An all-purpose settee berth
Berths need to serve different functions depending on who's in them and whether the boat's in port or at sea. The traditional small sailboat layout includes settee berths to port and starboard, serving as places to sit and also as single berths for sleeping. These berths should be the most comfortable ones on the boat when you're in a rough sea, as they are close to amidships and therefore subject to the least motion.
A safe sea berth needs something to keep you from tumbling out if the crew tacks while you're asleep. That's where bunk boards (also called lee boards) come in. The concept is similar to the high railing used to keep babies in their cribs. In order for the bunk to be used as a settee again, though, the bunk board must fold down or be removed. Leecloths, canvas sheets attached to the inboard edge of the berth and to the overhead by cords through grommets, are another common option.
In port or at anchor, it's nice to have wide berths to stretch out on. Most settee berths are convertible to functional doubles by adding a swing-up or drop-in extension platform and corresponding cushion. This gives you much more flexibility. You can have another couple aboard as overnight guests, sleep in the main cabin yourselves rather than the V-berth or aft quarter berth, or just give a single occupant (at anchor or in port) considerably more room.
Fiddles at the inboard edge of the settee berth help hold the cushions in place when the boat heels. Not having them, I quickly discovered, means you sometimes sail with your settee cushions piled on the cabin sole.
Everything in one
I realized I wanted a three-in-one, all-purpose place of repose providing: a settee, a sea berth, and a convertible double. The sea berth with bunk board was required; the convertible double berth was a luxury. For a 28-foot boat, there was a list of considerations to work through before I would know if having a convertible double berth in the main cabin was feasible. Here's what I wanted to know:
I found encouraging answers to all four of those questions, leaving me with the real stickler:
Solving this one was one of my better ideas. It took me about three years to figure it out, and I was quietly proud of it. To my chagrin, it took my wife five minutes on the boat to figure out something simpler and better.
The simplest solution is a hinged board, the length of the berth, that doubles as a bunk extension and bunk board, depending on what position it's in, and a removable fiddle that serves both the settee and the double bunk.
A cushion fiddle needs to be high enough to hold the cushion, but no higher; excessive height means the top edge will push into the bottom of your thighs when you sit on the settee. Two-and-a-half inches up the edge of the cushion is a good fiddle height for a firm 5-inch foam cushion. In spite of all that, in really bouncy waves it may still bounce off the berth without Velcro, snaps, or similar restraints.
My fiddle is a 1/2-inch teak plank, the length of the bunk. I drilled six centered, 1 1/2-inch by 3⁄16-inch holes in the bottom edge of it, into which I tapped six 3-inch pieces of 3⁄16-inch stainless-steel rod after first dipping them in epoxy. This was stainless-steel rod from the hardware store -- not the chain home-improvement warehouse variety. This hardware-store rod is sold in 12-inch pieces. A drill press made it much easier to get these holes straight, but if you're careful you can certainly drill straight 1 1/2-inch holes with a hand drill, especially if you use a vise to hold the plank.
My original thought was to have the rods fit into corresponding holes in another plank permanently through-bolted to the boat. Didn't work. Even with a drill press, it's hard to get the holes perfect enough that the rods don't jam, and during normal life, if they get bent just a bit, they will jam. Also, in order for the berth extension/bunk board to swing all the way out, the edge of it has to protrude a bit past the vertical edge of the settee, and that means a 1/2-inch fiddle will not mate edge-to-edge with a 1/2-inch plank screwed flush to the vertical surface below it.
I ended up through-bolting eye straps to the face of the lower plank and screwing small pieces of polished stainless steel (from a strip I bought at the hardware store) below the straps to keep the ends of the rods from digging into the wood. The plates also act as shims, removing the wobble of the rods in the straps.
It's easy to cut 3⁄16-inch stainless-steel rod and thin plate with a decent hacksaw and sharp blade. Put the piece in a well-secured vise and draw the blade carefully toward you at the desired cutting point, keeping a firm grasp on it. It will score the metal on the first or second stroke. Then you can repeat the motion for a clean cut.
It's better to make the cut in one direction only, drawing the saw toward you and then placing it back in the groove, rather than using a back-and-forth motion, which puts stress on the piece, the workbench, and you, while increasing the likelihood of the saw's jumping out and scarring the piece.
Finishing the stainless
With the plate, I lined up the top edge of the strip with the top edge of the vise, ensuring a square cut. Clean up the cut ends on a bench grinder or bench sander (this worked great on the plate ends) and polish them with 220- and 400-grit sandpaper and then with the polishing attachment on a Dremel and some toothpaste or metal polishing rouge, which is available at welding supply stores. Always wear safety glasses or goggles while working with metal -- no exceptions.
Normally, when the berth is a settee, the berth extension/bunk board is folded flat under the cushion and the fiddle is in place. When the berth needs to be a sea berth, the fiddle is removed and the berth extension/bunk board is swung up to the upright position and locked in place with barrel bolts that slide into holes in the bulkhead.
