Safer cockpit

You are about to make a long offshore passage. You’ve looked over the rig, stored the food, checked the through-hulls, topped up with fuel and water. Now you step into the cockpit and look around. It seems huge. What happens if it fills with water when you are offshore? Can it drain fast enough? Will the water affect stability? Do you have a place to brace yourself in the cockpit when the boat is heeled? Can you clip your harness tether on to a nearby strong point? Before you go offshore you should take a careful look at your boat’s cockpit. Knowing what to look for when you make that inspection is important.

What is a good offshore cockpit? For a voyaging sailboat, the ideal cockpit has certain characteristics. Unfortunately, many cockpits are poorly designed. Often their design is predicated on getting a double berth under the cockpit or giving 10 or more people sitting space. That reasoning doesn’t tend to produce a good cockpit.

An effective offshore cockpit gives the voyaging crew a shelter against the elements. It provides a comfortable place to sit, be it in the back end of the boat or in the middle deck. It will, ideally, be relatively deep, not so much to shelter the crew, but to allow seat bottoms (16 inches from the sole) and decent-sized backrests (about 16 to 18 inches) to be installed.

The cockpit’s area should be relatively small. In fact, the CCA mandates a maximum cockpit size for all yachts going on the Bermuda Race. However, that size is based upon a conventional cockpit with conventional drains.

In heavy weather the cockpit becomes a refuge from which you are loath to stir. But you often need to go forward, and when you do you’ll need jacklines and handholds. To minimize the time spent forward, most controls should be within reach of the cockpit. But putting everything aft often poses problems with operation and location.

I recently had to design a cockpit for a voyaging 44-footer. There were no constraints on the design other than that the owner wanted to have a seaworthy cockpit for two people, a husband and wife team, to sail the boat extensively between Maine and the Caribbean. We looked at a variety of options and came to some different conclusions.Cockpit size

We decided that the cockpit needed comfortable seats and each had to be at least six feet, four inches long to enable a person to lie down when the boat was heeled. In order to brace against the leeward side underway, the cockpit width at seat level was not to be more than two feet. This made fitting a cockpit table very difficult. The table would be narrow and cramped. Consequently, we increased the cockpit width, making the sole roughly three feet wide. The drop-leaf table was built strongly enough that it could be used as a foot rest. This made for a huge cockpit, far larger than the CCA rules permitted, and one that might sink the boat if it were to be filled to the coamings. To stop water flowing into the interior we designed a bridge deck at the forward end of the cockpit. For an offshore boat I consider bridge decks to be essential, even though they make the companionway ladder one or two steps longer. For a harbor cruiser they are not so necessary, and on most production boats they have been eliminated. In order to allow water to flow out of the cockpit quickly, we ran the sole all the way back to the transom. Yes, I know many people don’t like open transoms, but we used this feature to add several more potentially life-saving features.

By making the cockpit sole wider we not only gained a cockpit table, we also made room for a person to get past the steering wheel without leaving the cockpit. Behind the cockpit we put a removable helmsman’s seat. At sea, this seat is locked in place, but in harbor it can be removed along with the steering wheel to give an easy walk-through area. (We use a special Edson steering wheel nut to make the wheel easily removable.) Note that this also allowed us to change the helmsman’s seat to suit different people should the boat get sold and the new owner want something different. Coaming height

Strangely enough, coaming height, or rather the height of the seatback, plays a large part in the depth of the cockpit. We decided that people sitting in the cockpit would change their location depending on the heel of the boat and their inclination. Consequently, we designed all the cockpit surfaces to be flat and used cushions to make them comfortable.

Seat bottoms need to be at least 16 inches off the sole for them to be comfortable. Ideally, seat backs should be about 16 to 18 inches high, but this height was a little too high for this particular cockpit, so we compromised and went with 15-inch seatbacks and hard-backed cushions to extend the height another two to three inches. Using hardbacked seat cushions enabled the coaming heights to be adjusted to make the boat look attractive, and made the seats much more comfortable. The seatback cushions were tapered so that a person could lean back comfortably. Installing the seats and determining the sole dimensions gave us the basic shape of the cockpit. Now we had to add the parts that made it work efficiently.

Under the aft end of one of the seats we installed an icebox. Instead of going below, the helmsman or crew can lift the cushion and pull out a cold drink at any time. Instead of using ice in this icebox, we recommended a new product called Techni-Ice that stays frozen for days. (Techni-Ice is available from Trans Coastal Marketing International, 1223 Wilshire Blvd. #945, Santa Monica, CA 90403, 800-369-4769.)

On the other side of the cockpit a hatch opened into the sail locker. Not only did the sail hatch have a lift-up lid, but the side hinged down to allow a large sail to be stuffed inside quickly. The owner and I felt that getting a sail aft and into the cockpit was safer than leaving it tied down on the foredeck. The sail bin was arranged so that sails, lines, and sail-handling gear could be easily located, removed, or replaced.Helm position

No voyaging crew wants to be on the helm when the wind is honking at 40 knots. It’s miserable, wet, and hard work. Consequently, this boat is fitted with an autopilot located under the hard dodger where it could be adjusted while the crew kept sheltered and maintained a good lookout.

