Goodbye bed, hello storage
Converting an awkward quarter berth into a handy cockpit locker
Our Bristol 29.9, Quintessence, was built in 1978 when most builders' brochures made much of how many people a boat could sleep: SLEEPS FOUR! SLEEPS FIVE! This all-important number for our boat was six. That has now been reduced to five because the space that was the quarter berth has been converted to a cockpit locker. Most sailboats in this size range built in the 1970s and '80s had quarter berths and, in most cases, these quarter berths have quickly become storage spaces -- very inconvenient and inefficient storage for items that would be better stowed in a cockpit locker.
On our boat, the transition of this space from berth to stowage began early. I concluded that I was too old to sleep in a berth that I had to get into and out of endwise. You don't even have to be old. Our daughter, then 14, while sleeping in the quarter berth, had what has to be the worst kind of night terror. Half-awake, she thought for a few awful moments that she was in a coffin.
The first modification was having the quarter berth cushion made into two pieces so the batteries could be accessed in spite of all the stuff that was farther back in the space. This was done by the upholsterer at my request during a routine recovering job. The smaller forward part is 21 inches long, fore and aft. The aft part is the remainder of the original. Totally removing the larger aft section of the 5-inch cushion was the next step. This helped increase the storage volume but did nothing to make it more convenient. All the while in the back of my mind, I had the idea of converting the quarter berth space to a cockpit locker.
Hatch already present
This idea had suggested itself partly because the harder part of the work, the creation of a hatch lid in the port cockpit seat, complete with gutters and drains, was already done. In our boat there was already a full-sized hatch lid on the port side identical to the one to starboard. It offered access to a small under-seat locker just large enough to hold winch handles and a few small cleaning supplies. This space was just the area covered by the hatch itself. The depth was about 8 inches. This very small locker space was a rectangular box formed in the fiberglass deck liner above the quarter berth and protruding about 8 inches down into the quarter berth space. Cockpit access to the converted space could be achieved easily by sawing out the fiberglass box. The larger part of the work would be the addition of a bulkhead to separate the new cockpit locker from the cabin interior.
Creation of the bulkhead required planning and some basic decisions. The forward part of the quarter berth cushion serves as the seat for the chart table/nav station. It needed to remain.
This cushion also lifts out for access to the batteries beneath. These considerations set the forwardmost location for the bulkhead just a few inches ahead of the forward vertical surface of the original locker, so I decided to use this surface of the box to locate and attach the top of the new bulkhead.
With the bulkhead located farther aft than nav station seating required, there was room to have a small locker on the cabin side of the new bulkhead. This locker could be about 8 inches deep fore and aft and extend downward from under-deck level to about 15 inches above the battery access. This has proved to be very useful storage; it's handy to the companionway and nav station without detracting from the basic cabin volume. The space under it and aft of the cushion became the ideal place to stow the companionway boards, an added bonus.
Crossing the Rubicon
Simply sawing out the box sounds easy, but when it comes to taking a saw or drill to fiberglass, most boatowners experience a certain "crossing the Rubicon" feeling. I was no exception and hesitated a lot, but after checking and re-checking which areas could be sawed from inside and which from outside considering all the various impediments, I decided to go ahead. Using several power and hand saws, I removed the box except for a small downward projecting portion of its forward vertical surface left to serve as an attachment for the new bulkhead. Since the final cuts needed to be made from below, it was necessary to drill a hole in the box, attach a rope, and secure it from above to prevent its falling. Looking in from outside, I was pleased to see how spacious and handy this new cockpit locker was going to be.
Now that I could get into the space without having to crawl headfirst while holding a flashlight, I could appraise the increased volume and the decreased convenience that would accrue by removing the plywood quarter berth platform. The very minimal space beneath it is mostly forward where it can still be accessed anyway, so the advantages of a flat bottom surface for the locker plus the desire to simplify the bulkhead construction prevailed; I decided to leave it. The hull outboard of the quarter berth was finished with mahogany ceiling strips. These strips were cut a few inches aft of the planned bulkhead location, removed, and stored for later use. I decided not to remove the approximately 2-inch deep ceiling support frames that were glassed to the hull, as these might serve as attachment for something or other later on.
Made a template
Prior to any cutting, I made a bulkhead template of cardboard and thin plywood, perfecting it by trial and error and allowing for the distance between the ceiling inner surface and the hull by measuring with a scale slipped between the ceiling strips. The bulkhead would extend vertically from the quarter berth platform upward to the cockpit seat/deck underside and horizontally from the engine compartment panel and cockpit footwell outward to the hull. The bulkhead was cut from 1/2-inch plywood using the template and by shifting it an inch in the process to add an extra inch to the bulkhead's horizontal width.
