Cartop Sailboat

ugh to be hoisted up there by one or two people.
By Kelvin Wamalwa Written by Kelvin Wamalwa
Updated on March 29, 2022

Transporting a sailboat is a major sailor problem that landlubbers never even think about. But it’s a problem any sailor has to deal with. Trailers are fine for medium-sized boats while car-topping is an equally good option for smaller ones. Car-topping depends on bot the size of your boat and that of your car.

The number of sailboats you can cartop is limited. The Laser and Sunfish are the most popular cartoppable sailboats. They’re small enough to fit on the roof of most standard cars and light enough to be hoisted up there by one or two people.

Best Car-topping sailboat

The best cartopping sailboat is a tie between the Laser and the Sunfish. Both dinghies are extremely popular and come standardized with interchangeable rigs. They’re fairly small with a length of thirteen feet nine inches and a beam of four feet. The Sunfish weighs 120 lbs while the Laser is only 10 pounds heavier.

Their relatively small size and low weight mean they can be carried on the roof of many ordinary cars without any extensive modifications besides the addition of a roof rack. Cartopping is usually merely a matter of hoisting the boat onto the roof and securing it with straps.

Cartopping has some advantages over other boat hauling methods like trailers, for example. You don’t need to worry about your boat getting dented when it’s hit by other cars or when it hits other obstacles if you veer too hard for instance. There is also the advantage of not having to worry about the towing capacity of your car. A vast majority of vehicles have a roof load capacity of at least 165 lbs. Carrying a 130-pound sailboat shouldn’t pose any problems.

In addition to the Laser and Sunfish, other small sailboats and kayaks of comparable size (14 feet or thereabouts) and weight are just as easy to cartop. At this point, the Laser is more of a design standard than a brand anyway.

How do you cartop a sailboat?

You start by removing the mast, rigging, and all the other accessories, leaving only the hull. These should be stored separately, preferably in a single bag. You then hoist the hull onto the roof of your car, facedown. 

Without tools, this can be a two-person job. But you can still do it alone if the boat isn’t too heavy. But the most energy-efficient way is to just slide the boat onto the roof instead of hoisting it above your head.

There are other simple caveats, mostly common sense. You need to pack your car somewhere that allows you to safely load and unload your boat. A crowded parking lot or a cliffside, for example, wouldn’t be ideal.

Can you cartop a boat by yourself?

Yes. this can be accomplished by simply lifting the boat and placing it on the roof, sliding it, or by the use of simple inexpensive tools.

Cartopping methods

Single-handed lifting

A man single-handedly sliding a boat onto a roof rack.
Image credit: George Hartshorn on Youtube

This is the easiest and requires no additional equipment. As long as you have a roof rack with a crossbar, you’re good to go. You lift the boat, bow first, and lean it against the roof of your car so it forms a ramp. You have to anchor the stern so it doesn’t slide. You then move over to the stern and just slide the boat onto the roof before securing it with straps. 

The ladder method

A man loading a boat onto a roof by use of a ladder
Image credit: John Cudak on Youtube

This method is best suited to heavier boats. It requires the attachment of a removable ladder onto your roof rack. You use the ladder as an inclined plane and slide the boat up it.

The pipe technique

You can use the pipe method if the bars of your roof rack are round and hollow. It involves attaching two pipes to the roof rack and using them as an inclined plane on which you can slide your boat. More advanced methods use ropes and a winch. This allows you to slide the boat up the pipes by just turning a crank as demonstrated below:

Image credit:
Alan Howell on Youtube

Securing your boat

Strapping your boat onto the roof rack and centering it on the bars for an even distribution of weight is common sense enough but there are other additional methods of protecting it.

Orient it facing forward – The front of the boat should face the front of the car just like it does in the water. This takes advantage of aerodynamics to reduce drag.

Load it upside down – This prevents dents on the hull.

Pad the touchpoints – Placing foam padding where the boat comes into contact with the rack prevents your boat from getting a small dent every time you hit a bump on the road. This is especially important if you aren’t loading your boat upside down. You can skip the whole headache by just getting a rack with padded bars.