6 Differences Between Sailing On The Ocean Vs. A Lake

6 Differences Between Sailing On The Ocean Vs. A Lake

If you’re thinking about getting into sailing, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is whether you’ll be sailing on the ocean or on a lake. 

Those who don’t have much experience with sailing might not fully appreciate the difference between sailing on the ocean or sailing on a lake, but actually, there are 6 significant differences between these two forms of sailing. 

Ocean sailing is probably what you think of first when you hear the word ‘sailing’, but there is a reason (several, in fact) why lake sailing has become increasingly popular. 

For those who are interested in finding out whether ocean or lake-based sailing will suit them best, we recommend trying out both because there’s no better way to understand the differences between the two than really getting involved.

However, if you want to see how these different forms of sailing compare on paper, read on! 

The Key Differences Between Ocean And Lake Sailing 

Different Boat Designs 

The decision to sail on either the ocean or on a lake affects more than just the conditions you’ll be dealing with while sailing (which we’ll touch on in a moment). In fact, the type of sailing you choose to do will impact the kind of boat you’ll be sailing in. 

Ocean sailing boats and boats designed for lake sailing are designed differently to help them cope with the different conditions they’ll be exposed to. 

As you might expect, sailing on the ocean is generally a more intense experience, both for you and your boat.

There are harsher conditions to contend with, and therefore, boats designed for ocean sailing tend to have additional features to help them withstand wear and tear and protect against potentially detrimental damage. 

Engine Function 

One of the most important differences you need to know when it comes to differentiating boats for ocean sailing from boats made for lakes is that sailboats for ocean environments have an additional feature built into their engines. 

It’s a requirement that ocean sailboats have engine cooling systems. This is because the salt in the ocean can cause corrosion in the engine if it doesn’t have a cooling system built in, and corrosive damage can eventually cause an engine to stop working entirely.

Obviously, having your engine give out in the middle of the ocean is a dangerous situation, even if you take all the necessary safety precautions (see below), so this is a crucial difference. 

Another difference between the engine systems in ocean and lake sailboats is that ocean sailboats typically also have automatic flushing systems.

While the engines of sailboats designed for freshwater do also need flushing, they don’t always have automatic cooling or flushing built in, which means you’ll need to flush the system manually. 

The galvanic corrosion that can occur in a sailboat’s engine when it’s exposed to saltwater for prolonged periods can be managed using cathodic protection.

Cathodic protection is a technique that helps to stop a metal surface from corroding by connecting it to another metal that corrodes more easily.

The more corrosion-prone surface then acts as an anode and provides electrons to the surface you’re trying to protect, making it less active and thus minimizing the risk of corrosion. 

Hull Design And Maintenance

Some of the key differences between the constructions of ocean and freshwater sailboats are found in the hull design. This is because the hull of your sailboat will determine what kinds of conditions it can sail in. 

Freshwater sailboats are usually designed with flat-bottomed hulls because this type of hull allows the boat to glide across the water in smooth conditions.

Of course, you’ll be much more likely to encounter smooth water conditions on a lake than on the ocean, hence the connection between freshwater sailing and this kind of hull design. 

Conversely, sailboats designed for ocean use are more likely to have deep-V hulls.

A deep-V hull is a wedge-shaped hull that can easily cut through waves, which is ideal when you’re sailing on the ocean in potentially rough conditions. It’s not an optimal design for shallow waters, though. 

Another thing to bear in mind relating to sailboat hulls is that the maintenance work required for your hull will look different depending on whether it’s designed for freshwater or saltwater use.

If you sail in saltwater, you’re more likely to have to deal with algae and barnacles sticking to your hull.

Over time, they can cause damage and slow your boat down, so a saltwater sailboat typically needs a lot more maintenance focused on the hull to ensure continued functionality. 

Corrosion Protection 

We spoke earlier about how the saltwater in the ocean can cause corrosive damage to the engine of a sailboat. However, the engine isn’t the only part of your sailboat you need to worry about sustaining corrosive damage when it comes to sailing on the ocean. 

If you have a freshwater sailboat, the chances are that the anodes are made from magnesium, whereas a saltwater sailboat will have anodes made from either aluminum (see also ‘Top 5 Welded Aluminum Jet Boats‘) or zinc because these materials are more resistant to corrosion. 

Boat Sizes 

Boat Sizes 

In addition to the specific differences in construction between saltwater and freshwater sailboats (see also ‘What Is The Average Price Of A Sailboat?‘), you should also consider the fact that your average freshwater sailboat is significantly smaller than sailboats designed for the ocean. 

If you try to take a very large sailboat out on a lake, you might run into problems in the shallow waters. The best case scenario is that your boat might get stuck, but in the worst case, it could sustain a significant amount of damage. 

Similarly, a small sailboat may struggle in ocean conditions because it can be more easily capsized and damaged by large waves.

Another reason why saltwater sailboats tend to be larger is that they have more complex and advanced systems for navigation. The more technologically advanced a boat is, the larger it is likely to be. 


