Sailboat vs. Trawler: What’s the Difference?

For anyone new to boating, it can be difficult to determine what type of water-bound vessel is right for you. There are several categories of boats; each of them is designed for unique purposes and offer different benefits. However, when it comes to boating on large bodies of water, these boat types can be narrowed down into two main classifications: sailboats, such as vessels that are propelled by sails, and motorboats, such as engine-powered trawlers.

What’s the difference between a sailboat and a trawler? There are a few distinct differences between sailboats and trawlers:

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(Source: Discover Boating)

There are also a few similarities that can be found among sailboats and trawlers, such as the types of activities that can be performed with the vessels. The remainder of this article will explore both types of boats, and the various characteristics of each.

Understanding Sailboats

A sailboat is classified as a water vessel that is mainly (or partially) propelled by a sail or sails using wind currents. However, although most sailboats are associated with their ability to move on solely wind power, there are a few sailboats that may also have a small engine to help move it along on less windy days.

How Do Sailboats Work?

Unlike a car, where its movement is more dependent on internal, automatic functions of the motor, a sailboat requires its owner to be more involved in the process of propelling it forward. However, this movement does not happen unless a sailboat is fully equipped with these eight essential parts.

  • Hull – The shell of the boat.
  • Tiller – Considered the boat’s steering wheel.
  • Rudder – Attached to the tiller and functions like a tire, helping guide the boat as you turn with the tiller.
  • Mainsail – A larger sail that captures the bulk of wind needed to move the sailboat along.
  • Mast – A long, upright pole that the vertical part of the mainsail is attached to.
  • Boom – A long pole parallel to the deck of the boat that the horizontal side of the mainsail attaches to.
  • Jib – A smaller, triangular sail that adds additional power to the mainsail.
  • Keel – Also referred to as the “centerboard” or “daggerboard,” the keel is a long, slender plank that is located underneath the hull and designed to help keep the boat balanced.

Maintenance & Operation

Sailboats require regular maintenance, including interior and exterior cleaning, hull waxing, woodwork varnishing, sail repair, and more. Sailboat equipment, such as the hull, engine, or sails, will also need routine repairs as they age in years.

Types of Sailboats

The various types of sailboats that exist are distinguished by size, hull type, keel type, and mast and sail configuration.

  • Hull Design – Monohull (single hull), catamaran (two-hull), or trimaran (three-hull).
  • Keel Design – Fin, wing, bilge, daggerboard, or centerboard.
  • Mast Configuration & Sails – fractional rig sloop, yawl, cutter , sloop, ketch, schooner, etc. 

The most common types of sailboats that can be described with these categories are as follows:

  • Beach Catamaran – These sailboats are usually between 14 to 20 feet in length. They are mostly used for day sailing.
  • Cruising Catamaran – Cruising catamarans are a larger version of the beach catamaran, reaching between 25 to 50+ feet in length. They are also much more similar to cruising monohull sailboats. Cruising catamarans feature accommodations for extended cruising periods.
  • Cruising Sailboat – Cruising sailboats average 16 to 50+ feet in length. Most cruising sailboats are designed with cabins for extended cruising.
  • Daysailer – As the name suggests, daysailer vessels are meant to be used during the day, and are the common sailboat choice for new boaters. Ranging from 14 to 20 feet in length, these boats are modestly sized and have enough room to seat about four passengers.
  • Motorsailer – Motorsailers use inboard engines to cruise for long periods of time. They are quite large in comparison to other types of sailboats, starting at 35 feet in length; this is due to its high number of luxury accommodations. However, due to its size and weight, this type of vessel is not ideal for high sailing speeds.
  • Racer-Cruiser – The racer-cruiser sailboat is a combination of the cruising sailboat with equipment designed for competitive racing. The average length starts at 25 feet.
  • Racing Sailboats – Racing sailboats are nearly similar to cruising boats, but are built lighter for speed. They are typically 20 to 70+ feet in length.
  • Sailing Dinghies – These smaller boats are usually under 15 feet in length, and are built to seat one to two people. They are often used for competitive racing, but are a great sailboat option for anyone new to boating.

(Source: Boat U.S.)

Popular Sailboat Brands

There is a wide variety of common sailboat brands, including:

  • Hallberg-Rassy
  • Swan
  • Amel Yachts
  • Oyster Yachts
  • Hinckley Yachts
  • Sparkman & Stephens
  • Baltic Yachts

Pros of Sailboats

  • Sailboats give you the opportunity to improve your physical health with the amount of movement and strength involved.
  • Sailboats are fuel-efficient due to their smaller engines and reliance on wind power. They are also more friendly to the environment as a result.
  • Sailboats have a tendency to have a longer lifespan compared to motorboats such as trawlers.  
  • Ideal for individual sea-farers or smaller groups.
  • They allow an unlimited potential for travel; you do not have to be restricted to where and how far you can go based on how much fuel you have in a tank.
  • Sailboats give owners a sense of adventure and satisfaction by having full control of how you navigate the waters.
  • Being without a motor most of the time means you can sail with peace and quiet.

Cons of Sailboats

  • The costs of maintaining a sailboat increase with its age, and in general, they require more routine maintenance compared to other vessels.
  • Sailboats do not offer a lot of speed compared to engine-based vessels like trawlers. On average, they may reach a max speed of 7 knots (13 km/h).
  • Some sailboats can lack the space needed to hold a large number of passengers.
  • Because sailboats mostly have to rely on wind to move about, optimal sailing can only occur if the weather is favorable enough.
  • There is a high learning curve for first-time sailboat owners.
  • Due to the amount of equipment on the decks of sailboats, there is often not enough room for shade for passengers. This is unfavorable for many who wish to go sailing during the summer months.
  • Sailboat hulls usually sit lower in the water compared to other types of water vessels, meaning that you may often not be able to sail in shallow waters or even get too close to any beach areas when docking.

