The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Choosing a Cruising Boat—Shelter

One of the toughest things to get right in offshore boat design is the tradeoff between providing enough shelter to make sailing enjoyable while maintaining the primary function of the cockpit, which is the command and control centre of a complex machine that operates in a potentially hazardous environment. (I know you have read that last part at least ten times before but, judging from the state of modern boat design, it needs repeating.)

By the way, we just organized all of our articles on dodger and enclosure design into a Series (see Further Reading) so I’m not going to go through all that again here.

Rather, this chapter is a more general look at evaluating shelter on a prospective boat, and how to decide if we want to add things like a cockpit enclosure to an existing boat.

Let’s start off with a few common issues to look out for:

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John, Enjoyed the article. I have one of those boats with large windows, no dodger, open cockpit. You suggest “we should be equipped to solve the problem if the largest window stoves in.”

What ideas do you suggest? I have been considering covers (hard shutters) attached to the outside.

Coastal Cruising and weather window selection limits the exposure to conditions that endanger the boat. Still even if that risk is 10% would like to get your thoughts.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
I do not think that there is any other area of a sailboat that better captures the compromises that go into off-shore sailing than the areas you have been well covering lately.
The following describes an “off-shore” enclosure that has worked well for Alchemy for 15+ years.
Please note: this was written a while back (with a couple of recent edits) for another venue.
It is long and also written primarily for those with conventional dodgers without a fixed full length Bimini. It describes the way we designed an enclosure that we have, with notes on construction at the end.
After some comments about enclosures as usually seen, the following describes what I call our “off-shore enclosure”. Please note, I am writing for those boats intending to go offshore.
I feel most cockpit 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 with heat and chartplotter under the dodger). Crew will need to fight against the tendency to cut corners: one important on-watch tendency to try to look around through salt stained wet plastic windows and not do a full 360 with eyes and ears in the open at regular intervals.
Other problematic areas include: designs where running the ship is compromised (such as winches that can’t be used as the handle hits the canvas or supports), 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) and, finally, not robustly enough built to with stand days of beating to wind or a knock-down. Seeing the sails in these full enclosures 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 and in marinas, 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 decision making).
That said, the enclosure we have come up on our 40-foot sailboat 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, but fails at being a sun room in which to entertain while at anchor. Extending one’s season is a big bonus for us and, in practice, we have left our “enclosure” up most of the season (and not just the beginning and ends) 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) and now after 3 seasons in the Canadian Maritimes. 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 and canvas sides. (A conventional canvas dodger could do the same by installing a zipper on the aft edge.) The hard-top provides great handholds and a feeling of security. The enclosure idea emerged during one very late start going south from New England (USA). (Never have we been colder than going S on the ICW.) 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 quickly impressive. Since then, this idea has evolved and improved (with the help of great canvas workers) into an aft see-through curtain done in 3 sections, the side sections are basically 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 an impressive 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 (especially when sunny and still cold/wet/windy). During winter lay-up months (when we are still living aboard) it acts like a mud room. With the companionway open, it can be heated when the boat is kept warm.
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 be allowed to feel the wind and to hear. We do not generally “heat” the area so we are always dressed for action on deck and since we have regular visits to the open cockpit to scan the horizon 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 enclosure curtain aft might help.
This “enclosure” for sure has many compromises, but it has worked for us for over a decade and has extended our season by 20-30% while making all lousy weather sailing far more pleasant. We are not young anymore and not stoics and very much like our comforts. I doubt we would have done the cold/wet weather area sailing that we have so very much enjoyed without this addition.
My best to all, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
The enclosure is in 3 more or less equal sections. The upper edge is held fast with a bolt rope in the panels and a bolt rope channel attached to my hardtop. (For soft-tops a zipper attachment would work fine.) This could be a direct attachment, but I have a wonderful grab-rail off the aft edge of my dodger which I wished to be usable, so I needed to work around that. (The enclosure needed to go inside the grab-rail and around the end of the handle-bar where it connects to the dodger: most installs will be easier.)
Each side panel zips to the dodger side curtain where there are flap extensions over the zipper to make water intrusion through the zipper less likely. Where the side panel meets the coaming there are snaps. The inside bottom edge of the side panels are held in place with bungy cord led to the floor to give the stretchy cord some length. This is a very important design feature as in a working boat, you will always be bumping int these panels, pushing them aside, falling into them a bit and the bungy cord allows forgiveness for these assaults while protecting the panels and the other fasteners.
Both side panels meet the middle panel with a top to bottom zipper. This middle panel is able to be rolled up high and secured (or flipped on the dodger) when conditions are pleasant and/or you want better access to the cockpit.
This design has seen 2 Atlantic crossings, the last through Iceland and Greenland and multiple gales at sea and at anchor. It has also endured storm level winds from the stern at sea and, luckily far more often, on a wharf or pontoon/dock. The design has proved, somewhat surprisingly, very robust.
Come back with questions/comments/thoughts
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Eric Klem

Hi Dick,

Having sailed on a boat setup similar to yours, I have to agree that it is a good solution across a wide range of use cases. The aft curtains really change everything. In a place where you have to sail seasonally, they can extend your season to the point where you have to pay for inside winter storage if you want to actually be able to work on the boat as it is too cold outside to do any work once the boat is hauled.

