What is the difference between a Sloop, Ketch, Yawl and Schooner

It’s probably fair to assume that for every sailing term there are at least 3 or more other pieces of jargon that fit equally as well. Sailing terminology can be confusing, although in the writer’s experience, the more experienced a sailor you sail with (especially racers) the more relaxed about it they become. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a very experienced offshore sailor request “a little on the yellow string please..” 

That said, when it comes to types of sailing craft, terminology is pretty much definitive.  Knowing your yawl from your ketch and your ketch from your schooner may not be critical - but sometimes it’s just useful to know. So here goes;


A sloop has a mainsail and headsail configuration, the mainsail being set on the mast at its luff and and a spar at its foot called a boom. 


A schooner has two or more masts with the foreward-most mast shorter than the others. Most schooners are larger sailing vessels and tall ships these days.


The ketch has two masts with the aftmost mast (the mizzen) shorter than the main mast forward of it. The helm position lies to the aft of the mizzen mast.


A yawl, like a ketch has two masts with the aftmost (the mizzen) shorter than the main, but in the case of a yawl, the helming position is forward of the mizzen mast.

All of these yacht types can be rigged differently, the two best known types being gaff-rigged, where the sail is connected to two spars, one at the top of the sail and one at the foot. The sail is quite square and to hoist it the top gaff must be hoisted up the mast, raising the sail under it. 

The second, and by far most popular type of mainsail is the Bermuda-rigged vessel where a triangular sail is hoisted up the mast by a halyard attached to its head. The foot is attached to the boom, usually at the tack and clue, but sometimes by way of a bolt rope in its foot which slots into the boom along its whole length.

If the vessel has more than one forestay and flies two or more headsails then it is said to be cutter-rigged. In such cases the main mast might be set slightly further back to accommodate the extra stays. If the forestay connects to the top of the mast then the vessel is ‘masthead’ rigged and if it connects a few feet or metres below the top of the mast it’s a fractional rig, allowing ‘rake’ to be induced in the mast by tensioning the backstay.  Most fractionally-rigged yachts have additional bracing aft the mast in the form of ‘running backstays’ which are set and tensioned dependent of the tack and point of sail.

In addition to these vessel types we also have the catboat (usually a vessel with one mainsail set on a mast set more forward than usual), a dinghy (which I doubt needs explanation) and then there are the ships and multi-hulls, of which there are far too many for this blog!

Needless to say, if you ever find yourself confronted by a Jackass-barque, a Brigantine and a Pentamaran and your crew ask you to explain which is which,  you’re best to just nod sagely, smile and go put the kettle on..