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Old 11-24-2002
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Fender Skirts: A Risk-Free Introduction to Canvaswork


Creating a canvas fender skirt can introduce you to a host of new canvaswork projects.

Workboats almost invariably have some kind of big, honking rub strake running the length of the hull some distance above the waterline. This is an eminently sensible design feature. Boats that earn their keep are required to go alongside all manner of nasty pilings and unfriendly docks, and a tough strake standing proud takes this punishment in stride, sparing both hull and paint.

In contrast, sailing yachts tend to have little or no inherent protection from the potential damage going to a dock can inflict. Like a boxer leading with his chin, far too many production sailboats lead with their high gloss topsides, egg-like and unprotected. Sailboats that are used just for sailing can get away with such vulnerability, but not a boat that will be used for cruising. Like workboats, cruising boats regularly need to go alongside for fuel, water, and supplies. We owners try to protect the shiny topsides of our boats with strategically placed fenders, an effort that yields decidedly mixed results. Eventually a dock is encountered that defeats hanging fenders, an unhappy event recorded permanently by an ugly scratch in the hull.

I am inclined to recommend the addition of an honest rub rail to every cruising sailboat that lacks one. However, a retrofitted rub rail is rarely an easy modification, so giving a nod to reality, I am going to limit my instructions to more easily attainable protective measures.

First, you should carry the largest fenders that are practical for your boat. Olga and I rarely deploy more than two, but when we need a third fender, we really need it. Boats larger than our 30-footer will want to carry four or more fenders. Like underwear, you cannot have too many.

Alongside docks with outboard pilings, fenders tend to lose their effectiveness. Attaching the fender to the piling rather than the boat is an oft-seen but seldom completely successful ploy. The real solution is a fender board, yet few cruising boats carry one.


Fenderboards fill the gap between vertically hung fender.

A fender board is nothing more than stiff plank that is suspended horizontally outboard of a pair of vertically hung fenders. The board bridges the gap between the fenders and allows the boat to lie alongside a piling or other protrusion without risk to the topsides. A six-foot length of 2 x 8 makes a rough and ready fender board. I like to drill through the 8-inch dimension near each end to provide for attachment. A pair of lines fed up through these two holes, each knotted at the bottom, lets the board lie naturally flat against the fenders when it is suspended. Of course, you can also suspend the board with holes drilled through the 2-inch dimension, but some part of the rope will stand proud and be subject to chafe.

A strong fender board can do double duty as a work bench. Fitted with cleats so that it spans the cockpit, the board can provide a surface that you can cut, saw, or drill on with impunity. Drill appropriate mounting holes and take aboard carriage bolts with wing nuts, and you can quickly mount a vise to the board when this useful tool is called for.

Chandlers sell fabric covers for fenders, which at first blush would seem to offer additional protection to the topsides, the fabric being more gentle than the vinyl surface of the fender. However, things aren't always what they seem. Against concrete docks, fabric covers tend to pick up grains of sand, which they drag across the gelcoat of the topsides when the fender rotates with the motion of the boat. Fabric covers also absorb creosote and oil from pilings and docks, painting the same onto the hull with each roll of the fender.

Protecting the topsides from the fenders is nevertheless an admirable objective, and this you can do with a skirt. A fender skirt is nothing more than a sheet of canvas hung from the rail between the fender and the hull. Constructing a fender skirt provides an ideal, no-risk introduction to canvaswork.

For this project you will need a piece of natural canvas about 40 inches long with its width approximately equal to your boat's minimum freeboard. You can also use acrylic canvas (Sunbrella), but natural canvas is much better at resisting abrasion, it is easier on the gelcoat, and it costs less.

The only sewing required is a double-rubbed hem all the way around the canvas. Double rubbed simply means you fold the edge once, then fold it again so that the raw edge is hidden. For the skirt, start with a fold 2 inches from the edge, and crease this fold by rubbing it down with the back of your scissors. You are going to sew this fold down with a row of stitches about 1/4 inch in from the fold. Next fold the raw edge under about 1/2 inch and run a second row of stitches 1/4 inch from that fold. But wait! Don't do any of the sewing quite yet.

If you put double-rubbed seams all around, the corners will have 9 layers of fabric, a challenge for your sewing machine. Fold the adjoining edges of a piece of typing paper to simulate these hems and you will see exactly what I am talking about. To reduce the bulk of hemmed corners, we miter them. Fold all four edges over and rub them to crease the material 2 inches from the raw edge. Unfold the fabric and cut the four corners off on a 45-degree diagonal 1/2 inch outside the intersection of the creases. Put a 1/4-inch double-rubbed hem in this diagonal edge, meaning fold the fabric over 1/4 inch, then over 1/4 inch again, and run a row of stitches down the center of the double hem. Again, you may want to cut and fold your piece of paper first to make sure you understand. (Alternatively, you will find a series of illustrations for making a mitered corner in my EXCELLENT canvaswork book, Canvaswork & Sail Repair, available on this site.)

Now you are ready to follow the initial instructions for hemming the sides, putting a double-rubbed hem all around. The mitered corner reduces the number of layers of cloth you need to sew through from nine to six, and it gives a flatter corner.

You are finished with the sewing. All that remains is to install grommets in two corners. Place the grommets in the hems to take advantage of the reinforcing function of the additional layers of fabric. For normal use a canvas skirt is more than adequate, but if your boat lies alongside most of the time, lining the inside of the canvas with terry cloth will be easier on your hull. The easiest way to do this is simply to sew a bath towel (or some portion of one) to the inside surface of the skirt. If you cut the towel to size, fold the raw edges under when stitching to prevent them from unraveling.

From making a fender skirt, it is a very short leap to making weather cloths, wind scoops, and awnings. And if you use this fender, especially when lying alongside for a long time, it will help you to maintain your boat's yacht-club good looks.

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