Cockpits—Part 2, Visibility and Ergonomics

The Outbound 44/46 cockpit may look small and cramped at the wharf, but scores high offshore with great visibility, shelter, and ergonomics.

There are few areas on any boat that are used for more diverse tasks than an offshore sailboat cockpit. Everything from lounging on a quiet day at anchor to handling a fast-moving emergency at sea with a bunch of sail up...in the black dark...with a ship bearing down on us.

Given that, picking a boat with a good cockpit layout is one of the most important parts of boat selection.

It's also one of the hardest to get right, because we will inspect most prospective boats at the wharf or mooring where features supporting lounging will be a lot more obvious than features that will work offshore at oh-dark-thirty when it's blowing stink and the yogurt's flying.

And, further, many of us will have to make this decision without a lot, or maybe any, offshore experience, one of the reasons I strongly recommend making an offshore passage with someone else before buying a cruising boat.

That said, I can provide a cockpit selection framework to make this process easier based on the thousands—literally, I did some back-of-the-envelope estimating—of hours I have spent on watch, mostly offshore, in all weathers, in sailboat cockpits.

To further set the parameters, I'm going to focus on cockpits optimized for one to four people. This is important to make clear since full-crew racing-optimized cockpits will be very different.

Also, keep in mind that this is just one article among many that I have written about boat selection, so, for example, I have already explored main traveler positioning options, and won't cover that again here.

As usual I will use the Outbound 44/46, the Boréal boats, our own Morgan's Cloud, and a couple of others to illustrate each point.

Let's dig in:

  1. The Right Way to Buy a Boat…And The Wrong Way
  2. Is It a Need or a Want?
  3. Buying a Boat—A Different Way To Think About Price
  4. Buying a Cruising Boat—Five Tips for The Half-Assed Option
  5. Are Refits Worth It?
  6. Buying a Boat—Never Say Never
  7. Five Ways That Bad Boats Happen
  8. The Two Biggest Lies Yacht Brokers Tell
  9. Learn From The Designers
  10. You May Need a Bigger Boat Than You Think
  11. Sail Area: Overlap, Multihulls, And Racing Rules
  12. 8 Tips For a Great Cruising Boat Interior Arrangement
  13. Of Cockpits, Wheelhouses And Engine Rooms
  14. Cockpits—Part 1, Safe and Seamanlike
  15. Cockpits—Part 2, Visibility and Ergonomics
  16. Offshore Sailboat Winches, Selection and Positioning
  17. Choosing a Cruising Boat—Shelter
  18. Choosing A Cruising Boat—Shade and Ventilation
  19. Pitfalls to Avoid When Buying a New Voyaging Boat
  20. Cyclical Loading: Why Offshore Sailing Is So Hard On A Boat
  21. Cycle Loading—8 Tips for Boat and Gear Purchases
  22. Characteristics of Boat Building Materials
  23. Impact Resistance—How Hull Materials Respond to Impacts
  24. Impact Resistance—Two Collision Scenarios
  25. Hull Materials, Which Is Best?
  26. The Five Things We Need to Check When Buying a Boat
  27. Six Warnings About Buying Fibreglass Boats
  28. Buying a Fibreglass Boat—Hiring a Surveyor and Managing the Survey
  29. What We Need to Know About Moisture Meters and Wet Fibreglass Laminate
  30. Offshore Sailboat Keel Types
  31. US$30,000 Starter Cruiser—Part 1, How We Shopped For Our First Cruising Sailboat
  32. US$30,000 Starter Cruiser—Part 2, The Boat We Bought
  33. US$30,000 Starter Cruiser—How It’s Working Out
  34. Q&A, What’s the Maximum Sailboat Size For a Couple?
  35. At What Age should You Stop Sailing And Buy a Motorboat?
  36. A Motorsailer For Offshore Voyaging?
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Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Agree on all counts.
The cockpit can be completely revealing of the intentions of the designer and what he/she thinks of the target audience/users. Nowhere else on a boat are the compromises that go into boat design so apparent. And, with your article in hand, these intentions can be read like a book.
And your suggestion of offshore experience can’t be overstated (perhaps a good imagination and lots of coastal cruising experience could come close): most of us have a good sense of what makes us comfortable while having little initial idea what works (or doesn’t work) for the various fire drills that a good cockpit layout facilitates.
A question: any thoughts on the tinted windows on the Outbound pictured. My guess is that they degrade visibility in marginal conditions and at night, but have no idea how much or whether an issue. I think I would want clear panes and use another method to cut back on sun intensity when needed.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Stein Varjord

