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Looking at a Sailboat

Sailboats come in all sizes, shapes, and types. The beauty of sailing is that you can't help but find a boat (or two or three) that's just right for you. All sailing craft, big or small, have at least one (and sometimes more) of the following components.

The hull

The hull is (ideally) the floating body of a boat, and it can be made of a wide variety of materials, including wood, fiberglass, metal, plastic — even cement. The hull can be as small as a surfboard or more than 100 feet long.

You can get a good idea about how fast a boat is by how it looks. Just as you can tell that a sports car will be faster than a golf cart, you can tell that a big, heavy, wide boat with a short mast is a good cruiser but won't break any speed records on the water. Sailboats fall into three basic types based on their hull shape.

  • Sailboards: These boatsare basically surfboards with a sail. Theycome in many different sizes and shapes, depending on their intended use and the skill level of the rider. Sailboarding is a great way to enjoy the sport with equipment that you can throw on the roof of your car.
  • Multihulls: Multihulls are boats with more than one hull (makes sense, doesn't it?). A boat with two hulls is called a catamaran; a boat with three hulls, a trimaran. Multihulls, especially small, light ones, can be thrilling to sail — with a little wind, one hull lifts out of the water, and you feel like you're flying across the water. Bigger multihulls (more than 30 feet) can be great cruising boats. Because of their width, they're very stable and have a tremendous amount of space for their length. Multihulls are fast, too, because they're very light and don't have heavy keels, or as much surface area underwater, as monohulls (boats with one hull) of the same size.
  • Monohulls: These sailboats are the most common type of boat, and they have one hull. Most of the world's sailing and racing takes place in monohulls, broadly classified as either dinghies or keelboats. The typical marina is full of monohull keelboats of all shapes and sizes.

If you compare these water-based crafts to their land-based cousins, sailboards are the skateboards, dinghies are the bicycles, and keelboats are the cars. And multihulls? The fastest ones are airplanes!

The underwater fin

Hanging underneath the back end of most sailboats (except sailboards) is a rotating fin called a rudder. The rudder steers the boat. Underneath the middle of most sailboats is a second, larger, fin called a keel or centerboard.

The primary purpose of both keels and centerboards is to keep the boat from skidding sideways from the force of the wind and to provide lift so your boat can sail closer to the wind. (When sailing, your sails and the underwater fins act like wings.) Although a few exceptions exist, if the fin is fixed (not movable) and made of a heavy material like lead, it's usually a keel. And if the fin is lightweight and retractable, it's usually a centerboard.

  • Keelboats:Keelboats have a keel, a fixed, heavy lead fin for ballast hanging under their hull, providing stability against the wind's force. The smallest keelboats are model (sometimes radio-controlled) sailboats, but keelboats that carry human passengers are usually more than 20 feet in length.
  • Dinghies: Dinghies are nimble, small sailboats that are typically more responsive than their ballasted cousins sporting keels. But watch out — dinghies can capsize, or tip over. Instead of that ballast weight in the keel, they have a lighter fin called a centerboard that's retractable. The centerboard may also be called a daggerboard if it retracts vertically, depending on its position and movement (or a leeboard if it's mounted on the side of the boat). Most dinghies range in length from 8 to 20 feet.

The mast

The mast is the vertical pole that supports the sails. Although most modern sailboats have just one mast, some sailboats have several masts that can carry many sails. (Remember the pictures of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria in your history textbook?)You may have heard of square riggers, schooners, or yawls. These types of sailing craft are named for the number and position of their masts and the profile of the sails.

Although older boats have wooden masts, most modern boats have masts made of aluminum, which is easier to mass-produce into a lighter and stronger pole. The fastest racing boats use carbon fiber. On bigger boats, an array of wires usually supports the mast. These wires are called the standing rigging.

The sails

The mast (and standing rigging) supports the third and most common feature of sailboats — the sails.A sail is simply a big piece of fabric that catches the wind, enabling you to use its force to move the boat. The sails are your engines — their power or fuel comes from the wind. The main, or mainsail, sets along the back edge of the tallest mast. Some boats carry only a mainsail, while others have a headsail as well. A headsail sets in front of the mast. Headsails come in different types, but the most common is a jib.

You can use one of many types of specialty sails to make a boat go as fast as possible at different angles to the wind. A common specialty headsail is the spinnaker — abig, colorful, parachute-like sail used when sailing downwind (going with the wind).

The rope

When a sailboat is rigged (prepared and ready to go sailing), all the ropes used to raise and adjust the sails can look like spaghetti. This pasta is all part of the boat's running rigging. Even the simplest sailboat has several adjustment ropes, and each has its own name. For example, the rope running up mast that's used to pull the sails up is called the halyard. Just to make everything more confusing, the "proper" names for ropes on a sailboat, when they have a purpose and use, are lines, as in "Throw me a line." But most sailors use the terms interchangeably without confusing their crews, and they are equally acceptable.

When you're starting out, understanding what the lines do is more important than worrying about what to call them. So the only line that you need to know to start sailing is the sheet — the primary line that adjusts the sail trim (the angle of the sail to the wind), referred to with the sail it adjusts (for example, mainsheet and jib sheet).

Depending on the wind strength and the size of the sails, pulling in the mainsheet (and most of the other lines) can be a tough job. Most boats use a system of blocks, or pulleys, to make pulling in the lines that carry a lot of load easier. So you don't have to hold that mainsheet with your teeth when your arms get tired, the typical mainsheet system also has a conveniently located cleat.

In a sailboat, the wind is your fuel, and the sail is your engine. So the gas pedal is the sheet, the rope that pulls in the sail and harnesses the power of the wind.

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