A Practical Look at Sailboat Cockpit Design
PS outlines what to look for when searching for a comfortable, functional cockpit.
Cockpit ergonomics involve more than a concern about coaming angles and comfortable seating. These are just two items on a long list of attributes that define the space where sailors spend most of their waking time.
At boat shows, the crowd can be divided into those that poke around on deck and those who head directly below. Brokers know the difference between racing sailors and cruisers and which end of the companionway ladder will seal the deal. Racers want performance and scrutinize the on-deck design features that make it all happen, while cruisers look below for the amenities of a house afloat. This stereotype may be too rigid, but from what we’ve seen at recent boat shows, cruisers need to take a closer look at the cockpit and get a feel for how a sailboat will handle underway, as well as serve as a home away from home.
There’s much more at stake than comfort for the crew. Cockpit design and layout drives many boat-handling tasks, ranging from steering and sail trimming to what goes on when it’s time to reef. Angles of view can even affect watchkeeping.
For example, a high center cockpit and a large overlapping genoa create a 90-degree-plus “no see” zone, and that’s a big deal when it comes to collision avoidance. A large catamaran with a tall bridge-deck cabin can add an even larger “no see” zone, especially when running on autopilot with no one perched on the elevated helm seat.
In short, many cockpits are optimized for at-anchor enjoyment instead of underway usability. So part of the boat-shopping process should include careful scrutiny of how essential sailing and boat-handling tasks will be accomplished. For starters, note how much contortion it takes to really crank each winch, determine whether or not the line leads favor easy reefing, and check to see how well the cockpit shape contributes to keeping the crew from being washed overboard. These are essential attributes, and for some, they are more vital than galley counter material and the fabric that covers the cushions below.
Grand Prix racers have long favored wide open, low sided, no-transom cockpits that are more of an open deck than a protective trench. In heavy weather, these nothing-to-cling-to cockpits can become perilous. In 1997, during the Hong Kong to Osaka, Japan Race, America’s Cup trials veteran Makoto Namba was at the helm of Escape One when a 20-foot breaking sea washed him out the open transom of the 45-foot racer. In 2006, Dutch Volvo Ocean racer Hans Horrevoets was swept from the deck of ABN AMRO TWO and lost at sea. Closer to home, pro sailor Dan Cianci was tossed over the lifelines of the 50-foot ocean racer Snow Lion. The accident occurred at night, in heavy weather just off the Delaware River mouth. In each case, the cockpit design favored sail trim and line handling over heavy-weather safety considerations. Many ocean racers mitigate such design tradeoffs with careful use of harnesses, tethers, jack lines, and hard points for tether attachment.
Just the opposite design trend can be found in the deep cockpit and conventional closed transom of sailboats such as Ted Hood’s 25-year-old design, American Promise. Dodge Morgan sailed the heavy-displacement 60-footer solo around the world. The big, double-head rigged sloop provided a great deal of crew protection and seakeeping ability during Morgan’s voyage. And for years after he donated the boat to the U.S. Naval Academy, midshipmen also learned to appreciate the cockpit layout—particularly during bad weather offshore.
PS Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo sailed that boat in a gale-strewn trans-Atlantic with an able crew and encountered a nasty 979-millibar low at about 45 degrees North latitude. According to the log, “AP was reaching eastward at 9 knots under storm trysail and storm jib with green water routinely sweeping the deck. Seas had silenced the mini-M satphone by regularly immersing the dome shaped antenna in wave faces, eventually flooding the internal circuitry.”
It was a rough passage, and little things taken for granted in smoother seas showed their true value. Features like the deep cockpit well, the heavy-duty, water-tight companionway doors, and the massive cockpit drains all proved their worth.
The flip side of the coin is that really bad weather encounters are a rare occurrence for most sailors. More often, 0- to 20-knot sailing conditions prevail. And our coastline is dotted with safe havens in which to hide from the elements. So one of the big challenges facing every designer and naval architect drawing lines for their next new boat is the question of exposure. Will owners use the boat as a dockside second home and be underway only in fair weather, or will they take the “cruiser” label to heart and leave land well astern? A close look at cockpit layouts will give you some indication of the boat’s intended use.
We prefer to evaluate cockpit ergonomics from both static and dynamic points of view. On some boats, these underway and at anchor evaluations lead to disparate conclusions. A cockpit that works well underway may be confining in port, or another vessel with a patio-size stern may be altogether dysfunctional at sea. It’s all an issue of trying to do two different jobs with one fixed set of dimensions and appendages. Buyers need to know what attributes they will make best use of.
For monohulls, coping with heel is the first big challenge, and wide-open space, whether it’s in the cockpit or main saloon, can be a tough challenge. The universal solution to carrying wide beam aft on cruising boats seems to be the ubiquitous cockpit table. It can be a handy centerline support, but it’s a tough addition to a seafaring cockpit in the minds of many traditional sailors. That said, production boatbuilders have gotten much better at making these centerline, folding-leaf tables sturdy enough for sea duty and effective as a handhold.
Over the last 50 years, mainstream production sailboat design has moved noticeably away from the racer/cruiser defined by Pearson, Tartan, C&C, Cal, Columbia, Ranger, Islander, Ericson, and others. The new boats are roomier with less emphasis on performance under sail. Racers now have their own genre of sailboat, and they are faster, better handling, and more capable than their predecessors. But what’s most surprising is that many “mainstream cruisers” are anything but optimized for long-distance passages and long-term living aboard.
