Features December 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log:
An All-Purpose Deck Shelter for the Tropics

One characteristic shared by virtually all tropical cruising boats is some form of deck awning. These vary in quality and design from an old sail draped over the boom to elaborate stem-to-stern fabrications that cost thousands of dollars to build and take hours to set up and take down.

We got by for almost a year with a small awning for the forward deckhouse, plus a combination of sailing Bimini and cockpit dodger joined by a connector piece. These were designed and built by Neal Thurston of Thurston Sails back in Rhode Island. For cruising in temperate climates, this combination of canvas is perfect, and Thurston’s design eye and workmanship are superb.

For the tropics, however, you need more protection. At mid-day, the deck gets so hot underfoot you can barely stand on it, and that heat goes straight through to the cabin below. In squalls, you rush around the boat to shut hatches and ports, standing by to open them again as soon as the rain stops, before you suffocate.

We spent a lot of time looking at awnings before developing a basic design for Calypso. To reduce windage and bulk, we elected to build an awning that only covered the boat from the mast to the aft end of the cockpit. We already had a small foredeck awning.

Side drop curtains serve two functions: they reduce the glare of the afternoon sun, and cut down on the amount of wind-driven rain on deck. We also wanted removable aft drop curtains for additional protection, as our backstay configuration makes it difficult to carry the awning far enough aft to completely shelter the cockpit.

Despite having a watermaker, we also wanted the awning to function as a raincatcher.

Most awnings are made of the same acrylic fabric, such as Sunbrella, that is used for other deck canvas. Our experience with acrylic fabrics aboard Calypso has been mixed. The fabric has virtually no chafe resistance, and must be protected with a tougher fabric such as a vinyl anywhere it can rub against anything.

We have also found light-colored acrylics difficult to keep free of dirt. When dirty, they must be washed very carefully to protect their waterproof coating.

After examining a lot of awnings, we chose Soca Sails, a Trinidad loft which specializes in canvas work, to build Calypso’s deck awning. Instead of acrylic fabrics, Soca likes to use a Swiss-made vinyl-coated polyester fabric called Stamoid for awnings. A coated fabric is appealing because the waterproofing is part of the fabric. Stamoid is also about 15% lighter than acrylic canvas, and folds up into a significantly smaller package than acrylics.

Although the Stamoid color palette is more limited, their pearl gray proved a close color match to our silver Sunbrella.

Stamoid is not without its shortcomings. It is more expensive than Sunbrella, adding about 15% to the cost of our awning, which has a finished area, including drop curtains, of just over 300 sq. ft.

Sewing punches permanent holes in the coated fabric, requiring very careful workmanship and making seam waterproofing essential. Due to its low stretch characteristics, design and fit must be near-perfect: You cannot stretch out bags and sags. When properly fitted and set, however, a Stamoid awning looks great.

Our awning was designed and built by Andreus Stuven, a German national who works with Mark Loe, the “Trini” who owns the Soca loft. Mark did the major re-cut of our staysail when we altered it for use as a roller-reefing sail, and the loft did numerous repairs on our chafed deck canvas.

Andreus served a classical apprenticeship with a German sailmaker. His description of his apprenticeship makes the system sound practically Dickensian, but we appreciated the eye for detail and sense of aesthetics it created in him.

So far, the finished product has proven excellent. It sets beautifully and provides wonderful shade. Bird droppings hose off cleanly. Best of all, the belowdecks temperature during the day is about 10° cooler than it was without the awning. The awning also folds up into a very compact package about the size of a briefcase, and weighs only about 15 pounds.

A good awning is not cheap. Even in the Caribbean, where labor costs are low, an awning like Calypso’s will cost about $1,200. We would expect to pay substantially more in the US. Because every awning is custom-fit, it is not practical to order an awning without careful measurement of each boat.

Only multi-year testing will determine how Stamoid holds up over time compared to acrylic canvas. And we’ll be spending enough time in the tropics to give the awning a true workout. We’ve heard it said that the measure of one’s pleasure cruising is how much water he has aboard. True enough.

Sources- Forbo-Stamoid, 3 Kildeer Ct., Bridgeport, NJ 08014; 800/990-8018. Soca Sails, Crews Inn Marina, PO Box 608, Chaguaramas, Trinidad, West Indies; 868/634-4718. Thurston Sails, 112 Tupelo St., Bristol, RI 02809; 401/254-0970.

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