I do have a fairly strong preference for the right design solution being a factory available hard dodger. Having experienced a dodger failure and another partial one, I find soft ones to usually be inadequately built. Also, having a factory one would hopefully force the designer to actually design it as an integrated part of the design and work out stuff like winch handle room, sightlines, etc instead of just ignoring all of it which seems to be the norm and gives a worse product but lets the designer blame it on the dodger added later. Of course, it is pretty impractical for most people to build a hard dodger that is not really square and hideous so it should either come from the factory where things like curved windows are practical or the solution of hard top and soft sides seems reasonable when a factory option is not available.


John Michaels

Dick, hi

Thank you for been so detailed in your description. My sailboat, a Jeanneau Sun Legende 41 has so far been in the Med all its life, and we are considering a dodger for sailing out of the Med and into the abyss.
Do you have any photos of your own dodger that you may be willing to share with us?

Thank you in advance
Yianni Michaels

Dick Stevenson

Hi Yianni,
I believe I do. I will go digging. I am likely to need suggestions on how to put pictures on the site. Dick

Dick Stevenson

Attempting pictures. Dick

Dick Stevenson


Dick Stevenson

Hi Yianni,
Please note:
In one picture the middle panel is unzipped, a condition that is usually the case unless things are really quite lousy. This makes for an easy exit and for fresh air.
In the other picture, an additional comfort for the cockpit if there is no full enclosure are the spray curtains. They are unusual as they are see through as, I like to look around (and not feel closed in) and, when on passage and heeled over, solid cloth curtains can block vision. They are installed with light bungie cord so as to give way when hit by a big wave: pretty rare.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

John Michaels

Dick, hi

Thank you for going through the trouble, but as the cliche goes, a pic is a thousand words. It looks great and from your description, quite functional. That is what I have envisioned for my sailboat also.
Thank you

Michael Lambert

Although I wouldn’t do anything until I’ve have the boat for a while, but I find myself thinking about a removable enclosure over some or all of the lounge section of the 47.2. One of my Maine (pun not intended by auto correct but left alone) objectives is extending our cruising season here with two kids. It would provide space with views but free of bugs and wind, but also allow for the cabin to be kept warm for the kids while a watch keeper hangs in a cooler spot ready to go, close to the wheels. Since there is no separation between the doghouse and living space this seems like it might be nice. Time will tell if a simple panel in the back of the doghouse would be big enough to shelter a couple of people, or if something more substantial would be warranted.

Alastair Currie

Interesting article and the accompanying resources / other articles are very informative on this subject. I have removed my Bimini Top as it was not really useful on the West Coast of Scotland as well as fouled the mainsheet; in hot sun perhaps I would have persevered with it.

I have a spray hood, strong tubes, grab rails on the aft horizontal edge outside of the canvass. On other soft tops I have seen outside on the side, hand holds, on the uprights, with the canvass cut to accommodate the hand hold. That was good idea, which gave security going forward and still allowed the top to drop down and fold up. However, horizontal grab rails would be better, but not likely to allow folding.

The big issue for me is the plastic screens. In grey weather, with a smirr* in the air, viewing through good clear plastic has hidden grey islands. A quick look outside of the spray hood and the islands are clear. It’s as if the colours just diffuse or coalesce together in a monochrome environment. As a result I am planning on fitting a glass screen at the front. However, now that you mention hard tops with soft sides, I’ll be rethinking this.

I often take my spray hood down as I prefer the situational awareness: under the spray hood and familiarity with an area can result in complacency. My son, gassing away to his friend, almost piled the boat up onto the shore because he was blinded by the spare hood and unaware that he had drifted close to the shore line. A situation that would have been obvious with no spray up up, even with the blethering.

Another area that needs careful consideration, on smaller boat sizes, usually older designs, is the stability impact. Designs that did not have roller reefing headsails, in mast reefing, radars, arches, fully length battens, can get to the point where a solid cockpit top breaks the back and seriously impacts stability, especially the gust resistant angle of heal that downloading may start.

