Sail Types: A Comprehensive Guide to 8 Types of Sails

Sailboats come in all shapes and sizes. And that means there are many types of sails on the market! For those who might not know, sails are made of canvas and use wind power to propel sailboats through the water.

Understandably, different sails are required for different types of sailboats. And sailboats are categorized by the number of hulls they have.

Monohulls have a single-hull design, catamarans have two hulls, and trimarans have three. Generally, sailors use catamarans for upwind sailing (but they can be used to sail downwind in certain conditions). 

The type of sail you'll need for your sailboat depends on the kind of sailboat you have. Additionally, sails are highly dependent on the wind and weather conditions.

Therefore, it's always a good idea to have different types of sails on board to navigate the ever-changing weather conditions. 


8 Types of Sails for Sailboats

As mentioned, you should carry multiple sails when sailing to prepare for various weather conditions. Here's a brief overview of the types of sails for sailboats: 

1. Mainsails

The mainsail is the largest and most important sail. Therefore, it's probably the first sail to come to mind when you think of camping. Typically, it's situated directly behind the mast — connected to the boom — and uses wind energy to move the vessel. The mainsail plays a significant role in tacking and gybing, making it essential for any voyage. 

Since the mainsail is a larger sail, it doesn't require wind to propel it forward. And the fact that it can be moved by moving the boom makes it uber-easy to operate. 

Learn More About Sailing

2. Headsail

The headsail often accompanies the mainsail, though it is smaller in size. Regardless of your sailboat type, the headsail is positioned at the front of the mast – over the sailboat's bow. 

Because headsails are small, they are helpful when navigating through windy conditions. Smaller sails catch less wind, preventing them from propelling your boat as strongly as larger sails. Additionally, headsails help lift, balance, and protect the vessel from inclement weather conditions.

While the term 'headsail' refers to any sail in front of the mast, the jib is the most common type of headsail. (And when a jib is so large that it overlaps the mast, it's called a genoa.)

Learn More About Sailboats

3. Genoa 

The genoa is a large sail that attaches to the front of the forestay. (In this instance, it's similar to a headsail.) However, the genoa is larger than the headsail and overlaps the mainsail partially or completely to help the boat go faster. 

Genoa sails are useful when sailing through light or medium wind. You can also use it when the wind comes directly from the rear. If you use a Genoa sail during high winds, you'll probably start sailing too quickly and put yourself and your boat at risk. 

4. Spinnaker

The spinnaker is a large and whimsical (often colorful) sail. Spinnaker sails are usually symmetrical, allowing them to reach different points of sail. Generally, these are lighter sails and don't cover the mast like the genoa. 

Because spinnaker sails are on the larger side, you have to be incredibly careful with them. Don't use them in rough conditions. Instead, save them for sailing in low winds and calm seas.

5. Gennaker

As the name suggests, the Gennaker sail combines a spinnaker and a Genoa sail. They are as large as the spinnaker, although they're not symmetrical.

They come in handy whenever the wind changes from a pure dead run to a reaching point of sail, as sailors can navigate various wind types with the same sail. It's still only meant for lighter and milder winds, but it's more versatile than the spinnaker and genoa. 

6. Light Air Sails

Light air sails are useful in calmer conditions when the headsail and mainsail alone aren't cutting it. They include:

  • Code Zero: A code zero sail is a gennaker sail ideal for sailing in light to mild winds. It's designed to create lift and boost boat speed whenever regular sails don't generate enough power. For that reason, many racers and cruisers use code zero sails to improve performance and gain control in various situations. 
  • Windseeker: This small, special sail is reserved for no wind or light wind. Essentially, it helps boats remain maneuverable in extremely calm conditions. And for that reason, it's valuable to long-distance sailors. 

7. Storm Jib

Storm jibs can be used as a headsail whenever the weather is particularly rough and windy. Because it functions as a safety seal, it prevents boats from capsizing by reducing the sail area exposed to the wind. Therefore, it's a necessary sail for every sailor. 

Read Next: Boating in Inclement Weather

8. Trysail

During strong winds and storms, sailors can raise a trysail — a small, triangular sail near the boat's stern — for better control and stability. Generally, sailors do this whenever the mainsail becomes too large and challenging to maneuver.