Small sailboats range in length from 10 to 18 feet (3 to 6 meters). Small sailboats are often referred to as sailing dinghies because they almost always have open cockpits with no cabins. They are typically made of marine plywood or fiberglass – the major manufacturers use fiberglass, but wood is used for some boats, particularly those sold as kits.
Small sailboats are ideal for learning to sail because things happen much faster and you learn to respond to changes in the wind and sea. Anyone interested in sailing should begin with a small sailboat.
The Mirror, Streaker, and GP14 are all wooden small sailboats designed by Jack Holt, whereas the Topper, Lasers, and Yamaha small sailboats are all fiberglass. Small Laser sailboats are available in a variety of sizes. Waverley was originally made of plywood but is now entirely made of fiberglass. The majority of the 420s and 470s are made of fiberglass.
Daggerboard or centerboard
Because small sailboats are typically launched from the beach, a retractable keel is required, and all have centerboards or daggerboards – both of which are types of lifting keels. The keel is required to counteract the force of the wind, which is attempting to push the boar over. When sailing windward in a small boat, you must lean out to counterbalance the force of the wind. Sailing to windward means sailing at an angle of 45° to 75° from the wind.
The daggerboard is a keel that is simply pushed down or pulled up vertically in its housing in the small sailboat by hand. It’s very simple, and it’s usually held in place by a pin – fully up when running ahead of the wind, halfway down when the wind is on the aft quarter, and fully down when beating to windward.
A centerboard is a type of lifting keel that is commonly found on small sailboats. It pivots in a housing, with a lever protruding from the top end. When the centerboard is raised, the lever is directly in front of you, and you pull it back to lower it; with this arrangement, you can lower as much of the centerboard as you want by moving the lever to any point between fully up and fully down.
The position of the centerboard or daggerboard is important because these small sailboats are mostly used for racing, and you want the best performance you can get. If you’re just going for a sail in a small sailboat, leave the centerboard completely down except when returning to the beach or if you run aground.
Small sailboats are a lot of fun to sail, they are inexpensive, they are sturdy, and they require very little maintenance because they are kept out of the water. Lasers, Streakers, and Europa are among those with ‘cat’ rigs, which consist of only one sail, similar to a mainsail on a standard Bermudan rig. They can still sail very quickly and can be sailed single-handedly. They’re designed for single-handed racing.
Most other small sailboats have a Bermudian rig, which includes a small jib and a fairly large mainsail. The Mirror Dinghy is an exception, with a gunter rig – the mainsail is hoisted up the mast and a spar that runs almost vertically from the top of the mast. The sails are nearly identical to the Bermudian, but this rig was chosen because the mast is shorter, making the boat easier to store and transport to the water.
Small sailboats come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and weights. Some are built with a gaff rig, others with a gunter rig, some with cat rigs, and the majority with Bermudian rigs; some even have two masts, each with a cat rig.
The great thing about a small sailboat is that you can easily transport it from the boat store or your home to the shore and launch it by yourself. This takes very little time – and then you’re sailing. Small sailboats are typically used for racing or short cruises of a couple of hours, but modified small sailboats such as the Waverley and Drascombe have been used to cruise across oceans.