Choosing a Cruising Boat—Shelter

Reading Time: 11 minutes

While I was tough on Outbound 46 winch positioning in a previous chapter, the boat does provide great shelter under a hard dodger, and good visibility through the glass windows. There is good shade from the bimini, too, although it will be hot under that dodger when the sun is out, even with the top hatches open. Everything's a tradeoff.

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:

  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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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… Read more »

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