The bulkhead would have to be installed in two pieces, so I sawed it on a vertical line a few inches inboard of the outer lower corner. I fastened the larger inboard piece in place with machine screws through the fiberglass portion left at the top. I secured its bottom and inboard edges with screws and glue using wooden cleat strips. With the major part of the bulkhead in place, the exact location of the final trim of the ceiling strips could be determined, and that cut was done. The outboard part of the bulkhead, still with its extra inch of width, was held in place behind its mating portion, marked, and then removed and trimmed at the vertical cut, making it fit to the already installed inner portion and to the hull. This removed most of the extra inch I had allowed as a hedge against errors in this final fit-up. It was secured to the inner part with a screwed and glued batten and to the hull with glued corner blocks. The very slight gap on the forward side of the batten joint was filled with wood filler and sanded smooth.
The location of the new locker for the forward side of the bulkhead didn't allow room for doors to be opened conveniently. Since it would be used for small items anyway, I decided that this should be an open pigeonhole locker with three spaces on each of two levels. I marked the design for this on the original template and made the assembly of shelves and partitions of 1/2-inch plywood. The partitions in the upper tier were staggered 1/2 inch from their counterparts below to permit the use of screws in all the joints. The face panel would hide this offset. The shelves were angled from the horizontal by 10 degrees, sloping downward toward the bulkhead to help retain items in the pigeonholes against boat motion, a technique I had used previously with good results.
The finishing touch was the mahogany face panel for the forward plane of the pigeonhole assembly. I made the face panel separately as a glued assembly using the ceiling strips I had removed earlier. The mahogany would protrude into the openings, not only covering the edges of the shelves and partitions but also providing a lip all around to keep things from falling out. I planed the strips for flatness and uniformity and cut and fitted the parts using a pattern marked on a piece of plywood. The pattern provided some trim allowance on the top and inboard edges, and the gluing was done right on the pattern using small bar clamps screwed down to the plywood and wedges to force the parts into contact.
I attached the shelf assembly to the bulkhead temporarily while I trimmed and fitted the face panel. Then I took both parts home to varnish the face panel, paint the shelf surfaces, and glue the face panel to the shelf and partition edges in the location that I had marked earlier while in the boat.
The final installation of the pigeonhole locker used epoxy glue and 1/4-inch stainless-steel threaded studs through the bulkhead with nuts and fender washers. The studs were epoxied to the shelves using small corner blocks. The holes in the bulkhead were oversize, about an inch in diameter, to allow for adjustment. These studs, used for the earlier temporary attachment for fit-up and for the final installation, were a big help. The edges of the shelves and the face panel adjoining the hull-to-deck liner, which could not conveniently be glued as part of the main installation, were caulked with 3M 5200. Painting -- including a touch-up of the pigeonhole interiors -- and the addition of two mahogany finishing strips outboard to hide the sawed ends of the ceiling strips, and the job was done.
The pigeonholes, though a byproduct of the original intent, are a big asset in their own right. They hold a variety of things that you'd like to have close to the companionway: safety harnesses, flashlights, chafing gear, deckplate keys, and sail ties.
The new cockpit locker has been a big improvement as well. There is now a good place to stow water hoses, a proper place for a fire extinguisher accessible from the cockpit, and so on. Cleaning supplies are now kept in a secured bucket where they can't spill, and there is room for a sailbag, fenders, canvas weathercloths, and more.
Worked at home
I did as much of the work as possible at home. All the plywood used was common exterior-grade fir ply. Corner blocks and cleats are pine or fir, except for one that is beneath the lower shelf and exposed in the cabin. This one is of varnished mahogany.
I used 3M 5200 adhesive for gluing to the hull. I glued the shelf assembly and the face panel with epoxy. I also used epoxy to glue the face panel to the shelves and the shelves to the bulkhead. The metal hardware is stainless steel. The finish on the face panel consists of stained paste wood filler, two coats of Z-spar Captain's Varnish, and two coats of Defthane satin urethane rubbed with medium rubbing compound to a semi-gloss. The paint in the interior of the pigeonholes is a dead flat, deep gray-brown acrylic latex. The rest of the painted work was done with Pettit EasyPoxy white. The work was a part-time effort completed over a period of about two weeks, and the final installation of the pigeonhole locker was the only part that required the help of another person.
We have cruised with this modification for two seasons and are pleased with it. Getting out cockpitcushions or fenders is much easier when you don't have to go below and crawl into the "black hole" for them, and the pigeonhole locker provides useful storage close to the companionway without obstructing movement or making the cabin interior seem smaller. We have also discovered that it's very seldom that a 30-foot boat needs to sleep six.
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