Hi John,
The overly huge steering wheel comes from fully crewed racing boats, of course, where the helm stays behind the wheel at all times. Putting this solution on cruising boats is like putting a huge Formula One wing on a family car. Maybe it feels cool, but it just doesn’t work the same way. Essentially it’s quite silly and as described here, it can destroy the functionality of the cockpit, even if all else is perfect.

Lately an interesting solution to this problem, an alternative to one huge wheel or twin wheels, has been presented by Danish Jefa, the worlds biggest in yachting steering systems. As an example, they are the maker of the autopilot drive units sold as B&G, Simrad, Garmin, and many more.

They now have a “Pendular steering pedestal”. The pedestal and wheel moves between 3 positions, centre and each side. This makes a 0,8 metre wheel do the job of a 2,5 metre wheel. One can sit on the suitable side of the cockpit or stand in the centre, while never blocking movement in the cockpit. The pedestal has a foot pedal that releases it from its position. When it reaches the next it locks in automatically.

I’ve seen a boat with this system, but never tried sailing with it. It looks well made and reportedly works as well as it looks. Some new models have this as a standard solution. https://jefa.com/steering/products/cable/WP900/wp900.htm

Richard Ritchie

I would need convincing that this Jefa wheel could be adequately anchored to the floor. The fixing plate is very short fore and aft.
The binnacle is a massively important strong point. I know of a wheel bent by helmsman’s body whose ribs were cracked when a wave came in over the stern in overfalls. From the brochure this looks only good for inshore boats.

Stein Varjord

Hi Richard,
I’ve seen one and “tested” it, but as mentioned, not actually sailed with it, so I’m definitely not informed well enough to evaluate this. Still, FWIW, it felt good. Seemed just as stable as normal. There is a slight bit of fore and aft movement, if you try to do just that. While steering I think it will not at all move that way. There was no sideways wobble. I could not notice any difference in friction. Feels very direct.

When it comes to impact strength, I agree that it would probably not hold up if the boat hits a rock and the helm gets thrown towards it. I’m pretty sure that the deck plate will not break, but that part of the boat will. The leverage is just too much for normal laminates etc. However, i’ve seen binnacles collapse in that situation too. Perhaps it would be better if the mounting plate was bigger. I think so.

Still I don’t know if it should be made strong enough to take the above mentioned loads. As you mention, people can get hurt by such situations. Perhaps it’s better if the first object you hit does flex quite a bit to reduce the blow. I don’t know what to think about it. I’m nerdy enough to prefer tillers anyway…. 🙂

Maxime Gérardin

Hi,
this sort of tilting binnacle has already been tried on aluminium boats: http://www.jfandre.com/2015_innovations.htm
Not sure it’s worth the added complexity.

By the way, the cockpit layout of the new Boreal 44.2 is now public : https://www.boreal-yachts.com/portfolio/le-boreal-44/ (and, in my uninformed opinion, looks like a great solution)

Dave Warnock

Hi John,

I wonder what you think of the Amel’s?
From what I have seen on video from Delos and others it seems to me that when steering you have to unzip the section above you and stand.
Away from the wheel I’m guessing it is not possible to see above the roof without standing on a cockpit seat.

Dave Warnock

Sorry, reread that and it wasn’t very clear.
On an Amel I think we only way to get a view without looking through glass is to zip open above the wheel and stick your head out. Is that adequate?

