I can already hear the sighs of disgust and the mumbled, head-shaking pronouncements as horrified readers plow into this piece. 'Kretschmer has lost it; he's gone soft; he's a tropical wimp; he's too old.' While I could and probably should leap to my own defense—hell, I just returned today from a delivery to Trinidad where I actually donned my foul-weather gear a few times and was thoroughly doused more than once—the sad truth is, I have gone soft or at least ‘gone dry.'
Brothers and sisters, I am a convert. I have found religion in the form of canvas and clear-plastic side panels. I bow down before the god of seagoing patios and curse skin-rash-causing foul-weather gear and stinky sea boots. I no longer scoff as I walk along the dock and spy boats with fully enclosed cockpits, or as we cult members call them, ‘patios.' No sir, these upright and abrupt engineering marvels defy the laws of nature and ascetics to seal off the cockpit and its fragile occupants from wind, rain, and waves like a see-through bomb shelter. So what if they create enough windage that they should have sheets to be trimmed and completely block your view of the sails? Just run your fingers over that shiny inch-and-a-half stainless tubing, salt-encrusted fabric, and corroded nylon zippers—it is a thing of beauty and bulk. Also, there is nothing like a patio to enhance the profile of an otherwise too-sleek cruising boat.
I didn't become a full-enclosure zealot without a bit of resistance; in fact I used to hate the hideous contraptions that often look like saggy second story additions built by a shady South Florida contractor after a hurricane. I once wrote an article insisting that if you didn't care for Neptune's signature elements, namely wind and spray, then you should stay off the water. I think I said something to the effect that sailing was, at its core, sensorial and went on to lambaste everything that made it easier or more comfortable. Ah, the passion and ignorance of youth. Older if not significantly wiser, I now realize that I can't stop the relentless course of progress, like GPS and roller furling before; it is time for "The Patio" to take its rightful place as a vital piece of sailing gear and to be relentlessly flogged on the boating public.
Now, mind you, I am still willing to admit that sailing should be considered an outdoor activity. Of course, several recent passages up and down the Atlantic coast might refute that claim. Let's just take a look at the statistics for the two particular boats that I deliver regularly that have full enclosures. In the past couple of years I've logged more than 15,000 miles and had several skirmishes with pesky gales and yet, other than occasional quick darts out of the patio to fetch or lash something on deck, or to take a leak, the times I have donned foul-weather gear can be tallied on one hand with fingers to spare. When I think back to the old days—the wet days—to the misery inflicted upon, dare I say it, uncovered cockpits, the advantages of the slap-sided patio are obvious. That's probably the same argument that heralded the arrival of vinyl siding in the suburbs.
The owner of the Hylas 49 that I have delivered to and from the Caribbean for several years is a brilliant man, but when he first told me that he was opting for a full enclosure in lieu of a traditional spray dodger, I thought he'd fried his hard drive. While a full enclosure can be devised in various ways, usually it is a well-supported bimini top made from either Sunbrella fabric or a more waterproof high-tech plastic or vinyl with zip-on clear side panels. The side panels zip into each other and the bottom edges are snapped into button fittings on the coaming. The frame is usually tubular stainless, but occasionally aluminum and the angles tend to be close to 90 degrees. I am not talking about sleek hard top structures that are fiberglass or aluminum and sculpted to flow with the lines of the boat, some that look like an extension of a hard dodger. No sir, I am talking about canvas's creations that look like, well, like a patio you might see attached to a mobile home plopped down on an unsuspecting sailboat.
Reluctantly I agreed with the owner that a fully enclosed cockpit was fine for coastal cruising in soupy but otherwise settled weather, and even useful on rainy days at anchor. I insisted, however, that it would never hold up on a blue-water boat and would be a chore to cope with in heavy weather. The owner explained that the canvas shop manager had convinced him otherwise by using the geometry of sport fishing boats. I groaned as he explained.
Most sports fishing boats, especially those up north, have full enclosures on the fly bridge. As we all know, the idiots that drive these boats can't help themselves and they blast along at top speed most of the time. Picture a 42-foot sport fishing boat with a huge, fully enclosed fly bridge, complete with air conditioning, blasting out of the pass at 25 knots. Now, let's say that it's a breezy day and the wind is blowing into the pass at 20 knots. The sport fishing boat is not only throwing a wake that might cause a distant tsunami and pounding the fillings out of its poor occupants teeth as it slams into the chop, it is also experiencing 45 knots of apparent wind and the full enclosure up top isn't wincing.