We just touched on the fact that larger sailboats can be more difficult to maneuver in certain conditions, and this leads us onto our next point, which is that the process of maneuvering your sailboat will look and feel different depending on whether you’re sailing on the ocean or on a lake. 

While inexperienced sailors might assume that there are no waves at all on your average lake, that’s not quite true.

You are actually likely to encounter waves now and again while sailing on a lake if the weather conditions are windy (see below for more about ocean versus lake sailing conditions).

However, it’s true that the waves and other challenging weather conditions sailors sometimes encounter are amplified when it comes to ocean sailing. 

Sailing on a lake makes it much easier to stay your course and move directly forward because the waves you’ll come across are small and don’t really require any expert navigation or maneuvering. 

On the other hand, maneuvering your sailboat on the ocean can be much trickier.

You have to deal with much larger waves, crosswinds, and crosscurrents, which means that you often have to think about the angle at which you approach waves and the speed at which you’re traveling. 

Maneuvering waves, winds and currents usually means having to reduce your speed, and it takes a lot of skill and experience to navigate these conditions.

That’s why many sailors will actually start out sailing on lakes to get some experience before heading out on the ocean. 


All of the differences between freshwater and ocean sailing are important to be aware of when you start your sailing journey, but one of the most crucial differences is the difference in weather conditions. 

As we mentioned previously, sailing on a lake is typically a much more beginner-friendly experience because the waters are calmer and quieter.

Although you might come across small waves and windy conditions, you won’t need to worry about the potential dangers of stormy conditions on the ocean. 

When sailing on the ocean, it’s so important to be aware of the tides in your area, including tidal currents. Combined with large waves and storm patterns, these tidal currents can be perilous.

Depending on where you are in the world, you might also need to think about the likelihood of hurricanes or tsunamis, which can be even more dangerous than usual if you’re out in the middle of the ocean. 

Of course, stormy conditions can still make sailing on a lake more difficult, but the waters will not be as tumultuous and the experience of sailing on a stormy lake is generally much less perilous than being on the ocean during a storm. 

Saltwater Vs. Freshwater 

We’ve touched on a few of the ways in which the difference between saltwater and freshwater can impact various aspects of sailing, but this is such an important point that it deserves its own section. 

Obviously, lakes are (for the most part) bodies of freshwater while oceans are made up of saltwater. 

Freshwater is much less likely to cause corrosion, whereas saltwater is known to have a much greater corrosive effect on metal, which is why the materials used in the construction of boats designed for ocean sailing are chosen for their corrosion-resistant properties.

That’s not to say that freshwater doesn’t cause corrosion at all, but the salt in saltwater speeds up the process of corrosive damage. 

Because the saltwater in the ocean doesn’t just come into contact with your sailboat’s exterior, but also with internal components including the engine, saltwater sailing comes with a greater obligation for maintenance and safety considerations, which is the final difference between lake and ocean sailing that we’re going to discuss in today’s article. 

Safety Considerations 

From the differences we’ve covered so far between sailing on a lake and sailing on the ocean, you have probably gathered that sailing on the ocean requires additional safety considerations.

Again, though, this is one of the most important things to bear in mind when choosing the type of sailing experience you want to have, so we’ve decided to dedicate an entire section to freshwater versus saltwater sailing safety measures.

Of course, safety always comes first in sailing no matter what kind of water you’re sailing on. However, because the conditions on the ocean are much more challenging to navigate than on your average lake, you’ll need to take extra precautions to ensure your safety. 

One major concern when it comes to sailing on the ocean which we haven’t yet discussed is the potential for getting lost.

Ideally, if you’re going to be sailing on the ocean, you should have a built-in, sophisticated navigation system on your sailboat to prevent you from getting lost. 

However, it’s still very important to remain aware of your location and your bearings and to tell trusted friends or family members where you’re going before you go out sailing and when you’re likely to be back.

This will mean that if the worst does happen and your navigation system somehow fails, someone will be able to raise the alarm if you don’t come back around the time you specified. 

We’ve already discussed the dangers of storms, tidal currents and waves when sailing on the ocean. In severely stormy conditions, you can also run into problems on a lake.

Therefore, you should always have enough life vests on your sailboat in addition to a life raft or a life buoy depending on how much storage space you have on your boat.

If any of your safety equipment might need inflating, you should also carry pumps with you. A flare is another important piece of safety equipment every sailboat should have regardless of whether you sail on the ocean or on lakes.

While we’re on the subject of safety equipment (see also ‘6 Of The Best Life Jackets For Sailing: Complete Guide‘) for sailing, every sailboat should have a complete first aid kit.

It’s easy to assume that accidents only happen in stormy conditions, but actually, even the smallest of waves at the wrong time can lead to a fall or another kind of injury, so it’s always best to be prepared. 

Now, when you’re sailing on a lake, you may encounter some aquatic animals, and depending on where you’re located, some of these animals might be larger.

For example, some lakes and rivers in the world are home to enormous catfish or even alligators and crocodiles. However, in most parts of the world, the largest aquatic animals are found in the ocean.