Rob Gill

Hi Dave, a quick comment from a user perspective, we have a Beneteau 473 with a custom hard dodger. This provides excellent all-round visibility from the cockpit. When conditions and visibility are poor, my experience is that looking through a windscreen coated with something like Rain-X is no better or worse than squinting and blinking as you try and keep a look-out with the naked eye – and this view is from keeping watch on yachts and big ships. The only thing that really works when things are wild, is a clear view screen and who has that?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clear_view_screen

If conditions are fine, we stand on the cockpit seat and look out over the dodger, not for visibility (which is as good or better through our lightly tinted window) but for the enjoyment of, and feel for, the breeze and conditions that you don’t get closeted behind plexiglass.
Br.
Rob

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Dave Warnock

Nice, thanks. Our Rival 38 has the difference that the wheel is at the forward end of the cockpit. Similar to an Amel. As nothing opens in the front half of our wheelhouse we don’t get the extra visibility/sensory options when steering by hand at present.

Dave Warnock

Thanks John.
we had a bit of a design brainstorm about our own wheelhouse last night. Long term we already planned to make changes to improve ventilation (nothing opens at present, going to cook in the tropics). Plus it is a big angular and ugly at present.

Compared to us the Amel gains both head out visibility and ventilation but also offers better communication with the foredeck eg when anchoring/reefing. So we are looking at an option that gives us the possibility of open view when standing while changing as little as possible.

So thinking we cut the top 200mm off the front 3 windows, top them with an aftwards shelf (need to check head clearance for companionway but guess 150 or 200mm deep) and then vertical, opening windows at the aft edge of the shelf to the roof (keep existing roof as an overhang to give significant eyebrow for rain protection when the vertical windows are open).

So we can stand with an open view (very much as Phyllis is in the 5th picture above). Our “shelf” can have a good handhold fitted right across the length of it.

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Dave Warnock

Thanks John,

I think we are looking at much the same thing.

One way of looking at our plans is to see the existing wheelhouse roof becoming the bimini (albeit currently with one section of solid sides) and the cut-down windscreen with “shelf” becoming the dodger (that you can look over when standing) with an opening windscreen between them.

You have your windscreen connecting the bimini to dodger at the forward end of the dodger top. We were thinking of putting it at the aft end. Our thinking is that makes reaching it to open from inside easier and uses the bimini as an eyebrow to keep rain off so improving visibility. If this section is going to be open in storm conditions the extra wind capture of the eyebrow won’t matter.

The work would strengthen the forward supports for the dodger and bimini (currently the window frames are the main support) and allow us to reduce the slab-sided and angular appearance of the grp dodger base. The aft supports are much better implemented and in good condition.

The existing enclosure was really only for boatyard use (one-piece almost impossible to put up from inside) so we will be sewing a replacement (mostly windows in several zipped sections) with better attachments. That will allow flexibility as to which panels are open or closed.

Between the bimini roof window which does provide a good view of the mainsail and the solar panels we probably have room for one small opening hatch.

Even with the current rather inadequate front supports we have been on board, in a quite exposed position in the boatyard, through several named storms (which funnel through the Menai Strait) from both forward and aft. No movement – of the wheelhouse anyway, everything else was shaking 🙂 So at least we know 50+mph winds are ok.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

I suspect much of the issues around cockpit design are related to the intended market. Some of the issues you mention are issues for any boat that leaves the dock while others are only issues for boats that are sailed offshore. I am not someone who subscribes to the idea that any old boat above 30′ can be made suitable for offshore use and cockpits are just one more example of where I see important differences.

It is probably no secret that I think most boat designs are immature like proof of concept prototypes not product designs and a few things you have highlighted speak to this. The first and most obvious sign that a design was not fully detailed, there is not proper assembly documentation and/or the builder lacks proper materials management is that most boats show an amazing mishmash of fasteners that clearly show the assemblers were going and grabbing what was handy to put it together rather than having it kitted. Digging deeper though, you see much more troubling trends. Dodgers is one area where you can see how immature the design is, very few designers/builders put in any provisions for a dodger yet the majority of the boats, regardless of use case, will install one within the first year. Since the designer has not considered this, it means that rope clutches, winches, instruments, etc are all in places that can be badly compromised by one of these solutions. Interestingly, for all of their other faults, some of the big production boatbuilding companies do better in some of these regards as they realize much bigger economies of scale and actually realize that it pays to complete the design (heck, Beneteau have integrated dodgers in some of their designs these days, I don’t like how they have done it but bravo for doing it and I know that they at least have a proper BOM for their boats).

