Getting a Grip on Sailboat Ergonomics

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 02:20PM - Comments: (8)

Shake-A-Leg Foundation founder Harry Horgan (left) scans the horizon aboard the fully-accessible catamaran Impossible Dream off the coast of Miami, Fla. If only all boats were as thoughtfully designed to match the bodies of the humans that will sail them.

With more than four decades in the business of designing and building boats, Catalina Yachts chief engineer and designer Gerry Douglas has had a front row seat to the ongoing evolution of yacht design. He also has a strong view on how and why some designs meant for the cruising sailor can go awry. As Douglas points out, many new and used boats being touted as ideal cruisers are strongly influenced by the various measurement systems for offshore racing. Our independent sailboat tests often allude to this influence, tracing a particular boat back to the Cruising Club of America era, or the less popular International Offshore Rule (IOR). Douglas is one of the few contemporary sailboat designers who has resisted the urge to latch on to the latest racing design trends and incorporate them in his cruising boats.

There are many obvious, common sense reasons why it’s not a good idea to use a successful racing yacht as a template for  a boat that will be used strictly for cruising. Winning ocean racing boats are usually fully crewed, actively helmed, and seldom serve as long-term homes for their owners or crew. They need not creep into shallow anchorages for a night at anchor. Comfortable motion at sea is not chief concern. Their crew doesn't have a single artificial joint among them.

A cross-over racer-cruiser could certainly indulge in some of the go-fast features we addressed in our August 2015 article on high-performance cruisers. However, as we find in our upcoming look at on board ergonomics, even subtle visual tweaks to make a boat look like a fast racing boat can have unintended consequences.

In the February 2016 report on boat ergonomics, PS tester Drew Frye examined how many of the new boats appearing at the U.S. sailboat shows seem to have put very little thought into addressing the mobility limits of people over age 55, who represent a larger share of their customer base. Getting boat furniture, stairs and passages to conform to the anthropometric measurements used by shore-bound building and furniture designers has always been difficult due to the limited onboard space. But as Frye found, some of the most egregious offenders are the big catamarans, boats that have plenty of room to make ergonomic adjustments.

As PS Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo, author of "The Art of Seamanship," pointed out in his report on sailboat cockpit design, one look at the average navigation station or helm seat on a cruising boat and you can see how the most basic ergonomic principles on lines of sight, sitting posture, standing posture are, so it seems, utterly ignored. Stairs, handholds, settee seats, and bunks are built to conform to the builder’s budget, not the sailor’s lumbar. And once you start moving around some of these boats, the obstacle course is like something dreamed up by a chiropractor drumming for new business.

Building a boat to fit the human body does not need to be any more expensive than building one that does not. But it needs to begin early, in the design phase. Traffic flow, work stations, sitting stations all need to be taken into account before hull and liner plugs are built. Sadly, this does not happen, and it is left up to us, the owners to make things right.

If you have some modifications you’ve made to your own boat to make it more comfortable to work and live on, we’d like to hear about them. Send your ideas to, so we can share them with others.

Comments (8)

Good comments. When I got to the boat show, it often seems as if the boat designers--both sail and power--have never actually spent an overnight on a boat or spent time aboard one. I saw a sailboat years ago (manufacturer not specified) that had a raised cross-braced athwartship in the cockpit, about 2 inches high and just right for tripping over. Who thought up this death trap? Ever notice how many power boats lack a view of the harbor when you're sitting down in the cabin? Can't be helped in a sailboat, I guess, but in a power boat you should be able to look outside from those plush salons.

We have a 1967 Morgan 34, and under sail or at anchor she is a dream. Her motion under way is pure grace, smooth and steady. Owned her 30 years and can't yet bear to part with her. Handholds below, steady steps, cockpit perfect for bracing your feet on the other side, great galley. Charlie Morgan knew his stuff. Best to all.


Posted by: Rigoler | February 5, 2018 6:48 PM    Report this comment

Excellent article! The comments posted above are right on the money! I hope the designers and management of Beneteau, Jeanneau, Hunter, Catalina, Hanse, and other builders of sailboats read it and take the points under consideration. Primarily we race and cruise on Lake Erie, though we have also sailed on the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and a few other areas over the past 30 years.

Currently, we own a 1998 Beneteau Oceanis 321. Our prior boat was a 1987 Catalina 30-Mark II. I also am the captain of a 2012 Beneteau Oceanis 50 owned by a client.
We mostly race and sail in winds less than 15 knots, but we regularly race and sail in winds of 16 to 30 knots and on occasion winds gusting well over 31 knots. Lake Erie has a well-deserved reputation for short-period, square, fast-building waves in winds above 20 knots. 6'+ waves and squalls are not uncommon. The Beneteaus pound in such a seaway, particularly the 321. My Catalina 30 was more comfortable in rough water than my 321. My wife and I are in our 60's.

