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There are a lot of different sailboats in the world. In fact, they’ve been making sailboats for thousands of years. And over that time, mankind and naval architects (okay, mostly the naval architects!) have learned a thing or two.

If you’re wondering what makes one sailboat different from another, consider this article a primer. It certainly doesn’t contain everything you’d need to know to build a sailboat, but it gives the novice boater some ideas of what goes on behind the curtain. It will also provide some tips to help you compare different boats on the water, and hopefully, it will guide you towards the sort of boat you could call home one day.

white yacht in body of water during daytime

Basics of Hull Design

When you think about a sailboat hull and how it is built, you might start thinking about the shape of a keel. This has certainly spurred a lot of different designs over the years, but the hull of a sailboat today is designed almost independently of the keel. 

In fact, if you look at a particular make and model of sailboat, you’ll notice that the makers often offer it with a variety of keel options. For example, this new Jeanneau Sun Odyssey comes with either a full fin bulb keel, shallow draft bulb fin, or very shallow draft swing keel. Where older long keel designs had the keel included in the hull mold, today’s bolt-on fin keel designs allow the manufacturers more leeway in customizing a yacht to your specifications.

What you’re left with is a hull, and boat hulls take three basic forms.

  • Displacement hull
  • Semi-displacement hulls
  • Planing hulls

Displacement Hulls

Most times, the hull of a sailboat will be a displacement hull. To float, a boat must displace a volume of water equal in weight to that of the yacht. This is Archimedes Principle, and it’s how displacement hulled boats get their name.

The displacement hull sailboat has dominated the Maritimes for thousands of years. It has only been in the last century that other designs have caught on, thanks to advances in engine technologies. In short, sailboats and sail-powered ships are nearly always displacement cruisers because they lack the power to do anything else.

A displacement hull rides low in the water and continuously displaces its weight in water. That means that all of that water must be pushed out of the vessel’s way, and this creates some operating limitations. As it pushes the water, water is built up ahead of the boat in a bow wave. This wave creates a trough along the side of the boat, and the wave goes up again at the stern. The distance between the two waves is a limiting factor because the wave trough between them creates a suction. 

This suction pulls the boat down and creates drag as the vessel moves through the water. So in effect, no matter how much power is applied to a displacement hulled vessel, it cannot go faster than a certain speed. That speed is referred to as the hull speed, and it’s a factor of a boat’s length and width. 

For an average 38 foot sailboat, the hull speed is around 8.3 knots. This is why shipping companies competed to have the fastest ship for many years by building larger and larger ships.

While they might sound old-school and boring, displacement hulls are very efficient because they require very little power—and therefore very little fuel—to get them up to hull speed. This is one reason enormous container ships operate so efficiently. 

white sail boat on sea during daytime

Semi Displacement Hulls

Of course, living in the 21st century, you undoubtedly have seen boats go faster than their hull speed. Going faster is simply a matter of defeating the bow wave in one way or another.

One way is to build the boat so that it can step up onto and ride the bow wave like a surfer. This is basically what a semi-displacement hull does. With enough power, this type of boat can surf its bow wave, break the suction it creates and beat its displacement hull speed.

Planing Hulls

With even more power, a boat can leave its bow wave in the dust and zoom past it. This requires the boat’s bottom to channel water away and sit on the surface. Once it is out of the water, any speed is achievable with enough power. 

But it takes enormous amounts of power to get a boat on plane, so planing hulls are hardly efficient. But they are fast. Speedboats are planing hulls, so if you require speed, go ahead and research the cost of a speedboat

The most stable and forgiving planing hull designs have a deep v hull. A very shallow draft, flat bottomed boat can plane too, but it provides an unforgiving and rough ride in any sort of chop.

white and gray boat on sea during daytime

History of Sailboat Hull Design

If you compare the shapes of the sailboats of today with the cruising boat designs of the 1960s and 70s, you’ll notice that quite a lot has changed in the last 50-plus years. Of course, the old designs are still popular among sailors, but it’s not easy to find a boat like that being built today.

Today’s boats are sleeker. They have wide transoms and flat bottoms. They’re more likely to support fin keels and spade rudders. Rigs have also changed, with the fractional sloop being the preferred setup for most modern production boats.

Why have boats changed so much? And why did boats look so different back then?

One reason was the racing standards of the day. Boats in the 1960s were built to the IOR (International Offshore Rule). Since many owners raced their boats, the IOR handicaps standardized things to make fair play between different makes and models on the racecourse.

The IOR rule book was dense and complicated. But as manufacturers started building yachts, or as they looked at the competition and tried to do better, they all took a basic form. The IOR rule wasn’t the only one around. There were also the Universal Rule, International Rule, Yacht Racing Association Rul, Bermuda Rule, and a slew of others. 

Part of this similarity was the rule, and part of it was simply the collective knowledge and tradition of yacht building. But at that time, there was much less distance between the yachts you could buy from the manufacturers and those setting off on long-distance races.

Today, those wishing to compete in serious racing a building boat’s purpose-built for the task. As a result, one-design racing is now more popular. And similarly, pleasure boats designed for leisurely coastal and offshore hops are likewise built for the task at hand. No longer are the lines blurred between the two, and no longer are one set of sailors “making do” with the requirements set by the other set. 

Modern Features of Sailboat Hull Design

So, what exactly sets today’s cruising and liveaboard boats apart from those built-in decades past? 

Greater Waterline Length

Today’s designs usually feature plumb bows and the maximum beam carried to the aft end. The broad transom allows for a walk-through swim platform and sometimes even storage for the dinghy in a “garage.”

The other significant advantage of this layout is that it maximizes waterline length, which makes a faster boat. Unfortunately, while the boats of yesteryear might have had lovely graceful overhangs, their waterline lengths are generally no match for newer boats. 