In an ideal world where all incentives are right, I think that basically all cruising boats (yes, including coastal cruisers) would have a factory option of a bolt on hard dodger. By having a single design, the designer could work in CAD to check sightlines, lay out hardware, etc and then a mockup could be built to double check this and in the end, it would all have good usability. Given how rarely people actually take down a soft dodger, hard dodgers are superior for probably 90% of owners and you could always not order it or unbolt it if you want to truck over the road or go racing or whatever. Maybe I am the only one who dreams about such things.

By the way, I think that your points are a bit of a mix of requirements and specifications. Something like visibility I see as a requirement while I see cockpit size as a specification as it is one way to meet the root requirements. The actual requirements for cockpit size are things like how many people can be seated, ability to move around, weight when flooded, etc. 

Eric

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
I would like to suggest that, when underway, there can be too much cockpit protection. There is something to be said for being a little uncomfortable. The on-watch crew should always be harnessed up and dressed to go to the foredeck. Much of the time, this is layers with full foul weather gear, especially at night. Cockpit protection can tempt one to underdress. Moreover, good watch keeping means you have good contact with the elements: eyes not blinded by reading, at least one ear not blocked with ear buds, not “zipped in”, and with easy access to the outside world for a clear look-around.
Like many comfort and labor savings devices for the sailing community: the increased physical ease brought by cockpit protection is offset by an increased demand for mental diligence and discipline.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dave Warnock

Dick,
I’m not sure one rule for all situations and climates works.
For example Coastal areas vs mid ocean. Tropics vs high attitudes. Weather conditions. What equipment you have. etc etc.

Marc Dacey

I would concur. We have a pilothouse helm and an aft deck “sailing” helm, which is not really so comfortable, but is quite safe with plenty of places to tether to (and from). If we are actively steering, we stand in what isn’t much bigger than a footwell, but which has six winches to hand, three a side. We can look forward across the pilothouse roof and nothing is blocking our view aft or to either side, although I am considering weather cloths for the spring as it will be pretty brisk here in April, I think. But there’s certainly no places to sleep as the deck is flush and there’s just steel pipe and cherry wood “park benches” outboard; we issue Sunbrella cushions for socializing in the evenings in the summer, otherwise, it’s the far more comfy saloon seating. We aren’t masochists by a long shot, but if we are sailing, we are busy doing that, and that means, as has been pointed out, with both eyes and ears and even sniffing the wind to figure out if you might be close to land.

Blair Eldridge

I have been looking for Electronic boxes like you have in the cockpit on Morgan’s Cloud, but can’t find them anywhere, can I ask where did you buy those at?

Dick Stevenson

Hi Blair,
Instrument pods were, probably are, crazy expensive. And they are often not just the right size.
I made mine out of Starboard. I used the grey and chose the Starboard light version as standard Starboard is fairly heavy and for this job they need little structural strength. It is easy to work and I used screws to put it together and bent aluminum stock to fabricate mounts. Took time but not skill. Eight years on they have serves well.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Morgan Henry

Hi Blair,
We have been happy with ours, made by Navpod. High heat in the tropics, heavy exposure to ocean water, etc, it’s kept our chartplotter safe. Really well built. navpod.com
Cheers,
Morgan Henry
s/v Tumbleweed

Drew Frye

Agreed.

I’ve had boats I loved to stand watch on, and been on boats that felt like I was sailing with a bag over my head and manacles on my ankles.

Regarding multihulls, at least for people with my cold weather sailing habits, there is value in a salon with a good view. Unless the weather is pretty foul the windows do stay clear. The greater danger, which has caused a few high profile capsizes, is the belief that a large cat is stable and that being away from the winches in blustery conditions is acceptable. It isn’t and no multihull sailor can ever forget that. You only sit inside when the boat is severely under powered, and only for a few moments, to pick up a sandwich, warm up, and grab dry gloves.

