The Different Types Of Sails And When To Use Them – Complete Guide

Sail forms an integral part of a sailboat. When you sail on the open water and observe other boats (in various sizes), you’d have noticed how each boat type has a specific model of sail. If you’re a beginner in boating, you must know that there are a ton of different sails and they each have their own purpose. 

As a general setup, sailboats will use three common sails, including headsail, mainsail, and specialty sail. Due to the varying wind conditions and the model of the sailboat, there are many types of sails including jib, genoa, trysail, storm jib, code zero, gennaker, and spinnaker. 

While that sounds like too many models of sails, you can easily differentiate between them and choose the ideal model based on your purpose. This article guides you on this aspect. Let’s begin!

Different Types of Sails & When To Use Them

1. Mainsail

Mainsail is by far the most widely spotted sail model, and it’s usually fixed to the boom and fitted behind the mast. This offers the highest mileage to your sailboat, thereby maximizing speed and performance. 

You can use a mainsail if:

  • You’re concerned about the performance
  • You need to go faster and utilize all wind power 
  • You need to steer your boat irrespective of the wind’s status
  • You’ve a large boat and can offer adequate space to this sail. 

This mainsail displays a wide surface area to make the most out of the available wind condition. As a result, you can steer your boat quite easily. However, the downside is its size. It is very large and hard to store if you need to take it down for some reason.

Check out my other article all about maintaing sails!

2. Headsail

Similar to a mainsail, it’s very easy to spot a head sail. Just look at the bow of the boat and see if there is a sail. If you see one then yes that’s a headsail. Also called a jib or genoa, a headsail is smaller in size compared to a mainsail and attaches in front of the mast to the forestay. The Foresail will not have a boom for the clew of the sail to attach to. The clew will be attached to the foresails sheet. It can be used without the mainsail in certain conditions but for the most part the two sails are used together. The foresail is always forward of the main.

The headsail comes in many different forms such as a jib, genoa, spinnaker or storm jib. The most common headsail is a jib or genoa.

You can use a headsail if:

  • Your sailboat is set up for it.
  • You don’t want to use the mainsail at this time.
  • Your mainsail is not usable.  

The biggest advantage of a headsail is the option to protect yourself even if the wind turns unpredictable or wild. This all depends on the type of headsail you are using.

So, what are the different types of headsails? Let’s take a look! 

2.1 Jib

As more boaters chose to use a headsail for their boats, the jib was introduced as one of its forms. The Jib is a form of headsail that is attached to a shackle present on the deck’s front region. 

The Jib is a sail that does not go past the mast when it is raised and in use. If it goes past the mast then you probably have a genoa.

You can use a jib if:

  • You are out for a normal day of sailing in moderate wind speeds
  • You have a roller furling. Which is a sail that wraps up around itself.

Some weather conditions can make maneuvering harder or tighter than usual. As a result, it’s essential to use a jib in such cases. It functions well with boats containing a roller furling as the jib handles different positions and tackles the movement of the boat at ease. 

2.2 Genoa 

Just when you’ve got acquainted with the jib, genoa comes into the picture as a larger version of the jib. If you’re boating along a coastal region, the genoa sail is the one widely used and is attached to the front area of the deck as well.

Here’s a quick trick to find out if a boat has a genoa sail. This genoa is usually larger than a Jib. This means that the genoa effortlessly overlaps and extends itself beyond the mast, thereby covering the mainsail as well. 

You should use a genoa sail if:

  • You’re planning to sail in minimum wind conditions. Less wind means you need more sail.
  • You find the wind to originate from the rear area. 
  • You own a large boat. Remember that genoa can partially or completely cover the mainsail too. Larger sails for larger boats!

While it’s great for sailing in regular conditions, there are downsides associated with it. A genoa can put you in a dangerous situation if you are sailing in high wind conditions and don’t have the ability to furl in the sail. Furling in the sail will reduce the area of the sail and catch less wind.

Genoas do come in many sizes as well such as 110% or 120%.

The next section of the sail list are ones that aren’t necessary but can be helpful in certain situations. Let’s look at specialty sails!

