A Sailor’s Cockpit Enclosure—Part 1

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There's no gentle way to say this, but I have long felt that cockpit enclosures are for those who don't really want to sail their boats. And, of course, I'm also well-known as an advocate of clean decks.

But now we have a cockpit enclosure, and...I'm loving it. OK, I nearly gagged on that statement, but it's true. And...I was...wrong...about cockpit enclosures—ugh, that was even harder to say.

This is the story of how and why we ended up with a cockpit enclosure, together with the design we came up with and the usage we are adopting to make sure we can still sail our boat efficiently and safely.

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chris

Hi John,
About 18 months ago we upgraded from an Ovni to a boat with raised saloon and an indoor watchkeeping station with 270 degrees visibility. After 6000 miles one of the clear benefit of a protected and warm watchkeeping areas is the very positive effect of less crew fatigue leading to more active watchkeeping and better decision making . It is stating the obvious but managing fatigue better has a direct impact on safety at sea. How many boat are getting in strife because of fatigue leading to poor judgement, loose watchkeeping or reluctance to take action early enough? The main down side is less reactivity when something goes pear shape as it takes a fews seconds to get on deck, but when things are tricky we are back into our open and uncluttered cockpit. Cheers. Chris

Jo

On our old dutch 27ft boat we could extend the dodger to enclose the whole cockpit, although we lost the option to sail. (Motoring was still possible) That may not sound very practical, but made living at anchor a lot more comfortable in moderate latitudes. It’s very comforting to put up the Kuchenbude (cake-booth, the German colloquial term for an enclosure) after a wet sail to enjoy a hot after-sail-grog without having to move inside.

The dutch knew what they were doing.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

We actually went the other way this year. When we got our current boat a few years ago, it had a full enclosure but we have really only ever used the dodger and occasionally the bimini. For the second half of this season, we removed the bimini as it takes up cockpit space when down and were very happy without it. I plan to sew up an awning for use at anchor only this winter so that we can keep the bimini and its bulky frame off the boat.

What works best really depends on where you are. At anchor, we like to sit in crazy creek chairs under our dodger facing aft and this stays pretty warm in most conditions thanks to the dodger. We basically don’t go to docks so we don’t need to worry about being angle in funny ways to the wind. Underway, we almost never need additional protection but we did occasionally motor with the bimini up. At night, we can get pretty cold but I am not comfortable looking through the plastic so we don’t allow any of that stuff to be up. For long distance sailing, I have always had open cockpits but I would think that the Boreal system would be ideal. For the tropics, a bimini but no dodger is often good unless it gets really splashy. For the mid latitudes, I like just a bimini with the ability to get cockpit shade on a really hot, still day. I have done some pretty cold weather deliveries and the boats with pilothouses were really nice for that but I really struggle to sail a boat with a windshield or anything over my head as I use the wind on my ears so much (I also hand-steer more than most which probably contributes to my dislike of this). The Boreal with an awning that could be put up at anchor would seem to be ideal in my mind.

Eric

Geoff Jenkins

Hi John,

We sail with only a dodger which works just fine in most conditions as you have noted. We are planning on taking our 37′ sloop south in the next year, so I’ve been investigating various bimini designs. I’m particularly concerned about maintaining a view of the mainsail and telltales. I look forward to your design thoughts on how to incorporate this important feature.

Alex Tarlecky

John,

I think you dismiss the idea of a cockpit enclosure in the tropics too quickly. We have both isinglass and textilene enclosures for our cockpit. After you spend a long time in the tropics or even sub tropics, temperatures as low as 70’s starts to feel cold. In the early winter when the xmas winds howl we get out our fleece and bundle up! Its nice being at anchor and keeping most of the rain out of the cockpit. During the warmer months we drop the isinglass and put on the textilene to keep the strong sun at bay late in the day. We also like to shower in the cockpit to keep the moisture out of the boat. We have extended out our living space and in the winter we can sit in tshirts in the cockpit while ice forms on the Chesapeake. Overall, we feel it was one of the best improvements we made to the boat. The only improvement we will make it changing soft bimini to a hard bimini when the time comes to replace it.

– a

Larry Caillouet

The reason that many of us have been averse to vinyl–Eisenglass, etc.–is that it gets cloudy and difficult to see through. There are several reasons for this including UV degradation and abrasion of the surface from wiping salt off instead of washing it off with fresh water, but the most important may be crushing the vinyl by folding the dodger down. When vinyl develops wrinkles it distorts vision through it and becomes frustrating to use.

