#60 - Bedding

Around the cockpit table during a potluck among boats awaiting the start of the Sail Indonesia Rally in Darwin the topic of bedding came up. Robin of the American Voyage 44 cat Endangered Species was explaining to Michelle of the Aussie 53′ cat Thor how she’d solved her preference for a softer mattress when Rick preferred firm. “Ashore we had a waterbed, and when we moved aboard, we dismantled it for the surrounding collar and filled it with two replacement air mattresses that I finagled from the Sleep Number people.”

I was surprised. I had never heard of air mattresses on a boat. I’ve been to enough boat shows to know that there are plenty of entrepreneurs doing their best to market mattress upgrades and customized bedding to sailors, but I also remember when outfitting my first boat that mattress and sheet issues were way down the list of priorities.

But should they be? After all, a cruising boat is our full-time home. As I started asking around among Rally participants (who, having traveled this far, should have some opinions on the subject), I was a little apologetic about asking them about such an intimate and perhaps peripheral issue to the challenges of voyaging. But the reactions I got surprised me. After a moment’s hesitation while they gave it a thought, they’d laugh and bubble over with information. As Renata of the Hallberg Rassey Nuku’alofa exclaimed, “To Helmut, it is THE most important thing.”

Barbara & Tom of SV GOSI. Tom was into it!

In fact, when chatting up Barbara and Tom of the Valiant 40′ Gosi on the bow of an Indonesian dive boat, the importance of bed and bedding to the men was reinforced.

I asked Barbara what kind of mattress she had, she mused a moment and said, “Oh, I think whatever came with the boat.” “Oh, no,” said Tom, “Remember, we got a custom foam mattress from the vendor at the Annapolis boat show. It’s high density foam but wrapped so it looks like a regular mattress.” What about sheets? Barbara was similarly uncertain, but Tom jumped in again, “We bought the highest quality sheets that were on sale in the New Zealand department store and then had them customized for our mattress.”

Shortly after this I posed the question to Margaret of the Tayana 47 Peregrina, and she burst out laughing. “A while back, to pass time on passage, I asked Peter one of those questions a woman should never ask her husband, ‘If someone asked you to name something about me you really loved, what would you say?” and he thought carefully for several minutes and said, ‘She makes the bed every day!‘” Peter quickly jumped in to defend himself. “I’ve been on so many boats where you go below and the berth isn’t made, and I realized how pleasing it is to me to go into our cabin and have such a put- together, orderly space. It’s welcoming.”

Shipboard beds start with mattress choice. Many boats come with odd-sized mattresses shaped to the boat and not to standard sheet sizes, necessitating custom-tailoring. My “pre-owned” boat when I bought it came with the original four-inch thick foam fitted with removable covers. To upgrade to thicker mattresses I had get new covers, too. In both the fore and aft cabins, the mattresses (old and new) were split in half to facilitate moving them to access spaces below. In the v-berth, a much thinner piece fitted an insert to convert the two singles to a double, which required king-sized flat sheets. This is typical of older boats’ sleeping set-up whether berths are oriented fore-and-aft, athwartships or offset to one side. They are often a pain to make.

Our berth on TACKLESS II Classic!

In newer boats, berths are less traditional, marketed to give at least the illusion of more “walk-around” space and thicker, higher-class mattresses. But one should question how secure they will feel underway.

Most of the cruisers I queried had some variation of foam mattresses, usually described as firm, high-density foam, and most had toppers of some sort, either memory foam or egg crate. Most also, motivated by spending time in New Zealand (if not coming from northern climes to start with), had added underlayments to control condensation. The most mentioned foundation was a sort of fibrous material compared to a “loofah” or a “Scotch Brite scrubbie.”

Guest berth aboard QUANTUM LEAP

Bette Lee of Quantum Leap is a woman who does lots of research before making choices. She explained that firmness of foam is measured in durometers, or the amount of weight it takes to depress it, and how you sleep — side, back or stomach — dictates the thickness foam you need. For example, a side sleeper needs thicker foam to support the shoulder, but a back sleeper can get away with less. On her catamaran the forward two berths over the bridge deck are standard one-piece queens, six inches thick, while the aft berth mattresses over the engines are split. As a guest aboard, I find the one-piece mattress comfortable but heavy to lift for making the bed.

Shopping for sheets, I’m quickly bewildered by the panoply of thread-count, material and finishes available and clueless to the ramifications for them in tropical climates. Cruisers, it seems, are as seduced by thread count as landlubbers, but at the same time they are swayed by what’s on sale. They were divided by loyalty to 100% cotton or cotton-poly blends, which, believers say, don’t seem to absorb the humidity. The best boat sheets I ever bought were discounted cotton-poly sets I got at a discount center; they were light-weight, wrinkle-free, soft, durable and resisted humidity — problems I had with later choices.

I was surprised how many cruisers admitted to not changing their sheets weekly, going as long as three weeks! Bette Lee carries three sets of sheets per berth, with dryer sheets folded into the spares in gallon-sized Ziploc bags to keep them fresh. Other cruisers use Space Bags to contain spare bedding.

In the tropics, many cruisers use an untucked top sheet they simply fold up to make the bed. Others still make the bed up daily with a thin blanket or lightweight quilt or fitted cover. For some, decor is important (really, it only takes a little extra time and money to get the coordinated look!), while others exclaim, “Well, they matched once!

Like sheets, pillows run the gamut from fiberfill, to memory foam to down. Barbara of the Sparkman Stevens ’47 Contrails adores her down pillows for sleeping, using washable polyester ones for the second pillows. She says the down has done fine in the tropics. Bette and her husband Tom, both side-sleepers use king-sized second pillows as body pillows to support knees and shoulders and ease lower back issues. An ingenious way to store extra blankets and quilts in the off season is to stuff them into pillow covers.

When I finally caught up with Michelle of Thor who was having that initial conversation with Robin at the potluck, she surprised me by saying she also had an air mattress. But it turned out it was new! “We had an innerspring mattress and I hated it. After talking with Robin I hunted all over Darwin and found one. We love it.”

Ah, the power of the potluck!

This article was published in the October 2011 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

2 comments to #60 – Bedding

  • Karen Gardell

    Regarding controlling condensation under mattresses, I would like to share this product. We purchased a Froli Sleep System after several of our marina neighbors raved about theirs. The product acts like a plastic box spring which is placed under the mattress. It provides increased support (our backs feel much better) and, more importantly, condensation below the mattress has been barely detectable this winter! Definitely worth the purchase price for us aboard our Endeavour 37.


  • Gisele

    Just wondering if and where you can purchase sheets made for a v-berth or do you have to modify them yourself. I use ordinary sheets and tuck them in but fitted ones sure would be nice.

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