Understanding Trawlers

A trawler is a distinct type of powerboat, designed for cruising across large bodies of water. They often have features such as a displacement hull and fuel-efficient engines, ideal for smooth maneuvering through water without using too much fuel or exhausting a lot of horsepower. Trawlers also usually have a living area below deck for seafarers wanting to stay aboard for long stretches of time.

Types of Trawlers

There are two main types of trawler: fishing trawlers and trawler yachts. *

  • Fishing Trawler – Fishing trawlers are the most commonly known type of trawler. They are mainly designed to help drag large fishing nets through the water for fishermen.
  • Trawler Yachts – Also referred to as the recreational trawler or cruising trawler, trawler yachts are unlike the fishing variety in that they are built for comfort and luxury. They offer staterooms and other fine amenities for its passengers.

*A fact worth mentioning is that during the World Wars, there once were Naval Trawlers, which were more so designed to launch underwater missiles and mines toward sea bound enemies. Of course, this type of trawler has no longer been common since that time period, although a few lingering historical vessels remain.

(Source: Marine Insight)

How Do Trawlers Work?

Trawlers work just a little bit differently, depending on the type. Fishing trawlers tow at slower speeds with their built-in motor, usually to accommodate the casting and dragging of fishing nets (also known as trawls, hence the origin of the trawler name) throughout fishing waters.

The fishing trawler relative, the trawler yacht (recreational trawler), on the other hand, can run at double the speed–cruising between 7-9 knots (13-17 km/hr), with a maximum speed of 12 knots (22 km/hr).

The few similarities the two types of trawlers share are the hull forms and propulsion.

Maintenance & Operation

Because trawlers often resemble small sized homes with the number of luxury amenities they offer, it is often recommended to maintain them similarly to how you would a home. Some things that need regular upkeep include plumbing, electrical systems, and the boat’s HVAC system.

Popular Trawler Brands

There are over 70 trawler manufacturers in the United States, with some of the more popular brands including:

  • Beneteau
  • Nordic Tugs
  • Cutwater Boats
  • Ranger Tugs
  • Marlow-Pilot
  • Sabre Yachts

Pros of Trawlers

  • Trawlers are great for long-distance or overnight cruising.
  • Trawlers offer a good fuel economy compared to other types of powerboats.
  • They are an ideal boat type for fishermen or fishing hobbyists.
  • They make a good boat choice for those interested in navigating around bays or wide-open or large bodies of water.
  • Trawlers offer a lot more speed compared to sailboats. They can reach max speeds of 12 knots (22 km/hr).
  • They often have plenty of room to hold multiple passengers.
  • Trawlers also have more amenities compared to sailboats, perfect for long days of travel and to keep passengers in comfort.
  • Because they rely on engine power rather than wind power, trawlers can be used no matter the weather.
  • There is not a high learning curve when it comes to operating trawlers.

Cons of Trawlers

  • Because trawlers are often used extensively and continually, they may have higher maintenance costs compared to other types of boats.
  • Although trawlers are made to be fuel-efficient, the cost of keeping their tanks full can add up with fluctuating, unpredictable gas prices.
  • With an onboard engine comes a costly repair fee if it were to break down, just like any other motorized vehicle.
  • In addition, with an engine in a trawler, you are inviting unwanted noise as you travel.

Similarities Between Sailboats & Trawlers

So far, we have discussed some of the key differences between sailboats and trawlers, but what about similarities? Besides both being common types of water vessels, they often share the following characteristics:

  • Use & Purpose – Both sailboats and trawlers can be used for the same type of water activities, from fishing, to day and night cruising. It is important to keep in mind that no matter what type of boat you decide to invest in, it should fit what you intend to do with it. 
  • Maintenance – The two types of vessels both require regular maintenance that should increase and correlate with how often you use them. For example, try to perform routine cleanings, engine and/or sail checkups, and regular equipment inspections. 
  • Fuel-Efficient – Sailboats rely on wind to guide them, eliminating the need for fuel at all. In the cases where a sailboat does feature an engine, the engine is usually quite small, still making the boat quite fuel-efficient. Trawlers, on the other hand, use small, fuel-efficient engines to keep them going across wide bodies of water for hours to days at a time. 
  • Hull Type – Many trawlers, and even quite a few sailboats, have displacement hulls, which are designed to help navigate through the water smoothly and efficiently. They are usually rounded at the bottom, and form a teardrop shape from the boat’s bow to stern.

Should You Use a Sailboat or Trawler?

If you are planning on taking an extended trip or vacation out on the water, a trawler boat may be the better option for you. Trawlers are often designed to have private staterooms, a kitchen (galley), and a living room (saloon), allowing you all of the comforts of home on your sea vessel. Trawlers are also fuel-efficient with their small engines, large fuel capacity, and fair cruising speeds, making a long journey across the water worth taking in these vessels!

A trawler boat may also be a better option for fishermen, specifically the fishing trawler type. Its onboard winches and pulley system allows you to cast large fishing nets into the water and pull along as you slowly tow across fishing grounds.

On the other hand, if you are more interested in day-sailing or shorter trips near the dock, a sailboat may be the better fit. Because sailing requires more time and energy, it is usually only for those who are more than willing to learn the craft and genuinely enjoy being more hands-on on the water.


In conclusion, both sailboats and trawlers make excellent sea-faring vessels for boaters of all types; the best vessel for you will simply depend on what exactly you are looking for in your boat. If you are looking for ultimate relaxation or to fish, a trawler boat is what you need. But, if you find excitement in navigating the waters with your own hands and being one with the water around you, a sailboat can provide exactly that experience.


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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