These boats feature convenience, style, and comfort, and the actual design objective in many cases is more focused on weekend cruising and an annual two-week summer harbor-hopping cruise. Easy sail-setting and large boat interiors in shorter waterline lengths prevail, and such trends influence the shape and layout of the cockpit. When it comes to ergonomics, the split between cruisers and racers is more apparent than ever, but there’s also some real differentiation within the ranks of cruisers themselves.
In Practical Sailor’s recent scrutiny of cockpit designs at local boat shows, we’ve noted four emerging sailboat stereotypes. These include daysailers that feature few, if any, accommodations; racing boats brimming with performance-enhancing hardware; and ocean-going cruisers capable of extended passagemaking. The fourth grouping—larger than all the other three combined—are also labeled “cruisers,” but with less draft, less stability, and less versatile sail plans, they are more like an SUV designed more for the highway than off-roading in the backcountry.
Sizing Up a Cockpit
The takeaway lesson for us was the importance of making sure that the cockpit of the boat you are about to buy is in keeping with the mission of the rest of the boat. If you are a serious club racer, the centerline table won’t be a crew favorite. Those making a double-handed passage on a 40-footer will see a tight, narrow cockpit differently than when eight sail the same boat. So with complete belief in the old adage, “different strokes for different folks,” here’s what we looked for when evaluating cockpit design. It can be used as a helpful buyers guide when you’re surveying your next boat.
Working the winches: All too often, winch location is an afterthought, and fine hardware is stuck on side coamings shaped more as a roof for the aft cabin than as a key component of sail trim. We always like to check sheet leads angles that lead lines to a particular winch and then mimic what cranking with a two-handed winch handle would be like. Look for 360-degree clearance with no knuckle-busting stanchions in the way. Be sure that the winch grinding works on either tack. Genoa sheeting may always put you on the leeward side of the cockpit, but runners and spinnaker guys will usually be worked on a windward winch.
Sheets and halyards: One of testers’ major complaints was builders’ habit of running seldom-used halyard lines attached to roller-furling headsails and in-mast furling mainsails all the way aft to the cockpit. Doing so left lengthy line tails cluttering up the area under the dodger where reefing lines, the boom vang, and in some cases, the main sheet all arrived like too many trains in a station.
There’s no perfect mainsheet arrangement, but some are better than others, and the one you choose has a lot to do with how much attention you pay to the nuance of sail trim. The current vogue among serious racers involves 2-to-1 end-boom sheeting: an in-boom lead of the double-ended sheet returns aft via turning blocks near the mast and runs to winches on both sides of the boat (often referred to as Admiral’s Cup, or German mainsheet). Fast, no-load hand trimming is the upside, but in any breeze, there’s good reason to quickly get the sheet on a winch drum. The sheet tail is shorter because of the low ratio (2-to-1) lead. One nuisance is that the sheet can end up bunched up on one side or the other.
Many cruisers prefer higher ratio, multi-part tackles for mainsheeting and may lead each end to a Harken-type adjustment system rather than using a winch. When fast tacking action is not in the cards, this is a user-friendly system.
Some cruisers incorporate mid-boom sheeting because it moves the tackle out of the cockpit than rather then because of how effectively it allows the mainsail to be trimmed. The shortened lever arm means the sheet needs a winch sooner than later. There is also more of a leech-flattening, vang-like effect to this type of sheeting, not the best feature for light-air efficiency.
The trend toward travelers roosting on over-cockpit arches, a longtime standard in Hunter Yachts and a recent adoption in some Beneteau lines, helps protect the crew from accidental jibe injuries and allows dodgers and biminis to flourish, but windows in these covers are essential, if a crew is to see what’s happening whey they are pulling the strings.
Anticipate the angles: Look at how things will change as heel increases and note where vulnerability lies. We recently ran into a crew who had lost an engine due to the shape of the cockpit. During the design phase, the location for an engine instrument recess was placed within easy reach of the person at the helm. In an upright trim—and even at 30 degrees of heel—all was well, but in a knock down when the cockpit began to flood, the engine instruments ended up in a low spot, and despite their sealed all-weather design, submerging them in saltwater had not been part of the engine manufacturer’s gameplan. The ensuing corrosion took out the panel and the alarm system, and a novice crew failed to notice the changes in sound and smell as a raw-water blockage in the cooling system went critical.
Those headed offshore need to pay special heed to the companionway and have a feel for what angle of heel sends water down an open hatch. What’s a surprise to many is that the first part of the hatch to reach the water may be the top rather than the lower portion of the companionway. Sticking in a washboard or two will help keep a breaking wave from sloshing below, but it may be of little use in a deep knockdown.
Getting in and out: One of the most important safety features of a good boat is the transitional path that leads a crew from the cockpit to the deck. Good engineering focuses on step heights, deck camber, handholds, and the quality of the nonskid surface. This transition in and out of the cockpit is one of the most repeated movements on the vessel. If a dodger, bimini, or Florida room compromises access, they become a hazard. Small, molded steps are of little help in a seaway.
There is no ideal cockpit that meets everyone’s preferences, and plenty of bad ideas still persist. No matter what your aims are as a sailor, some things deserve to take precedence. Ample space for entertaining friends for sundowners dockside is nice, but comfort underway, including ergonomic seats for sitting or napping, and secure places to steer and stand watch when the boat is heeled should be a higher priority.
Likewise, sight lines and sensible sheet arrangements should come before drink-holders. Next time you prowl the boat show, spend some time exploring the cockpit and comparing features. It is the hub of the boat.