Sailing vs. Cruising – What’s the Difference?

For decades the debate between monohulls versus catamarans has persisted – which is more stable, which is more comfortable, etc. What we don’t get to talk about very much is the difference between cruising and sailing. The main difference between the two lies in the sailing versus powered catamaran, but it’s important to compare both sailing cats and monohulls to the cruising catamaran experience.

What is the difference between sailing and cruising? The difference between sailing and cruising is highly subjective and depends on the preferences and skill of the sailor. The type of boat you intend to sail, monohull vs. catamaran, and whether you desire a powered catamaran or not are determining factors in the key differences between sailing and cruising. 

The major differences between the catamaran and the traditional monohull are rooted in the architecture of the boat. The shape of, and the process by which the boat was made, greatly influences the ride and even social experience of your time out on the water. Determining which is better, however, comes down to personal preference, still we are able to discuss some key differences between the two  in the sections below.  

Sailing or Cruising: Type of Boat

One of the key differences – perhaps the only one that can be thought of as objective – between sailing and cruising is the association with boat type. When people think of cruising, especially charterers and brokers, they think of a catamaran. This is primarily because catamarans are the yachts one would normally see used for short cruises around a bay in places like Santa Barbara, CA.

Monohulls are traditionally thought of as being the classical sailboat – completely driven by the freedom of the wind and the stroke of the waves. The limited space in a monohull versus that available in a catamaran does not lend it to being the relaxing cruise experience that one can get in a catamaran. 

The structure of the boats themselves is the driving factor behind these associations. Here are some explanations as to why that is.

Monohull: Sailing

A monohull is not necessarily the first thing many people think of when imagining a short cruise around the bay. That’s because they’re not guaranteed to offer the best cruise experience when compared to a catamaran. Why is this? A monohull is exactly what it sounds like: a sailboat with one hull. This comes with both advantages and disadvantages.

The structure of the monohull makes it a bit more vulnerable to the power of the waves – they can be relatively easily tossed to and fro by a particularly turbulent ocean. In other words, they are more likely to “react” to the wind and waves and heel because of this. 

Despite the recent explosion of popularity in multihull designs, the monohull has a special place in the hearts of sailors, as it is representative of deep-rooted traditions and a simple way of living

Catamaran: Sailing and Cruising

A catamaran is a type of sailboat that is built with two hulls instead of one. With this design, the sails are positioned in the middle of the boat. The structure of this sailboat makes for a much smoother, balanced ride since the weight is distributed differently, having more support and allowing for less turbulence on the water (at least, enough so that the people inside can’t feel it). 

The two hulls also mean that catamarans are typically much larger than monohulls, allowing for more room for guests and “stuff.” This is what gives the catamarans their cruising feeling: sailors can bring along family, pets, or anything that will fit on the cat (within reason), which creates an atmosphere of vacationing. 

Another aspect of the catamaran is that, due to its enhanced support by the two hulls, you can sail it in shallower waters than you would be able to with a traditional monohull. Still, whether shallow water or not, the catamaran’s quality of sailing prevents its sailor from being exhausted at the end of his/her/their trip. 

There is one more aspect that can either add or take away from the cruise experience, and that is if you aim to purchase a powered catamaran. 

Cruising in a Powered Catamaran

This is where the specific differences between sailing and cruising can be seen. Obviously, without power, although the sailing experience is drastically different, the catamaran isn’t necessarily “cruising.” What makes the cruising experience is both the shape and drive of the catamaran that turns your experience from traditional sailing to a cruise on a classy, upscale yacht. 

Powered catamarans have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. They can be a bit more versatile, depending on where you want to travel. Their lower clearance allows them to access spaces that a sailing catamaran or monohull typically could not reach. 

Additionally, just like the powered monohulls, a powered catamaran can get up to speeds that a sailing one could not. The disadvantage here, though, is that, since you’re depending on a finite amount of fuel, your trip on a cruising catamaran is going to be more short-lived than that of a sailing catamaran or boat. 