Billy Connelly, the famous Glaswegian comedian, said, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes!” As the camera zoomed out to an image of him prancing away naked in the pouring rain. 🙂

*A Scottish word to describe a fine, drifting rain or drizzle. A smirr (or smur in parts of England) is so light it seems like a mist or smoke. It may in fact be related to the Dutch word for mist, smoor.

Olav Thyvold

Total concur with the negative impact of all this “schtuff” on both stability and the ability to sail to weather. I think its really a horrible trend and suspect that many of the design/classification designations of Category A are void with all this crap bolted on.

Alastair Currie

The two images of the same islands as seen through the spray hood soft windows in smirr. Taken within seconds of each other, same weather conditions: –

Alastair Currie

Mmm. Could only work out how to post single images. The view through the plastic window. It is not spray or rain on the window, just the dampness from the air: –

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Two years ago when crossing from Lanzarote to Madeira I even removed my glasses to see more clearly in bad weather. Out of focus, yes, but I was able to see the faint silhouettes of distant ships that I didn’t notice wearing my glasses.

Marc Dacey

Sometimes aging eyes can be quite subtle in terms of how they are changing. A friend of mine, near-sighted as I am, got her eyes “fixed” for distance vision, but noticed her night vision was subtly degraded and that she had a slight astigmatism that resolved itself in nav aids looking “starry”. She found she had to wear corrective lenses at night, in fact, although she did claim to have few regrets about getting her “day vision” largely correctly surgically. My night vision remains good with contact lenses, although I need reading glasses with them now (not, interestingly, bare-eyed for reading, however), but I have noticed a touch of that “imposed astigmatism” when doing star sightings and viewing the more dim or distant sort of nav aids at night.

Which means I am quite happy to see the advent of AIS-style virtual nav aids or simply AIS-equipped targets to work as RDF beacons did in the past.

Olav Thyvold

And when people aren’t dressed for the conditions are they going to poke their head out around the dodger and look? I doubt it.

Marc Dacey

We have two helm stations, one inside the pilothouse and the other on the aft deck. The aft deck is for sailing and has just four solar panels on a low arch (slightly more than head height when standing in the foot well, however). This allows a very good range of sight around the boat and yes, it can get wet in a blow and cold at times, which is why we’ve spent the money on the right gear. Which is actually considerably cheaper than the typical dodger and bimini. Even when motoring, however, we regularly move to the deck to look around and feel and listen, which to us are strong partners to mere seeing.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

FYI, I have recently seen ads for non-skid solar panels from established companies like Solbian. I have no experience with them so can’t comment on whether they are actually suitable for installation in places where people actually step. If solar panels can be made low enough profile, lightweight enough, non-skid and cheap enough, that makes it very interesting to me as you could install in less optimal places from a shading standpoint but get an installation which is more seamanlike than big arrays overhead like is typical.


Olav Thyvold

For me the two biggest issues with a dodger are:

  1. Poor visibility – I hate looking through dodger windows (soft or hard) in rain or spray and trying to see what’s going on. I find it tends to lead to people having their “head in the boat”
  2. Insulated from the conditions means I’m not aware of changing conditions.
  • changes to the rhythm of the wind – short puffs or lulls, little changes in direction
  • change in wave conditions
  • changes in sounds – sudden flapping, etc.
  • changes in air temp. A puff with a sudden drop or increase in temperature signals new winds or condition
  • smells – every been downwind of a boat you didn’t know was there?

If I’m going to be on watch I want my head “out of the cockpit”. Not sitting in an enclosure, under-dressed and insulated from what’s going on. If the “greenhouse” is acceptable, then I think we should all go down below and sit inside and watch the computer screens.

I’ve had dodgers and I hate them for sailing and don’t have one on my current boat and won’t have one on future boats. I would have an easily collapsed dodger that could be put up at anchor. It is nice to get out if the wind and sit in the cockpit and enjoy the view. However, when sailing that sucker would be down.

Can you imagine if people skiing or hiking went around with an enclosure over their heads? “Oh no, I don’t want to dress up and get wet so I have my “hiking dodger” or my “skiing dodger”. Then on sunny days they have an addition to the dodger and extra water for heat stroke. Its a vicious cycle in my mind. Dodger blocks the wind. I’m too hot. Add an Bimini.

All of these structures dramitically increase windage and negatively impact a yacht’s abiltiy to sail to weather. I just think they are wrong. “That is I think I disagree…” 🙂

As the Norwegians say “there is no bad weather just bad clothes”


Dick Stevenson

Hi Olav and John,
I am also with Olav about many of the dangers that come with dodgers (enclosures are worse): like most comfort or life-easing devices/gear, they come with added diligence and discipline on the skipper’s/crew’s part.
That said, I would not be without a dodger coastal or offshore for all the reasons John noted. I would add one: unhappy and uncomfortable skippers and crew are prone to making bad decisions.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy