How you lay out your cockpit will determine just how pleasant and safe your cruising experience will be. Protection from the elements, logical placement of electronics and gear, creature comforts, and safety items readily at hand are all key factors in this.
Protection from the Elements
The sailing life is dominated by the elements. The same wind that is worshipped for making our boats fly through the water can be cursed for making us cold. The beautiful water that provides us the medium to travel freely to exotic places can suddenly become a wet slap in the face when we slam into a wave. The sun that warms us can also burn us, and the rain can just plain soak us.
When designing a dodger keep in mind that no matter what grade clear plastic you choose, visibility in wet conditions is not the greatest. You want to design it so that you can see over it in the worst weather conditions or when maneuvering in tight quarters. A zip-out window in front will allow you to take advantage of a nice sea breeze when at anchor or when sailing in hot, muggy conditions. For added safety when going forward on deck, a good dodger has handrails on each side. These rails will also make your frame stronger and more rigid.
Adding a bimini top further increases your protection from the elements. Large bows stretched across your cockpit hold a "canopy" of canvas overhead to protect you from the sun and rain. A clear plastic window sewn into the top will allow you to see the windvane at the masthead as well as the luff of the mainsail. Have your canvas maker include a connector piece that zips in between the bimini and the dodger to complete the shelter.
For the ultimate protection and comfort, the addition of a modular system of side curtains that zip together and snap to the outside of the coaming will turn your cockpit into a wonderful "Florida room." In colder conditions, youíll stay warm and protected from the winds and you wonít get cabin fever on those miserable rainy days. By setting up your curtains in a way that allows you to roll down and zip together just what you need for the conditions, youíll get many more enjoyable hours sailing and sitting in your cockpit.
To combat early morning and late day sun from which your bimini offers no protection, many cruisers fashion a "roving" piece of cloth that is attached to the bimini and blocks the low sun. Mosquito netting can also be zipped into the modular surround setup to enjoy the outdoors, even in buggy places.
On Serengeti, weíve gone one step further and built a permanent fiberglass dodger and bimini, with opening, 3/8-inch tempered safety glass windows in front, and opening hatches on top. An application of Rainex on the glass allows for the best visibility possible in wet conditions. Itís a wonderful setup, but a very expensive alternative to canvas and you lose the versatility of a fold-up bimini. To have one custom made cost over $20,000. Ours has cost us about $5,500 in materials and close to 1,000 hours of labor, supplied only by us.
Positioning Instruments and Electronics
On our first cruising boat, Safari, Sue and I were very proud of the way we had all the instruments mounted on the pedestal right at the helm. We thought it was the real cat daddy. It wasnít until we had been out a few weeks that we realized with todayís autopilot and interfacing GPS systems that you rarely stay behind the wheel on a cruising boat. Instead, you enter your waypoint on the GPS and the autopilot automatically steers to that destination. Staying behind the wheel is reserved for those times in confined waters or when a lot of traffic is around.
What we thought was a clever and neat installation, turned out to be an uninformed one from the cruising sailorís standpoint. For the best visibility from anywhere in the cockpit, instruments should be mounted forward in a heads-up position. This allows you to stand watch at locations other than behind the helm and ensure that youíre still able to monitor the water depth, boat speed, etc.óparticularly useful if you need to tuck up behind the dodger for protection from wind and waves.
There are things, though, you definitely want to have near the helm. The autopilot controls need to be here so that if ever you need to make an emergency adjustment to your course, you can disable the autopilot and grab the wheel at the same time. Likewise, a VHF radio should be installed within reach.
Itís amazing and a little scary just how many VHF radio transmissions are not heard by sailboats. While living aboard in Charleston, SC, before leaving to go cruising, we used to listen to frustrated harbor pilots, commanding 300-plus-foot container ships, attempting to contact sailboats crossing the narrow shipping channel. We noticed that it was common for the pilotís hail to go unanswered. A missed communication of this sort in confined waters with commercial traffic could present a danger to all boaters in the vicinity.
Maybe itís the noise from an engine, the distance from the nav station to the cockpit, or simply the wind howling through the rigging that causes radio hails to go unanswered. The cruising sailorís answer to this problem has been to mount a second VHF radio outside in the cockpit.
On our cruising boats, weíve always installed two separate VHF radios with independent antennas. The one in the cockpit is wired to a short antenna mounted on our stern rail, while the radio down below is connected to the masthead antenna for long range communication. With this arrangement you have a complete backup system in the event of failure. Also, since the lower antenna and cockpit radio provide less range, you donít spend the whole day listening to every radio transmission within a 30-mile radius. This can be particularly tiresome when in populated areas.
Todayís sailor carries many electronic devices to make life easier and to aid in safety and navigation. A waterproof 12-volt power outlet installed in your cockpit will make it convenient to plug in spotlights, handheld GPSs, cell phones, and even laptop computers.
Adding speakers to the cockpit can serve two purposes. With the same set of speakers, you can listen to great music from your stereo, then flip a switch and listen to your Single Sideband Radio without needing to be near the speaker below. Make sure you choose speakers that are the magnetically shielded type so they donít throw your compass off. Being your typical remote-control-kind of guy, Iíve even found a hard-wired remote that we mounted in our cockpit, allowing me to flip through radio stations and pull up our favorite songs from the CD changer without leaving my comfortable seat. It even has a safety benefit since we can immediately turn the music down without going below if we hear a radio transmission. At least thatís how I sold it to Sue.
Binoculars, air horn, spotlight, flares, charts, spray cleaner and paper towels to clean sunglasses, bug spray, sun block lotionóthe list is endless. Keeping these things out of the wind, spray, and rain, but close at hand can be a challenge since many sailboats donít include dry storage in their cockpit design. That doesnít mean it doesnít exist though.
A lot of boats have dead space inside their cockpit coamings. Some builders have made open cubbyholes that provide limited storage in these areas, but the contents can still get wet. By cutting out the appropriate-sized hole and fitting a plastic hatch with a gasket on the door in this area, youíll end up with functional access and dry storage. We added three such hatches to our coamings and left one cubbyhole open to stow our cats away while sailing.
Most cockpits are originally fitted with drop boards for the companionway. These are definitely needed for safe offshore sailing. A set of hinged companionway doors, however, make everyday living more convenient. The safest arrangement allows for the old drop boards to still be inserted behind the hinged doors if weather and sea conditions warrant it.
A drink holder within reach of the helmsman will ensure two hands on the wheel when necessary, and a whole lot less spills. Make sure your drink holders are large enough to accommodate cans in foam coolers and are designed with a cutout at one side to let a coffee mug settle into place.
When you drop the hook and itís time for dinner, a table in the cockpit will enhance your best seat in the house. If you choose a table that either folds up, or one that lifts off and stores below, it wonít impede on movement around the cockpit while sailing.
Some cockpits are very wide, which is great for living space at anchor, but undesirable at sea. The addition of a removable bar in the middle against which to brace your feet when heeling over will increase your security. When sailing offshore at night, or at any time during rough weather, youíll want to be tethered to the boat. For security with freedom of movement, youíll need a few strong tether attachment points that are through-bolted and have backing plates.
An interesting observation that weíve made about cockpit design is that those with square corners are more comfortable than those with rounded corners. Not what youíd think, huh? Whether at anchor or underway, a square corner allows you to brace yourself and settle in more snugly and securely than a round one.
The cockpit is the true window to your cruising adventures. With just a little planning up front, youíll spend countless happy hours in this one small space. Your days at anchor will be more comfortable, and your sailing passages warmer, dryer, and safer.
We just got an e-mail from friends who have been cruising the coast of Scotland this summer. They tell us that the Europeans seem to be a "tougher breed" than the rest of us. While our friends sit back comfortably inside their well-thought-out, fully enclosed cockpit listening to their favorite opera and sipping hot tea, they pass boats manned with drenched, cold, and huddling sailors decked out in full foul weather gear. They want to shout out, "It doesnít have to be like that, you know!"
Cockpit Safety Tips