We’re not just talking about predators like sharks here – even gentle animals like whales can do a lot of damage to your boat if they bump into you. 

Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of the creatures who might be sharing the water with you regardless of whether you’re on a lake or in the ocean, but especially if you’re sailing on saltwater bodies where the presence of large ocean predators is more of a concern. 

Something not a lot of people necessarily think about before going sailing is the importance of bringing enough water to drink.

Now, it is technically possible to drink water from a lake in an emergency, but unless you have a portable water filter with you, we don’t recommend it unless you’re at real risk of dehydration because there may be dangerous bacteria or parasites in the water.

As for salt water, you simply can’t drink this even in an emergency, so always make sure you have enough bottled water with you whenever you go sailing, but especially if you’ll be out on the ocean. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Which Ocean Is The Hardest To Sail? 

While it’s easy to talk about sailing on the ocean in generalized terms, the reality is that some oceans are significantly more difficult to sail than others. 

Overall, the Indian Ocean has to be the most difficult to sail safely. The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world, containing ¼ of all the water on the Earth’s surface.

Additionally, what makes the Indian Ocean so perilous is the fact that it’s susceptible to extreme weather conditions including tsunamis, cyclones and monsoons as well as very strong winds. 

Close behind the Indian Ocean in the category of oceans that are most difficult to sail is the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic Ocean is actually larger than the Indian Ocean.

It’s the second largest ocean in the world (the Pacific is the largest), but the reason the Atlantic Ocean is more difficult to sail than the Pacific is because it’s more susceptible to strong coastal winds which can make for very challenging sailing conditions. 

Is it Dangerous To Sail On The Ocean? 

If you know what you’re doing and take all the right precautions regarding your safety, it’s absolutely possible to have totally safe, controlled experiences with ocean sailing. 

However, compared to sailing within the confines of a lake, sailing on the ocean definitely comes with some added risks and it can absolutely be dangerous if you’re not experienced or paying attention to the right things. 

Because ocean waters are more affected by tides, currents, winds, and other weather conditions like cyclones or monsoons compared to lakes, there is an increased risk of accidents happening at sea.

Oceans are also vaster than lakes, which means that you’re more likely to have issues with navigation, and if you don’t have a navigation system, this can lead to you getting lost, which is a far more dangerous situation on the ocean than on a lake. 

Long sailing excursions on the ocean may also result in food shortages or dehydration if proper planning does not take place or if you end up stranded without signal. 

None of this is intended to put you off sailing on the ocean.

Again, if you take the necessary precautions, make sure that your sailboat is designed to be able to handle ocean conditions and pay attention to your surroundings at all times, sailing on the ocean can be a fun and safe experience. 

What Is A Good Size Sailboat For The Ocean? 

If you’re thinking about purchasing a sailboat for use on the ocean, you will need to make sure it’s large enough.

Small sailboats are at increased risk of sustaining damage or even capsizing in rough weather conditions, so it’s best to have a larger boat if you’re going to be sailing on the ocean. 

As a general rule, a sailboat for ocean use should be around 30 feet in length.

This is usually large enough to ensure steadiness in bays and coastal areas of the ocean, although if you’re going to be venturing far into ocean territory, you might want to consider getting an even larger boat.

How Big Of A Sailboat For The Great Lakes?

While lakes are significantly smaller bodies of water compared to oceans, some lakes are much larger than others. 

The Great Lakes (Erie, Michigan, Ontario, Huron and Superior) around the United States-Canada border are some of the largest and deepest lakes in the world, so if you’re considering sailing on any of these lakes, you may need a larger sailboat than you typically would for lake sailing. 

The ideal sailboat size for Lake Michigan, for instance, is at least 27 feet long, which is only 3 feet shorter than the minimum recommendation for ocean sailing.

Basically, there is very little size difference between the kind of sailboat you would need for the Great Lakes and the recommended size for sailing on the ocean. 

Can You Use A Lake Boat In The Ocean? 

Freshwater boats can be used in saltwater in many cases, but you should always be aware of the materials your boat is made from and the size of your boat before you move it from freshwater to saltwater. 

That’s because freshwater boats often aren’t built with materials designed to withstand a lot of corrosion.

You will probably need to flush out your engine manually after sailing in saltwater because a freshwater sailboat probably won’t have an automatic flushing system or other corrosion control systems.

Final Thoughts 

There are several important differences between sailing on a lake and sailing on the ocean, and these should all be carefully considered before deciding what kind of sailing is right for you. 

Sailing on the ocean usually involves more challenging weather conditions and requires more experience in terms of navigating and maneuvering. 

Saltwater (ocean) sailboats will typically be larger with deep-V hulls which require more maintenance due to algae and barnacle accumulation.

These boats also have automatic systems built in to prevent corrosion and facilitate navigation. Meanwhile, freshwater sailboats often have flat hulls and less technology on board. 

You will need to take more safety precautions when sailing on the ocean than you would on your average lake.