I am going to give higher importance to boat ergonomics and hull form in my next boat. I am also going to make recommendations to the owner of the Beneteau 50 on the replacement boat. Both new boats will be in the racer/cruiser category for Great Lakes sailing. My current preferences are listed below.
- a finer entry and maybe more overhangs and flare to reduce pounding
- a Sail Area/Displacement ratio of 18 to 22
- a Capsize Ratio of 1.90 to 2.10
- a Displacement/Waterline Length Ratio of 130 to 180
- a Beam/Waterline Length Ratio of 2.85 to 3.20
- lots of accessible handholds above and below deck
- foot bracing in the cockpit
- shallow companionway ladders with minimal broad steps
- scoop transom with easy access from the water or the dock
Such a boat may be hard to find in today's production boat offerings.

Roger Marshall wrote an excellent book "The Complete Guide to Choosing a Cruising Sailboat". Unfortunately, it is a bit dated in that it was published in 1999 but the principles described are valuable today.

Posted by: mark2 | February 1, 2018 1:14 PM    Report this comment

What about companionways? Some of the steps I have seen on today's larger cruisers are recipes for slip and fall accidents - perhaps aesthetically pleasing to the eye, made of wood laminate, but much too shallow for fast entry and exit, especially when wearing wet footwear or boots. I appreciate the design I have on my Hunter 27. It doubles as a fiberglass cowling/access hatch to the engine and the steps are broad with embedded rubber treads and structurally integrated into the one-piece cowling.

Posted by: Bruce Conron | February 1, 2018 11:10 AM    Report this comment

Sadly that also applies to Hospitals! Several years ago I had to go to the Hospital for Routine Blood Work Test. The Hospital I went to was just completing and Exterior Restoration. As I approach the Hospital, there were several Contractors Congratulating Themselves for a Job Well Done and Doing it Under Budget. As I approached the Hospital, I noticed Something "Amiss"! I asked one of the Contractors, where the Nearest "Wheelchair Ramp" was. Looking Perplexed and Quizzical at each other, they soon realized the reason they (i.e. the Contractors) Finished Early and Under Budget. IS the fact that the "Blueprints" LACKED Anything approaching being Handicapped Accessible...

Posted by: Secundius | February 1, 2018 9:48 AM    Report this comment

All three previous comments are essentially giving the same advice; decide when and where you will sail before buying a boat. However, when those plans change, particularly for going offshore, seriously consider changing boats.

~ ~ _/) ~ ~ MJH

Posted by: MJH | January 31, 2018 5:09 PM    Report this comment

Good points. I would counter, in limited defense of builders, that most buyers have no off-shore ambitions, or at least never in significant weather. They will stay inshore, pick their weather windows, and never sailing 20 foot swells or strong winds (save a few squalls). They don't need such a boat and wouldn't suited by a boat designed for heavy work. It would be just as silly as the person who buys an SUV and then stays home when it snows (and they are legion); they buy the SUV because it is hip, but would be better served by a car. Most sailors--over 90% from what I see--need a boat for up to 15 knots, and then they head home, and that is right for how they enjoy sailing. The right answer also depends on the area; a deep draft, strong weather machine would be ill suited to the Chesapeake Bay, where water is thin, shelter always available, the summer day often sultry, and winds often light. And airy design is brilliant for this.

This is not to say that the boat should not fit properly. There must ALWAYS be a handhold. I'm a catamaran sailor, so my pet peeve is broad cabin tops devoid of holds. Nice for lounging on the hook, but scary when it's kicking. Also small stainless holds, slippery when wet.

Posted by: Drew Frye | January 4, 2016 8:23 AM    Report this comment

Bravo for your most sensible comments. A boat in open ocean, with 20 foot swells, and 30 knots of wind, is not in need of lots of open cabin space. It is no longer a condominium. It needs lots of easily accessible handholds. It needs shallow angle companionway ladders with a minimal number of steps. Overly wide open spaces are dangerous and likely to toss crew flying and little to constrain free flight. Older Crealock, Rhodes, Alberg, Perry, Brewer designs remain appealing not only because they are affordable. THey are inherently safer for the crew. They also have higher comfort index ratios, lower capsize numbers, and moderate D/L values.
Many thanks for a ratioinal voice
Harvey Karten

Posted by: hjkarten | December 30, 2015 11:53 PM    Report this comment

The Wife and I WILL be purchasing a new sailboat in about 5 years. No less than 40 feet. We have been members at Harbor sail boat club in San Diego for 6 years now. Great way to sail and not invest.
I have sailed almost all the clubs yachts up to 45 feet. Mostly Beneteau yachts. Newer racer/cruiser models. Great fun for ripping around SD Bay but get them offshore and most seem to pound in seaway, tender in a puff and they hate the auto pilot. Plum bows, flat bottoms and wide beams. They also have a couple older Catalina yachts as well. Mid 90s C22, C27,C350. Of all the yachts in our club I always go back to the older C350. I always thought that we would end up buying a Beneteau, a lot of boat for the money. Great at the dock and on the hook for entertaining. But that older Catalina 350 just sails so nice off shore. I herd Catalina was working on an all new C42. Excited to see this new Gerry Douglas yacht.

Posted by: phatdad | December 30, 2015 4:06 PM    Report this comment

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