To extend the bunk into a double, this extension is swung all the way down into the extended flat position and supported at the forward end by a stout strip of hardwood through-bolted to the bulkhead and in the middle and after end by two removable legs.
Cool trick: I couldn't find 1-inch teak dowels, but after playing around a little bit, I got the generic white hardwood ones to look almost indistinguishable from teak. First I painted on a heavy coat of Zar Teak Natural stain with a brush and let it dry. Then I sanded off most of that with 150-grit paper, leaving behind a pattern that looked more or less like the pronounced grain pattern found in teak. This went quickly. I followed that with a light, even coat of stain, rubbed well into the wood with a rag, not a brush. This is the coat that actually colors the wood. Once that coat's dry, you can oil or varnish the dowel to match the rest of your work.
Lengths of rod
The legs have short lengths of 3⁄16-inch rod that fit into holes in the underside of the berth extension. I put rubber cups, the sort used with canes, on the other ends of the legs so I wouldn't have to drill holes in the cabin sole. I made small receiver plates out of 1⁄16-inch scrap brass and recessed them into the bunk board to help keep the leg rods from enlarging the holes in the bunk board over time.
After outlining them, putting on my safety goggles, and drilling the holes (using a sharp bit and a little oil for lubrication), I cut the brass pieces out with a metal blade on a good jigsaw set at medium-low speed. It cut as easily as wood. Follow the finishing directions for the stainless pieces discussed on the previous page.
Recess the plate
To recess a metal plate in wood, outline the metal piece with a pen or pencil and carefully score the outline to a uniform depth by tapping in a sharp chisel. Use a small hammer (12 ounces or less) for good control. Then place the chisel blade as flat as possible and gently tap it inward from the scored edge using baby taps to peel off a layer of the wood.
Repeat until the desired depth is reached. To dress up the wound in plywood, which will look white around the edges of the piece where you've knocked away the veneer, paint the clean edge with wood stain chosen to match the veneer.
The fiddle fits into a corresponding set of holes at the edge of the berth extension/bunk board to retain the extension cushion. I overdrilled these one bit size to make the fit easier.
The berth extension is fastened to the boat with a full-length stainless-steel piano hinge. Be careful here. If your settee edge makes a sharp 90-degree bend from horizontal to vertical, no worries. Most fiberglass liners, though, will have some radius to this edge. That makes installing a piano hinge tricky. If the hinge isn't mounted exactly horizontally, the board won't lie flat when stowed. But if it's mounted too far back, the board won't swing out flat. Mine barely works.
You've got to play around with it and see what it will do before drilling holes. If the edge has too pronounced a radius for the piano hinge, you may have to go with a swing-down berth extension that folds against the vertical face rather than the horizontal when stowed, and a separate, removable bunk board that can be attached between chocks mounted on the bulkhead.
I always use machine screws, never self-tapping screws, in fiberglass. Use a hole gauge to find the bit size that's a fraction too small for the screw to go through. The screw will then tap itself into the hole like a tap tool in metal and make a tight fit without chipping the gelcoat and reaming out the hole as a self-tapping screw will do. If you clean the hole and put in a dab of sealant before driving the screw, the hole will be watertight.
A bunk board should be stout enough to check a full-sized adult if the boat is thrown off a wave. Therefore, for strength the piano hinge is through-bolted in every fourth hole (about every 7 inches). Acorn nuts look nice and prevent chafe on the cushion when the bunk board is stowed flat. The rest of the holes have 3⁄8-inch sheet metal screws. The bunk boards are secured to the bulkheads by brass -- solid brass, not brass-plated mild steel -- barrel bolts from the hardware store, which are perfectly adequate for the purpose and cost one-fourth to one-tenth of those sold for marine use. I screwed small brass receiver plates into the bulkheads to add strength and durability to the holes.
If there's not enough clearance between the edge of the bunk board and the bulkhead, you can recess the receiver plate into the bulkhead. (Use the instructions I describe earlier on this page for chiseling wood to make room for a recessed plate.) I used 1/2-inch solid teak for the cushion fiddle, 1-inch generic hardwood dowels (stained and oiled to match the teak) for the extension legs, and 1/2-inch teak-veneer marine plywood for the berth extension and bunk board.
With the berth extension/bunk board stowed and the fiddle in place, the berth is in settee mode. When the board is deployed in the upright position, it's in sea-berth mode. For double-berth mode, the berth extension/bunk board is swung all the way out, the cushion is in place, the fiddle moved to the end of the berth extension to retain the cushion, and the removable legs support the extension. A piece of eggshell foam cut to fit the entire berth, kept rolled up out of the way most of the time, will keep sleepers from noticing the crack between the cushions. This works in the V-berth too.
There is plenty of cabin sole area in the boat's design to make this workable, and the berth is wide enough for most people.
The insert cushion will fit partially behind the settee back and in the space below the back, which is left blank so that there's full sleeping width on the berth. This is a thoughtful feature, but the drawback is that there's no permanent lower back support on the settee. The cushion, along with throw pillows, will help with that.
For further reading . . .
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