats were still a common sight in coastal areas.

Today, they persist as recreational and cruising sailboats, as their tough and stable rigs are still a practical option for boatbuilders.

Types of Ketch Sailboats

There are many types of ketch sailboats on the water. The ketch is not the most common kind of sailboat, but there are enough of them around to notice once in a while. Ketch sailboats were once utility boats, but they’ve been strictly used for recreational and cruising boats for the last 100 years or so.

The most common kind of ketch is the simple cruising ketch. These sailboats are typically made of fiberglass and resemble other cruising sailboats in almost every way.

Their interior accommodations are the same as a comparably-sized sloop, though cockpit space is limited due to the presence of a mizzenmast and rigging.

The ketch rig is a popular choice for motorsailers, especially heavy-displacement versions. The ketch is a stable design with quite a bit of power due to its additional mast, which allows the mainsail and boom footprint to be slightly smaller. The ketch is also highly controllable, which is great for closed-cockpit sailboats.

The ketch rig is also popular on classic sailboats. Specifically, the gaff-rigged ketch is a common sight in some classic boat circles—particularly on the East Coast of the United States. Wooden ketch-rigged boats were outfitted with both traditional square and modern triangular rigs.

There are a few smaller open-cockpit ketch sailboats around, and these are popular for cruising deeper water—but not far from shore. Open cruising ketch sailboats are usually less than 20 feet long and can be found most often around Chesapeake Bay.

Cutter Ketch Rig

A cutter ketch is simply a ketch rig with additional headsails. Because the mast is in the same position as a sloop, the ketch is easy to rig with additional forward sails. A typical cruising ketch can use a wide variety of headsails, including a spinnaker.

Ketch Vs Yawl

The ketch rig is very similar to the yawl, which also has a tall mainmast and an additional mizzenmast and mizzen aft. The yawl is a much older boat that originated in England or Scotland around the 17th century.

The yawl rig usually has a shorter mizzenmast that’s positioned further aft, as the mizzen boom usually extends beyond the stern of the boat. A ketch mizzen is positioned forward, usually a bit larger and more comparable to the size of the mainsail.

Yawl and ketch rigs are both quite stable. A ketch usually has a bit more power due to its larger mizzen, though the yawl is generally considered to be easier for a single person or a short-handed crew to handle.

Ketch Rig Benefits

There are numerous benefits to the ketch rig, especially when compared to tall Marconi/Bermuda rigs. The primary benefit is that, despite the additional mast and rigging, a ketch is exceptionally easy to handle.

A ketch spreads out its sail area between the headsail, mainsail, and mizzen. The additional mast and sail allow the mainmast to be shortened, which naturally makes the boat easier to control single-handed.

Ketch rigs offer additional precision, as you can adjust three sails independently to optimize performance for any given wind condition. The mizzen is in close proximity to the cockpit, and due to its small size, it’s easy to control.

Ketch rigs can also self-steer to some extent. The mizzen works the same way that a stabilizing sail on a fishing drift boat does and keeps the boat tracking on a straight course with or without constant rudder input from the crew.

The ketch rig also offers a level of redundancy that traditional single-masted sailboats don’t have. This is particularly attractive to long-range cruisers. A ketch has a shorter mainmast, which allows boatbuilders to use stronger materials and maintain the same weight.

A ketch can continue sailing if you lose a mainstay or suffer dismasting, as there’s an additional mast aft that probably won’t also go down. This extra level of safety is useful when conditions are rough, and it also gives you peace of mind when out on the open ocean.

What Is a Ketch 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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