#58 – Guidelines for a Great Cruising Cockpit

Perhaps the most important – yet under-appreciated – space on your boat is the cockpit.

Our favorite moments take place here: greeting the sunrise with coffee and a good book, partying at happy hour with friends, enjoying dinner in the open air, sitting snug while a squall blows through, or snoozing in cool night breezes.

On a cruising boat, of course, the cockpit is also the action station, the place where we spend hours keeping watch and guiding our boat safely through reefs, channels, or over open sea.

Thus, cruising cockpits serve two very different purposes: a high-seas action station and a living room.

A good cruising cockpit should be ready to do both.

For passage-making, a cockpit should have good ergonomics for bracing yourself on either tack and a stout padeye or two to hook harness tethers into. The helm seat should be comfortable enough for hours of wrestling with rough seas but also allow you to (as many of us do!) kick back and drive with your feet. Then again, since most cruisers rely on the autopilot to do the bulk of the steering, a comfortable spot out of the weather from which to maintain our watch ranks highly.

Especially important are good sight lines forward and all around (uncluttered by stuff stored on deck), plus the ability to see the sails and masthead indicators. Ready access to winches and running rigging without climbing over anything or having to steer winch handles around bimini supports or stanchions is preferable, and while protection from wind and weather is good, it’s as important to be able to get out on deck quickly without feeling precarious. More and more boats are being designed and older boats retrofitted, to bring all the sail control lines back to the cockpit. Very nice where feasible.

Furthermore, since the development of waterproof electronics, good underway strategy has moved to the cockpit gauges, chart plotter, radar, and most particularly the VHF RAM mike from below-decks as was traditional. Although many outfitting cruisers rush to mount instruments in pods at the helm, several Admirals point out that such info might be handier at the front of the cockpit where we hunker while the autopilot drives.

In principle, as small a cockpit volume as possible is best, to minimize the weight impact of breaking seas coming aboard, plus, of course, enough drains to evacuate water ASAP plus a high threshold into the cabin closed with a stout hatch board so that water cannot easily get below….

On the other hand, we also want our cockpit to double as a family room – a friendly place with plenty of room where everyone hangs out, with easy access below, especially to the galley!

We want more than comfortable seating, we want comfortable lounging, reading, even sleeping.

We need a set-up for eating and entertaining, and we want that mess of lines out of the way and electronics not to be intrusive. We want the space shaded and well ventilated, but also dry in rain, but we also want a 360° view of the scenery.

Is it possible to have all this and more in one cockpit?

I say yes, because I believe we had it in ours. So did many Admirals. But I’ve been aboard plenty of boats that didn’t. It starts with luck: Did the boat you picked for other reasons happen to come with a nice cockpit? Did you give cockpit efficiency and comfort any thought at the time you were boat buying? Have you made an effort to improve things since you’ve owned your boat?

Judging from the response from the Admirals, bigger-boat owners tend to appreciate their bigger cockpits, valuing roominess for living over the passage-making advantages of small volume. Center-cockpit owners liked their higher freeboards and therefore drier ride, while aft cockpit owners were smug about their capacious storage lockers and access to the water. One definite advantage of an aft cockpit is that fishing doesn’t require you to leave the cockpit; then again, when you catch the big one, the mess is right there in your living room!

But the Admirals agree on many things.

First is long bench seats.

Bench seats are important not only for entertaining, but for siestas at anchor and being able to rest while underway without going below. The deeper the seat backs, the more secure people feel underway, but also the more comfortable the cockpit is for lounging. When a boat doesn’t have these, however, seats with self-supporting backs like the ingenious Sport-A -Seats™ are a good compromise.

What’s under your butt is also important.

Ideally choose seat cushions that stay in place at anchor and underway, take a splash and dry out quickly, and are easy on the posterior in hot temperatures and cold not to mention the grinding motion of confused seas.

Coated closed-cell cushions are very popular (even customizable with your boat logo!), but you can also make custom covers to your own taste in décor, using Textilene™ mesh or Sunbrella™ patio fabrics.

You can even coordinate covered throw pillows to enhance the attractiveness and comfort of your cockpit as living space (easy to throw below when underway!). While you’re sewing, something as simple as mesh bags that snap to a bulkhead can tidy up coils of line.

A cockpit table is essential for daily dining and for entertaining. Where possible, a table that folds down leaving you room to move when not in use is preferable, along with binnacle holders that accommodate glasses, coffee mugs, and even binoculars! Pleasant 12v lighting for eating and reading by is essential.

The most important modification you will make to your cockpit is its weather protection. Cruisers often start with a purist idea of sailing open to sun, wind and weather, but exposure without shelter becomes tiring and UV is a real issue, so a spray dodger often soon expands to a full bimini top which expands further to a complete enclosure.

When possible, aim at conceiving a solution that works both underway and at anchor, not something you have to take down, stow and put back up.

A good enclosure protects the cockpit from wind, rain and boarding seas, and, with integrated shades or perhaps with movable mesh panels, it also protects from the sun.

Additionally, an enclosure reduces stress by making the cockpit feel more contained and by cutting down wind noise. Purists may feel deprived of being wet and salty for days at a time, but the rest of us long-termers? Not so much!

Typically bimini tops have been made from Sunbrella™ canvas stretched over a frame of stainless-steel tubes, but increasingly popular are hard tops made from fiberglass. Canvas biminis can be removed and/or folded down, but hard tops are relatively permanent. The hardtop we built was fiberglass over a honeycomb foam core, shaped on a mold to look like a canvas bimini. The hard top, however, had no leaks, no awkward supports, had awesome handholds, and brought the bonus of insulation from baking sun! We even built in our cockpit light and two reading lights.

Either way, an enclosure of isinglass windows can be attached by zippers or by tracks. If sailing to the tropics, avoid the temptation of a fixed dodger, because more than anything else you’ll want to maximize natural airflow by being able to roll up key sections. Always keep visibility, egress, and your winch-handle turning radius in mind as you design!

Now you have a cockpit that effectively doubles as your action station and your favorite living space. Take care, however, not to let things get too comfy. A cruising cockpit needs to stay ready to convert back to action at a moment’s notice.

This article was published in the July/August 2011 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

Contributing Admirals: Ellen Sanpere, CAYENNE III; Sheri Schneider, PROCYON; Daria Blackwell, ALERIA; Dottie Wright, HAHALUA; Colleen Wilson, MOKISHA; Kathy Parsons, HALE KAI; Pam Wall, KANDARIK.

Photos: Thanks to Ellen Sanpere, CAYENNE III; Lisa Schofield Lady Galadriel.

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