A high cockpit is good for visibility, but it also increases motion. Forward facing seats can also be a problem. Cats have a quick motion anyway, and up on the helm seat, my back would often get sore from the side-to-side snap roll of a beam sea. If I sat low in the cockpit or in the salon, facing across the boat, it was fine. I’m sure it depends on the boat and your back.

That said, there is no substitute for a good view and good access from the helm. I don’t have a problem with looking around the dodger when need be. I’ve sailed in the snow a few times and Rainx won’t help! But you must be able to reach that corner without gymnastics, which is often not the case.

I hate cockpit tables. Either eat in the salon or spread yourselves around the rim of the cockpit. You can have a nice dinner lounging around the sides. I hate anything that gets in my way, including wheels and protruding seats and bulkheads found in some new designs. I should be able to move directly from point a to point b without obstacles and with a good hand hold at all times.

Look at the deck and cockpit as though the boat will be single handed. Perhaps that is not your intention, but it will happen occasionally, on watch, when someone is ill, or perhaps they are simply busy. If there is anything that will inhibit your ability to work efficiently through routine trimming (every tweak), tacks, sail changes, and movement back and forth to the cabin, it is a problem.

I once asked the designer about a few access problems on one of his boats. He told me “it was designed for a different kind of sailor.” I think he meant it was optimized for boat show appeal.

Dennis Duke

Good article…… good comments. Many important points and compromises covered.

One thing overlooked is maintaining good night vision…. specifically the negative way any instrument lighting or electronic displays in a “glass bridge” (radars, plotters, etc.) affect your night vision.

Over 30+ years at sea as an engineer on Merchant ships I spent most of my time in the engineroom…. but I also spent enough time time on the bridge to be aware of professional concerns of night visibility.

I have never seen a ships bridge where there are radar or plotter displays, or indicator lights located in the field of vision of those on watch. They distract from or destroy your night vision when you need them most…. and don’t forget the time it takes for your eyes to adapt to changes in light levels.

On a merchant ship, lighting that can affect watch standers (or lookouts) night vision is located behind the watch standers…. not in their line of sight.

Yacht cockpits or motor yacht bridges don’t have space to do that, but there are other ways to accomplish maintaining night visibility.

For instance our radar display is mounted below deck and visible from our normal position in the cockpit…. and our radar is on all the time when we are underway… and we cruised a sailboat similar to Morgan’s Cloud for years.

I’ve noticed that when doing passages on yachts with other “professional seamen” that their approach to night vision is the same as mine. Lighting in your field of vision is either turned off or covered up at night.

Marc Dacey

We “rig for night” and find the B&G plotter’s red “night mode” fairly effective when dialled back; same with the Furuno radar. I have to cut gels out for the VHF display and the motor control panel, however, because it’s a little too bright. I have never seen a way to dim this, but I bet it’s a simple potentiometer retrofit. Even so, when I go topside to peer around when motoring at night, I need a couple of minutes to adjust to my satisfaction.

nick destcroix

No mention of tillers here, so much less to go wrong and its never going to get in your way

David Fine

Am I missing the link to part 3? Somewhere near the end of the article part 2?

Martyn Le Marquand

Hi John

Newly minted member, and hope to be cruiser here; thanks for the great site.
The more that I read the more obvious, to a newbie, it becomes that the vast majority of offshore designs are full of compromises. Just taking the 42ft HRs and Valiants for example. Two well respected and lauded blue water designs yet they both suffer from poor access to the helm, requiring climbing on and off of the cockpit seats. A feature that has come in for stiff criticism in this section of the book.
I would love to hear from Dick Stevenson on his thoughts on the V42 cockpit in general as this is one of the boats that I am currently interested in.