The owner of the boat, who is quite tall, tends to steer from leeward, while his wife, who is shorter, sits on the seat or stands when she is at the helm. The seat represented our best efforts to find a compromise. It allowed the owner to sit to leeward comfortably and his wife to sit on the seat and see over the hard dodger. A small stool that slides away under the helm seat gave the wife more elevation to see over the dodger when she decided to steer standing up. The coamings around the helmsman’s seat were hollowed out to allow the helmsman to lean to leeward and watch the sails.Crew location

Rather than have the crew exposed to the elements, the forward end of the cockpit was enclosed with a hard dodger. This had the advantage of allowing instruments to be fitted on the cabin top, plus it provided a good location for the forward end of the bimini top when the boat was anchored in the Caribbean. Several of the windows in the hard dodger were made to open to provide cross-ventilation. In bad weather or when only one crewmember was on deck, sitting immediately behind the hard dodger would probably become the favored location. Consequently, we made sure that no instruments or dials were fitted into this bulkhead. I designed the hard dodger without an overhang, allowing heavy seas to go right over it rather than impact the underside of the dodger.

The primary consideration when designing the hard dodger was to get six feet of headroom without making the boat look ungainly. Once this was achieved, the space the dodger gave us allowed winches and the radar to be installed in a sheltered location. Wind instruments were fixed to the overhead of the dodger forward of the hatch where they could be seen easily and were well away from people ascending or descending the companionway.Safety concerns

Going on deck at night can be hard for a couple if the breeze gets really strong. Consequently, jacklines were fitted immediately outside the cockpit on strong, through-bolted padeyes. If heavy weather were forecast, the jacklines could be shackled in place quickly and easily. Each jackline ends five feet from the transom. Most harness tethers are six or seven feet long. If you go overboard, your tether will slide to the end of the jackline. If the jackline ends at the transom, you will be dragged behind the boat and unable to reach a rail to get back aboard. Ending the jackline a few feet ahead of the transom allows you to grasp part of the boat.

Inside the cockpit, we made it possible to clip on a harness without leaving the safety of the cabin by putting padeyes on the aft face of the bridge deck and running jacklines along the cockpit sides just under the seat level. This allowed the crew to move around the cockpit or steer without unclipping and yet put the jacklines in an unobtrusive location.

When we ran the cockpit aft to the transom, we installed transom steps. A year or two ago I tested inflatable lifejackets and found it almost impossible to wear one of these and climb into a boat with a conventional transom. I now believe that having transom steps and a deep ladder is a lifesaving feature that all voyaging boats should have. I would use a fold-down ladder that allows anyone to get a foot on it and climb back aboard unaided. In the transom steps we made a fold-down locker to house the liferaft. This puts the liferaft in a relatively safe location (it won’t get washed off the deck or stolen) yet it is located where, in an emergency, it can be hauled out and rapidly kicked into the water. Inside this locker is a strongpoint for the liferaft tether. To the side of the transom steps we installed lockable twin lockers for propane tanks. This allowed the tanks to be vented over the stern and made it unlikely that anyone would store gear in the tank locker. Finally we expanded the lowest step on the transom to make it easy to board from a dinghy. We also added small grab rails to help people get out of the water and out of the dinghy. The radar arch

The integrated cockpit included a radar arch on which the radar, antennas, and a bank of small solar cells to keep the battery fully charged were installed. But the radar arch also did a lot more. On the outside of the arch we hung horseshoe liferings, each with its own strobe, rescue streamer, and automatic MOB pole. At the aft end of the radar arch we made fold-down dinghy davits. We also installed the stereo speakers and dimmable cockpit lights under the arch, plus a shower unit.

At the back of the radar arch, stainless steel pulpit rails with a gate were installed. These rails helped to give the helmsman a sense of security even though the cockpit runs to the transom. If children were to be aboard, we would recommend the installation of a removable steel mesh gate under the cockpit seat to stop them from crawling out over the transom.

In harbor, a bimini can be fitted from the front face of the radar arch to the aft side of the hard dodger to give maximum protection from the sun. If desired, in bad weather while in harbor, drop sides could be fitted and fastened to the back of the cockpit cushions.

On this boat we decided to make the main sheet run to the middle of the boom to eliminate any conflicts with the radar arch and dodger, even though I don’t like mid-boom sheeting. By using three blocks we spread the load along the boom and reduced the bGnding moment. We also put twin dimmable lights in the end of the main boom to illuminate the cockpit on those evenings when the crew dines at the cockpit table. Because of the cockpit table’s location, the galley was placed well aft inside the hull. This allowed the cook pass food easily up to the cockpit.Winch location

On a racing boat, humungous banks of winches fill the space around the edge of the cockpit while grinder pedestals fill the cockpit sole. On a voyaging boat, priorities are different. Winches should be discrete, located where they can be used but are not in the way. On this boat we elected to put the primary winches on the coaming in the best location to trim the headsails. Both primaries were electric winches with a button on the helm console and also next to the winch. This way each winch could easily be adjusted by the helmsman or by the crew. The winches were also located to allow a stern anchor to be set and retrieved using either winch. If the boat were to be moored stern-to, chocks at the aft end of the coaming allowed an anchor or a dock line to be led from the winch through the coaming chock to shore or to the anchor.

Secondary winches were located aft near the helmsman. These winches were made to be one size larger than normal, which put them one size smaller than the primary winches. In many situations, having larger winches will enable the crew to use the secondaries instead of the primaries or to swap sheets and guys without worrying whether the winch will fail. The secondary winches were non-electric.

Halyard winches were located on the cabin top under the hard dodger. This allowed the crew to operate them without going forward. We installed only two halyard winches and chose Lewmar’s latest lock-offs to reduce the number of winches required.

Designing a cockpit to do the most efficient job takes considerable time and experience and a clear mandate from the boat’s owner. If this owner had wanted to race the boat, even once or twice a year, the cockpit layout would have been different, with greater emphasis placed on sail-handling and operation. But in a pure voyaging boat the cockpit layout can be made for enjoyment – in harbor, at sea, heeled, and upright.

Roger Marshall designs boats and writes about them from his studio in Jamestown, R.I.

By Ocean Navigator