We recently had an enclosure built and went to a hybrid solution. The three front panels of the dodger are made of Lexan, a polycarbonate, and are as clear as glass and almost as stiff, but can be curved for the corner pieces. We made the center panel as large as possible because I wanted to be able to get wind into the cockpit for cooling and for data (the sound in your ears and the feeling on your skin) when I wanted it. It can’t be rolled up, but it will swing up against the underside of the dodger and then zip back down when needed.

The rest of the enclosure panels are vinyl and remain attached to the bimini in a rolled–but not crushed–position until needed. This creates a bit of inconvenience in entering the cockpit from the deck because the roll lowers the entrance heiight by a few inches, but it eliminates the need for storing them so carefully that they can’t get crunched. The vinyl panels will lose their clarity faster than the Lexan panels, but with proper care and cleaning both should last many years before needing to be replaced.

S. A. Varjord

Hi John.

As a Norwegian, with some arctic experience including northern Norway in the winter and Svalbard (Spitzbergen), i don’t consider myself a whimp, but i still think being warm and dry beats being cold and wet. 🙂 Cockpit enclosures make that difference, and the others you mention, and they change crew behaviour, a lot.

The one on watch will not get worn out and will be doing a way better job. Other crew will spend way more time “outside”, in many ways adding to the quality of watchkeeping.

Watching the surroundings through plastic does reduce clarity of vision, but since the amount of time someone is looking around increases greatly, that is totally compensated. Also, if there is doubt, one will go out for a better look. It’s possible to have some proper glass and a wind shield wiper in parts of the enclosure. I will claim that a properly enclosed steering position increases actual safety a lot.

Since we mostly sail to enjoy it, and the cockpit it where a lot of time has to be spent, why not make it suited for human comfort in conditions that are a dominant part of reality? My pleasure is easily affected by being cold and wet, and let’s be real, even the best of gear cant stop that when it’s properly unpleasant.

I’ve also spent several decades racing and totally depend on having undisturbed wind around my head to sail fast, but long distance sailing, it’s mostly autopilot or such doing the job, so then that gets irrelevant. I still want a steering position in free air without a lot of hassle first, but thats easy to make possible. Unsurprisingly, I totally support that a cockpit enclosure of some kind, enabling good watch keeping without much exposure to the elements is essential.

Pete Worrell

Morning John:
PATIENCE is a Hood Pilothouse 51. At the twilight of his boatbuilding career, Ted Hood built 4 HP51s in Portsmouth, RI which he characterized as the culmination of his design ethos. The pilothouse is in effect a long hard cockpit enclosure, which contains a settee, nav station, all around windows. So you have a traditional steering position in the cockpit, plus an autopilot/joystick in the pilothouse. Inside the pilothouse there is also a traditional companionway, with a sliding hatch and boards for extra protection.

We acquired this vessel six years ago after vowing to ourselves to get a hard dodger or pilothouse the last time we were coming home from Nova Scotia upwind in September with cold lashing spray et cetera –you get it. Now, we can’t imagine a hearty cruising vessel without it. Naturally it is great in the cold, but for someone who has as much surface area on top of the head as I do, it is glorious to have the fixed shade in warm weather also (with lots of opening hatches for breeze). The greenhouse effect results in it always being warm and dry, and window covers mean that we can generate shade and cool in hot weather.

But it is essential to frequently get out of the pilothouse into the uncovered cockpit or on deck to be fully in touch with the weather. Ours has a zippered canvas aft access so its easy to dash into the cockpit. Night passages watchkeeping is enhanced, but you really cannot be lazy about getting out into the cockpit.

After six seasons, we have removed the dining table below as we have never used it once. No matter how many guests on board, everyone wants to be in the pilothouse all the time, instead of going below (into the basement) where there is less vis.

One of the reasons we cruise is to be with Mother Nature and so we “get” the cruisers who like cockpit living. The pilothouse merely extends our range in challenging weather and seasonal changes. It’s such a vast improvement to the 30 years we cruised without one!