The fuel efficiency of a powered catamaran can be comparable to that of a monohull as well, getting up to about a 1000-mile range at 3.5-5 gal/hr. (Keep in mind that there are powered monohulls as well. However, a powered monohull doesn’t necessarily qualify as a “cruise” in the same way that a powered cat does.) The additional cabin space on the catamaran contributes very much to the cruise feel as well.

Catamaran vs. Monohull

Ah, the old rivals: monohull vs. catamaran. People in the sailing community have strong opinions on both sides regarding the differences in quality between the two. So far we’ve explored a few of the major differences in the types of catamarans in terms of sailing versus cruising – now what are the distinctions between those catamarans and monohulls? 


Right off the bat, it’s clear that the catamaran offers significantly more space than the monohull. Of course, this slightly depends on the way your catamaran is built. 

If you are one of the blessed ones and have a cockpit or cabin in between your two hulls, this could mean that you have less space if your priority is room for yourself or guests to wander around the boat. However, if your priority is storage space, the catamaran can still offer more space than the traditional monohull.


We all know that monohulls have a not-so-great habit of heeling over. Due to the two hulls of the catamaran, this doesn’t happen very often, if at all. However, this is not a determining factor of the boat’s stability, as this is also an aspect that is partially dependent on the sailor. This, just like most of the other aspects in the debate between sailing and cruising, comes down to preference.

If you don’t mind, or even enjoy, the need to battle your boat and the forces of the wind every now and then, then this aspect isn’t going to be a make-or-break for you. (You should keep in mind any sea-sick guests, though.)

Something to keep in mind, though, is a note made by yacht broker David Parkinson that sheds light on the benefits of heeling. Parkinson says that the heeling action doesn’t actually take away from stability, but contribute to it, in that excess wind can be spilled from the sails, contributing to the safety of the monohull. 


This is where the monohull wins out. Catamarans are much bigger, and there are two of everything, essentially, so this boat will be a much bigger responsibility to care for when compared to a monohull. Especially if you add an engine to the mix with a powered cat, you’re likely to have more pressing maintenance costs than you would with the other two. 


When considering speed, you need to be conscious of your boat choice if you’re seeking a cruise versus sailing experience. Of course, a powered catamaran can offer higher speed and range than cats and hulls that are completely reliant on sails. They also won’t be left to the mercy of the winds as much as the other two would, allowing for greater versatility and handling. 

Still, you don’t necessarily want to be racing over the water if you’re trying to create a relaxing yacht event, so this, again, isn’t necessarily a make-or-break factor in your choice of boat for cruising versus sailing. 


The aspect of comfort is purely a matter of preference. For those who aim to host guests on their boat often, the catamaran (powered or not) may be the better choice for you. Not only because of the ample space, but also because of the stability of the ride. You don’t want your guests getting sea-sick!

On a monohull, things may get a little cramped – but then again, depending on what you want, this may feel cozier, rather than uncomfortable. Being in close quarters to others, or having a smaller space just for yourself can facilitate a much more relaxing sailing experience at times than a giant open space would. 

Which is Better – Sailing or Cruising?

At the end of the day, the discussion on what the differences are between sailing and cruising is highly subjective and influenced by the preference of the sailor. Monohulls offer a much more classical approach to your trip out to sea, whereas a catamaran provides the standard “yacht experience” and atmosphere, with more stability and a smoother sail. 

The powered catamaran, as opposed to a powered mono, only serves to enhance this distinction. The greater versatility of the powered cat when compared to the sailing cat, including its reduced dependence on the sails, make it a more attractive design to big industry folks like charterers and brokers. 

Sailing or Cruising – It’s Subjective!

Your preferences for comfort, speed, maintenance, stability, and space will ultimately determine what defines sailing versus cruising, and which is right for you. As previously stated, the true definitions of sailing vs. cruising are not quite objective but lie very much in the association of the structure and feel of the boat to what one perceives to be a relaxing, vacation-like experience. 

It is also inevitably tied up in the debate of monohull vs. catamaran, and so lends itself again to extreme subjectivity. The two are, at the core, both sailboats, and so will create a different experience to each individual based on their preferences of, and associations to, sailing. 

When it comes to the question: What is the difference between sailing and cruising? The true answer is: It’s up to you!


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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