The wide beam carried aft also provides an enormous amount of living space. The surface area of modern cockpits is nothing short of astounding when it comes to living and entertaining.

Distinctive Hull Shape and Fin Keel Designs

If you look at the hull lines or can catch a glimpse of these boats out of the water, you’ll notice their underwater profiles are radically different too. It’s hard to find a full keel design boat today. Instead, fin keels dominate, along with high aspect ratio spade rudders. 

The flat bottom boats of today mean a more stable boat that rides flatter. These boats can really move without heeling over like past designs. Additionally, their designs make it possible in some cases for these boats to surf their bow waves, meaning that with enough power, they can easily achieve and sometimes exceed—at least for short bursts—their hull speeds. Many of these features have been found on race boats for decades.

There are downsides to these designs, of course. The flat bottom boats often tend to pound when sailing upwind, but most sailors like the extra speed when heading downwind.

Formentera Ship

How Do You Make a Stable Hull

Ultimately, the job of a sailboat hull is to keep the boat afloat and create stability. These are the fundamentals of a seaworthy vessel. 

There are two types of stability that a design addresses. The first is the initial stability, which is how resistant to heeling the design is. For example, compare a classic, narrow-beamed monohull and a wide catamaran for a moment. The monohull has very little initial stability because it heels over in even light winds. That doesn’t mean it tips over, but it is relatively easy to make heel. 

A catamaran, on the other hand, has very high initial stability. It resists the heel and remains level. Designers call this type of stability form stability.

There is also secondary stability, or ultimate stability. This is how resistant the boat is to a total capsize. Monohull sailboats have an immense amount of ballast low in their keels, which means they have very high ultimate stability. A narrow monohull has low form stability but very high ultimate stability. A sailor would likely describe this boat as “tender,” but they would never doubt its ability to right itself after a knock-down or capsize.

On the other hand, the catamaran has extremely high form stability, but once the boat heels, it has little ultimate stability. In other words, beyond a certain point, there is nothing to prevent it from capsizing. 

Both catamarans and modern monohulls’ hull shapes use their beams to reduce the amount of ballast and weight. A lighter boat can sail fast, but to make it more stable, naval architects increase the beam to increase the form stability.

If you’d like to know more about how stable a hull is, you’ll want to learn about the Gz Curve, which is the mathematical calculation you can make based on a hull’s form and ultimate stabilities. 

Ratios in Hull Design

How does a lowly sailor make heads or tails out of this? You don’t have to be a naval architect when comparing different designs to understand the basics. Two ratios can help you predict how stable a design will be.

The first is the displacement to length ratio. The formula to calculate it is D / (0.01L)^3, where D is displacement in tons and L is waterline length in feet. But most sailboat specifications, like those found on sailboatdata.com, list the D/L Ratio.

This ratio helps understand how heavy a boat is for its length. Heavier boats must move more water to make way, so a heavy boat is more likely to be slower. But, for the ocean-going cruiser, a heavy boat means a stable boat that requires much force to jostle or toss about. A light displacement boat might pound in a seaway, and a heavy one is likely to provide a softer ride.

The second ratio of interest is the sail area to displacement ratio. To calculate, take SA / (D)^0.67, where SA is the sail area in square feet and D is displacement in cubic feet. Again, many online sites provide the ratio calculated for specific makes and models.

This ratio tells you how much power a boat has. A lower ratio means that the boat doesn’t have much power to move its weight, while a bigger number means it has more “get up and go.” Of course, if you really want to sail fast, you’d want the boat to have a low displacement/length and a high sail area/displacement. 

Multihull Sailboat Hulls

Multihull sailboats are more popular than ever before. While many people quote catamaran speed as their primary interest, the fact is that multihulls have a lot to offer cruising and traveling boaters. These vessels are not limited to coastal cruising, as was once believed. Most sizable cats and trimarans are ocean certified.

Both catamarans and trimaran hull designs allow for fast sailing. Their wide beam allows them to sail flat while having extreme form stability. 

white sailboat on sea near green mountain under blue sky during daytime

Catamarans

Catamarans have two hulls connected by a large bridge deck. The best part for cruisers is that their big surface area is full of living space. The bridge deck usually features large, open cockpits with connecting salons. Wrap around windows let in tons of light and fresh air.

Trimarans

Trimarans are basically monohulls with an outrigger hull on each side. Their designs are generally less spacious than catamarans, but they sail even faster. In addition, the outer hulls eliminate the need for heavy ballast, significantly reducing the wetted area of the hulls. 

The Hull Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Boaters and cruising sailors don’t need to be experts in yacht design, but having a rough understanding of the basics can help you pick the right boat. Boat design is a series of compromises, and knowing the ones that designers and builders take will help you understand what the boat is for and how it should be used. 

Sail Boat Hull Design FAQs

What is the most efficient boat hull design?

The most efficient hull design is the displacement hull. This type of boat sits low in the water and pushes the water out of its way. It is limited to its designed hull speed, a factor of its length. But cruising at hull speed or less requires very little energy and can be done very efficiently. 

By way of example, most sailboats have very small engines. A typical 40-foot sailboat has a 50 horsepower motor that burns around one gallon of diesel every hour. In contrast, a 40-foot planing speedboat may have 1,000 horsepower (or more). Its multiple motors would likely be consuming more than 100 gallons per hour (or more). Using these rough numbers, the sailboat achieves about 8 miles per gallon, while the speedboat gets around 2 mpg.

What are sail boat hulls made of?

Nearly all modern sailboats are made of fiberglass. 

Traditionally, boats were made of wood, and many traditional vessels still are today. There are also metal boats made of steel or aluminum, but these designs are less common. Metal boats are more common in expedition yachts or those used in high-latitude sailing.