How To Tell The Difference Between A Ketch And A Schooner

A Definitive Guide

Sloops and cutters.

Let’s start off with the basics. Most sailing vessels have only one mast and would be classed as sloops or cutters. A sloop has one headsail, a cutter has two or more. Sloops and cutters can be either gaff rigged like the drawing here or bermudan rigged like most yachts. The majority of  yachts today will be bermudan sloops.

Where’s the mizzen mast?
In most cases it’s the after-most mast. A ketch or yawl has a main mast and a mizzen mast but on a two masted schooner or square rigger such as a brig or brigantine the masts are called the fore mast and main mast.
On three masted square riggers and schooners the mizzen is the after-most mast. More than three masts? Lets not go there just now…

Line drawing of a sloop

Ketches and Yawls

A ketch has two masts with the mizzen mast stepped before the rudder head. If the mast is stepped aft of the rudder head the boat becomes technically a yawl not a ketch.
Yawl rig tends to be used on smaller boats, ketch rig is often used on larger vessels, notably the Brixham trawlers and trading ketches of the last century.
The mizzen sail in a ketch is a driving sail, in a yawl it is more of a balancing sail. The mizzen sail is always is smaller, often much smaller than the mainsail. If it was the same size or larger the boat would be a schooner.

Line drawing of a ketch


Schooners have two or more masts.
The defining thing for a schooner is that the after masts must be the same height or greater than the foremast.
Two masted schooners are simply called schooners, schooners with more than two masts are called by the number of masts they have unless that is they are a topsail schooner. The American seven masted schooner, the Thomas Lawson had more masts than any other schooner but was the only one of its kind.

When Does A Schooner Become A Topsail Schooner?
Any time a schooner has a square topsail it becomes a topsail schooner. They were once common in the UK and were just called schooners, a schooner without square topsails was called a fore and aft schooner. In America the situation was reversed and  the standard schooner did not carry square topsails.

Line drawing of a schooner

Sprit Rig

Sprit rig is usually reserved for dinghies but is also used on the Thames barges.
The sprit is the spar that runs diagonally across the largest sail. This rig is not ideal in a big seaway because the sprit cannot be lowered and could become an unmanageable weight aloft. In coastal waters it is an extremely handy rig, the topsail can catch a high up breeze above river banks and the mainsail can be quickly brailed up to the sprit if bit of a breeze gets up (it’s like drawing a large curtain)
If you want to know more about its use in dinghies there is an article on our web site.

Line drawing of a Thames Barge

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