Pete & Kareen Worrell
S/V PATIENCE
Portsmouth, NH, USA

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and everyone,
I feel most enclosures as seen in use are often quite unwise. I have observed them be so seductive that poor seamanship occurs: not being dressed to go on deck and deal with a deck problem or not wearing a harness/tether/inflatable while on watch. (An acquaintance came into an anchorage and waved to us in shorts and a t-shirt later sharing that the overnight he had just done in rain & 16C/60F temperatures was a doddle as he never left his enclosure, nav’ing by radar below-decks and chartplotter under the dodger). Crew will need to fight against the tendency to cut corners. Other caveats include: designs where running the ship is compromised (such as winches that can’t be used as the handle hits the canvas), where access to the side decks takes time (unzipping and needing gymnastics to get onto the side deck), inability to safely take the helm if necessary (visibility compromised through often spray covered plastic and compromised hearing/feeling the elements). Seeing the sails takes effort, so it is likely the sailing will be done by instrument. Finally, many enclosures make keeping a proper watch less likely: getting your head/ears/eyes out into the elements and not compromised with plastic, ceilings etc. There are numerous other examples. So, generally, I see most enclosures as making the running of the boat more difficult while making life, especially at anchor, far more appealing. In most areas of choosing systems: ground tackle, sail handling equipment etc., the boat comes first. With enclosures you bump into the interface of how and how much one compromises seamanship and boat handling ease with being more comfortable (recognizing that being comfortable and rested does contribute to safety and good decisions).
That said, the enclosure we have come up has extended our cruising season a month to 6 weeks on either end in our sailing in colder climes and solves most of the above concerns. Extending one’s season is a big bonus for us and, in practice, we have left our enclosure up most of the season in the colder, wetter sailing we have found in Northern Europe (it is easily and quickly adjusted to allow for enjoying the occasional warm sunny day). We succeeded in this by forgoing some of the attributes that make enclosures so wonderful when at anchor and, even more so, at a marina.
My dodger consists of a hard-top (strong enough to stand on) and canvas sides. It provides great handholds and feeling of security. The enclosure emerged one very late start going south from New England (USA). We were unhappily cold/wet so I taped some random plastic sheeting on the aft edge of our dodger (think of the doorway entrances to ice houses) and the difference this made was very impressive. Since then, this idea has evolved and improved with the help of canvas workers into and an aft see-through curtain done in 3 sections, the side sections are sort of fixed while the middle section allows easy entrance/exit. The difference this simple arrangement makes is huge. Not having cold wind (or rain or sleet) on you as it wraps around the sides of the dodger into the sitting area is a huge comfort in long watch hours (we are rarely at the helm). Things like cushions, books, Kindle etc. stay dry and safe in most weather. When sunny, it acts like a greenhouse and is very warm and inviting. During winter lay-up months (when we are still living aboard) it acts like a mud room.
In this design, all winches are fully functional and no aspect of running the boat is compromised. One can step in to the cockpit through the center flap and be completely outside the enclosure to see well above the dodger and feel the wind and hear. We do not “heat” the area so we are always dressed for action and since we have regular visits to the open cockpit there is no temptation to not be harnessed up and tethered. Finally, it is a design for a couple or crew of 2 and, I suspect, some dodgers might not come far enough aft to make sufficient space. Angling the curtain aft might help.
This enclosure for sure has many compromises, but it works for us and has extended our season by 20-30% while making all lousy weather sailing far more pleasant.
My best to all, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Roland

Personally I think a solid Hardtop is increasing safety, sailing in hard weather with a shorthanded crew.

Crew that are dry and comfortable, will in the end make less mistakes than an exhausted crew. Sailing in hard weather is very much about not making mistakes.

Going to myself, I last much longer having a watch in the protection under the Hardtop, compared to be exposed to the elements.

Do not underestimate the calming effect the “quiet” environment have on the crew. A solid Hardtop reduce sounds from hauling wind, breaking waves etc. Not to the point that you do not know what is going on the outside, but enough to make you feel better and last longer in hard weather.

When we have guests aboard, they always calm down if they are offered a seat under the protected Hardtop.

.

Marc Dacey

One of the reasons we chose a pilothouse is to have the best of both worlds (and two helms). The outside helm is higher off the water than an aft cockpit and the “cockpit” itself is merely a footwell. Weather clothes and four cambered solar panels on an arch, with Sunbrella awnings in between to catch rain and spray do the trick for all but the worst weather. The pilothouse itself protects the windward aspects for the most part, and the cockpit/footwell has two four-inch scuppers. Wind is cut, but windage is not increased, save for dead downwind, and visibility is excellent. I’m not sure why more pilothouse (or more “three sided cockpits”) aren’t sold, really, outside of the strictly warm-weather market.

Drew Frye

I was nearly laughing, reading the first two paragraphs. I could have written those, just that way, including the admission of conversion! Bear in mind that my last boat was a 27-foot Kevlar racing cat.

The PDQ 32 was designed with a hard top and a companionway slider that opens 10 feet wide. The result is that in hot, buggy (large bug net) or rainy weather, we can leave the slider open and have an open salon. Fantastic. In freezing weather the slider closes tight, sliding on ball bearing traveler tracks. My point is that boats designed with large hard tops can have larger sliders, as long as they are well built and close strongly.

René Bornmann