3. Specialty Sail

While headsails and mainsails are quite commonly used, there are also specialty sails in the market to address specific requirements. Some of the widely seen specialty sails are spinnakers, storm jibs, and code zeros. 

3.1 Spinnakers

Spinnaker is a sail dedicated to downwind and is quite large. Think of a beautifully covered parachute.

It’s easy to spot spinnakers as they resemble kites or parachutes. However, it crosses the bow of the boat and isn’t attached to the forestay.

Unlike the genoa sail that covers the mast, a spinnaker fails to do so. The advantage of a spinnaker is the surface area. When the wind is light, the spinnaker can catch a lot more wind giving you more speed. The Spinnaker is usually fixed to three points – pole, halyard, and sheet.

You should use a spinnaker if:

  • You have minimal wind on a run. 
  • You are trying to harness as much wind power as you can.

While it has a wide surface area, the downside is its inability to steer the boat during strong wind conditions. It can even put the passengers at risk when the wind is at high speeds. 

Make sure you have experience before trying out the spinnaker.

3.2 Storm Jibs

Storm jib is another type of specialty sail meant exclusively for rough weather. It’s a tiny, triangular structure that helps during offshore racing or cruising. Just think of it as a smaller jib.

You should use a storm jib if:

  • You’re going to sail in heavy weather conditions. 
  • You anticipate high wind speeds.
  • You’re going to be in an offshore race and they are an approved sail type.

Note: In the case of an offshore racing requirement, it’s critical to take prior permission from the regulatory authority for using a storm jib. 

3.3 Code Zeros

Code zero is another updated version of a spinnaker that’s meant to be a combination of genoa and gennaker sails. It resembles the look of a genoa but is a lot bigger. 

You should use a code zero if:

  • You’re looking for an overlapping flying headsail. 
  • You’re sailing only in light air conditions.
  • You’re looking for an alternative to a Genoa. 

Having said that, a code zero or a screecher does the job of a genoa with better efficiencies. 

3.4 Trysail  

Trysail is another type of specialty sail that’s tiny, triangular, and can be fixed right above a gooseneck on the sailboat. 

The Trysail is less known in the market as most boaters go ahead with common mainsails and headsails. It’s essential to acknowledge trysail as a front-and-aft mainsail model. It offers excellent performance and contains a permanent pennant in it. 

You should use a trysail if:

  • You’re sailing in heavy weather conditions. 
  • You’re looking for a storm replacement. 
  • You are experienced with using them.

The quadrilateral sail in a trysail is usually turned and bent to a mast, and this helps in heading the vessel during windy conditions. 

3.5 Gennakers

If you’ve been able to spot genoa and spinnaker in the past, identifying a gennaker is incredibly easy. A gennaker is a hybrid sail form that is small, slow, and requires no pole attached to the mast. 

You should use a gennaker if:

  • You’re looking for a smaller version of a spinnaker. 
  • You’ve no space to fix a pole to the mast. 
  • You require the sail to be easily manageable. 
  • You’re sailing in a region requiring minimum downwind levels. 

Choosing a hybrid sail has a lot of benefits as it combines the usefulness of 2 sail models. However, being aware of their cons is critical to planning a safe sail.

As you begin using these sails, you can also look for better customizations. There are drifters, wind seekers, and other jib types that are meant to handle different wind conditions. 


How Many Sails On A Sailboat?

In general, a sailboat contains two sails. Two sails is the typical setup for the best performance of the boat during different wind conditions. It’s essential to pick your two sails based on your sailing plan.

Why Are There Two Sails On A Sailboat?

A sailboat uses two sails because the wind left over by the first sail is easily caught by the second sail. This helps in steering the sailboat to a better extent and gives the sailboat more power.

Final Thoughts

Sails are one of the major assets of a sailboat. From managing wind to maximizing the performance and longevity of a sailboat, the type of sails you use, plays a huge role. From the various sail types listed in this article, you can choose the best model that fits your sailing routine. Just make sure to remember to check and make sure they are the correct size for your vessel.

Make sure to plan ahead and have the right sails for your sailing weekend. Cheers!


Boatlifehq owner and author/editor of this article.

Recent Posts