Please keep up the good work.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Martyn,
I did not notice your request initially, but am now working on it. Are you aware there is an active Valiant web site (https://groups.io/g/Valiant-sailboats) where there is likely much of interest to you.
My best, Dick

Dick Stevenson

Hi Martyn,
Welcome to the site.
The Valiant 42 cockpit has worked well for us for pushing 70,000 miles and 20 years, 12 of which were full time live-aboard.
It should be remembered that it is on a 40-foot boat that is designed for blue water sailing. It is common on the 42 to have the factory-made hard-top dodger with canvas sides, and it is what I know, so all comments are with that in mind. I believe it is also common on the 42’s to have first and second reefs lead back to the cockpit and that is also what I have. And the factory usually only has one good sized primary for the jib sheets, also my case.
My take:
The cockpit is small, especially when compared to modern designs. Bob Perry, to my mind, made few compromises to blue water safety which will be appreciated when considerable water finds its way into the area, a relatively rare event. The down side is entertaining: The V-42 well portrays the maxim: drinks six, feeds four and sleeps two.
The hard top is really wonderful: it is strong enough to stand on and provides very strong hand-rails on the cockpit end and, especially important, on the side of the hard-top for getting past the dodger when going forward. The canvas sides have proved strong enough to deal with the occasional green water that has found its way down the deck.
The first two mainsail reefs are led back to the cockpit. This has worked well for us as I like that a reef (or two) is able to be put in single-handed without going on deck to the mast and in the protection of the cockpit (see John’s writing for another opinion).  Both my wife and I can do this alone and the off-watch is left to sleep. This takes pre-preparation: all lines are accurately marked so a close approximation of the reef is accomplished easily. Then there is a bit of fine tuning where one needs to pop one’s head out from under the hard-top to observe the shape of the sail and the positioning of lines. Finally, the “spaghetti” of lines that inevitably comes up as a problem with this design has been easily dealt with by putting all excess line (usually just the mainsheet, but adding up when reefs are in place) down the companionway to live behind the companionway ladder on top of the engine box. This has the added plus of ensuring that all lines run free when needed.
Generally, V42s come with one primary and no secondary and this has led to some creative solutions (and occasional cussing) as we figure work-arounds. Designed from the factory, secondaries are possible, but the real-estate for a secondary as an after-market solution was more than we wished to do. So, in most everyday life, this was no problem (and we use an asym a fair amount). I suspect if you came from a racing background (I do not) this will be more of an issue.
Movement around the cockpit is easy and quite safe: everything is close-at-hand (including good handholds such as on the aft end of the hard-top): a benefit of small size. John is correct in his comments about the ease of moving past the wheel. Valiants are what I think of as “low slung”: they live in the water, not on the water, and have much less freeboard than other designs, so, my take, is that their movement is smoother, more predictable and less herky-jerky, and moving around the cockpit is made safer for these habits.   
I am sure I have forgotten items, so please come back with questions/thoughts/comments.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi Martyn,
In re-reading you post, I notice you are looking at HR42s. In our time in Europe, we rafted on HR42s a number of times. We were struck by the difference in freeboard: my sense was that stepping onto the HR we needed to step up about 18 inches: 18 inches felt like just a huge difference which felt substantiated when we were entertained and had a tour: the HR just felt like a much bigger boat. This is partly explained by the Valiant actually being 40 feet (the added 2 feet are bowsprit/anchor platform, not hull), but the overall design concept felt much bigger. Not sure what this translates into when it comes to sailing characteristics.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Martyn Le Marquand

Hi John

Sorry for my slow response; still learning to navigate the site, let alone anything else!
With all of the positive comments that seem to follow the V42 around I figured that there can’t be too many serious draw backs with the boat as a capable and safe offshore design.

Hi Dick

Thanks for the welcome.

I would very much appreciate being able to tap into your wealth of knowledge gained from a long and close association with the Valiant but am not sure if this section of the site is the place for that. Is there a more suitable platform?

Regards

Martyn

Dick Stevenson

Hi Martyn,
Many subjects are well covered in the writings of AAC and pertain to all (or most) offshore sailing boats of which a Valiant is certainly one. I would love to wax enthusiastic on AAC with regard to Valliant’s grandly fulfilling their off-shore cruising aspirations, but, questions specific to the boat are probably best addressed to the Valiant web site (with some other Bob Perry designed boats) that is quite active and where there are a wide range of experience with the boats: Newbies to old hands (https://groups.io/g/Valiant-sailboats). Most subjects can be searched in the archives and questions can be asked. (There is some sort of sign up -no $$- but I forget the details.)
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Martyn Le Marquand

Thanks Dick

I will indeed sign up.

Martyn