Buying a Sailboat: Sloop vs. Ketch

Sailing on a traditional Friendship Sloop
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Consider many different questions when deciding what kind of sailboat is best for you. If you are looking for a cruising sailboat, depending on your preferred size range, you may be choosing between a sloop and a ketch. These are the two most common types of cruising sailboats. Each offers certain advantages.

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White sloop sailboat entering harbor

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A sloop is generally the most common type of sailboat rig. A sloop has a single mast and usually only two sails: the mainsail and a headsail, such as a jib or a genoa. A sloop may also use a racing or cruising spinnaker.

Sloops come in all sizes, from 8-foot dinghies to maxi boats over a hundred feet long. A sloop uses what is called a Bermuda or Marconi rig. This is the tall, thin, triangular mainsail that's commonly seen on the waters of popular boating areas.

The sloop rig generally is simpler to use and cheaper to build than a ketch rig. Because of the wind and sail dynamics involved, a sloop is almost always faster than other rigs in boats of comparable size, especially when sailing windward.

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Hallberg-Rassy 42 Ketch sailing on the water

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A ketch is a common rig for cruising sailboats. It has two masts: a traditional mainmast as on a sloop, plus a smaller mast in the rear of the boat. This is called the mizzenmast. Technically, the mizzenmast must be mounted forward of the boat’s rudderpost to be a ketch. If the mizzen is mounted further aft, behind the rudder post, it is considered a yawl. The mizzenmast is typically smaller on a yawl than on a ketch, but otherwise, these rigs are similar.

A ketch, therefore, uses three primary sails: the mainsail and headsail, as on a sloop, plus the mizzen sail aft. A ketch may also use a spinnaker.

The three sails do not necessarily mean that the sail area on a ketch is larger than on a sloop of the same size, however. Sail area is usually planned by boat designers based on the boat's size, displacement (weight), hull shape and configuration, not on the number of masts or sails. This means that the mainsail and headsail of a ketch are generally smaller than on a sloop, but the mizzen sail roughly makes up the difference.

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Benefits and Disadvantages of Sloops vs. Ketches

Sailboats on the water at sunset

 Gellinger/Pixabay/CC0 Creative Commons

Sloops and ketches each have their own benefits, but also disadvantages. When deciding what type of boat to buy, consider these differences.

Advantages of a Sloop

  • A sloop is generally faster and sails closer to the wind.
  • Sloops have fewer sails than ketches to buy and maintain.
  • With a sloop, there is less standing and running rigging with one mast, which means there is less to manage and maintain overall.
  • As the most popular contemporary boat, sloops are available in a wide variety.

Disadvantages of a Sloop

  • Sloop sails are generally larger and heavier, requiring more strength for handling, hoisting, and trimming, particularly on a larger boat.
  • Sloops have fewer options to reduce sail area in stronger winds. Sloops offer only reefing or furling of the sails.

Advantages of a Ketch

  • Ketches have smaller sails. These sails are more easily managed and hoisted on a larger boat, which is why ketches are preferred by many older sailors.
  • Using only two sails at a time provides multiple options for managing different sailing conditions, such as strong winds.

Disadvantages of a Ketch

  • Ketch rigs generally do not sail as fast or as close to the wind as a sloop sailboat.
  • Ketches have more standing rigging (shrouds and stays) and running rigging (halyards and sheets) to manage and maintain.
  • The mizzenmast in ketches takes up space in the stern.
  • There are fewer ketches available on the market. Ketches are more popular as an older boat.

Most ketches are intended as cruising boats that are easy to handle and comfortable for cruising. Many sloops, even sketch sloops, are designed for greater speed and racing. Many ketches, therefore, are different from sloops in ways other than just the masts and sails. Designed as cruisers, many ketches are heavier, more stable in sea conditions, and more commodious down below. On the other hand, contemporary builders produce few ketches, so there are a greater variety of sloops available as new boats.

As in other decisions when shopping for a sailboat, the preferable rig depends mostly on your preferred uses of the boat. The same is true when comparing fixed keel and centerboard sailboats.