So, your faithful correspondent, the so-called offshore expert, was dead wrong and the Hylas 49 owner and the canvass shop manager were right on the mark. Although the boat now lives in the Caribbean year round, the full enclosure survived the stormy North Atlantic run for several years without spitting a seam and kept her crew mercifully safe and dry. More recently I put another fully enclosed bimini to the test delivering a Hylas 46 from Palm Beach to Norwalk, CT.
We cleared the Lake Worth Inlet on the afternoon of April 24 and before nightfall we had all the side panels rigged, as passing thunderstorms made the evening eventful. We sped north, riding on the Gulf Stream's magic carpet. The weather was warm but unsettled, but we were content in the patio. The only problem was that it was hot and humid in there, like a greenhouse. Fortunately, the panels could be unzipped and rolled up, allowing for ventilation but still ready for quick deployment. Three days later we approached Cape Hatteras.
|"After a while, I even stopped flinching during that split second when the hull jerks and you know green water is coming your way."|
It was choppy and we were hard on the wind as we worked toward our waypoint east of the Diamond Shoals light. Occasional sheets of spray were launched aft and crashed into the patio. Amazingly, little if any water penetrated into the cockpit. Center cockpit boats are wetter than their aft cockpit sisters simply because the cockpit is closer to the spray line, but all afternoon the patio earned our admiration. After a while, I even stopped flinching during that split second when the hull jerks and you know green water is coming your way. All we needed for perfection were windshield wipers, and maybe air conditioning.
Midway through that trip, the forecast called for the north-northeast wind to back as a low was moving our way. Sure enough the crew at NOAA got it right. That night the SOG reading on the GPS touched 14 knots as the Gulf Stream and a strong southwest wind hurled us north. The seas flattened and the sailing was exceptional. By first light we were well past Hatteras, but the low was deepening. By mid morning the seas were building rapidly and winds were steady at 30 knots with occasional gusts to gale force. We were on a broad reach, the autopilot was steering and, I hate to admit this, the crew was lounging about the patio in shorts and shirtsleeves. We were not, however, reciting poetry.
The wind eased as we altered course for New York Harbor. We had decided to take the western approach to Long Island Sound in part to see firsthand what the Harbor looked like without the twin towers, and to offer our prayers. My old friend Neptune had other ideas and as we approached New York the leading edge of a powerful cold front met us head on. The cold wind shifted to the north-northwest, right on the nose and piped up to 25 to 30 knots. Did we worry? Of course not, we had the patio to protect us.
We beat toward the harbor all day, and I admit that night, frustrated by our slow progress, we fired up the diesel. We were only 15 miles away, but our progress was painfully slow. The tide was flooding with a vengeance, which should have helped, but the collision of the tidal stream and wind driven waves created a brutal chop. Worse, the patio was being seriously challenged. Time after time waves rushed the length of the boat as the bow plunged into the chop. The patio is proficient at deflecting spray, but deck sweeping assaults flooded past her little button snaps like Mongol hordes. What was this? The cockpit was wet, the cockpit was soaked, the cockpit was awash. I hated to do it, but there was no option, so I dashed below and wrestled into my foul-weather gear.
Fully EnclosedIf you do chose to rig a full enclosure for your cockpit, and plan to head offshore, it is best to incorporate a spray dodger into the plan as well. Visibility, however, is better with clear plastic panels that run forward to a coaming, but these can't keep water out that floods along the deck and up into the cockpit.
Stainless steel is the way to go for the structure, including extra supports fore and aft. Remember, however, that you must be able to get in out of the patio easily and it must fold away without too much trouble. And despite my experience, I wouldn't try to keep a patio rigged in truly severe conditions.
You also want to make sure that the patio has sufficient headroom. Nothing is worse than brushing your head against the top of it all the time. Also, make sure the panels roll up easily for ventilation, but still fit tightly when engaged to prevent sagging.
To reduce the greenhouse effect and to extend the life of the panels, have shaded covers for the clear panels that can snap or Velcro in place to keep sun and grime off them when not in use. Also, white is the coolest choice for a bimini top; all other colors enhance the greenhouse effect.
In addition to the author's prescriptions, you may want to contact the experts at the SailNet Custom Canvas Shop if you are considering enclosing your cockpit with a custom bimini.