Features November 1, 2002 Issue

Cockpit Seats

How can you spend a small fortune on a boat only to discover that—from bow to stern, rail to rail, on deck or below—there's not a single comfortable seat in which to relax?

Ever a mystery is why most places to sit on a boat appear to have been designed by disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright. America's most famous architect never saw a right angle he didn't like—one leg perfectly horizontal; the other absolutely vertical. There are a few European boats with properly cocked seats, maybe even curved, with slanting backrests. But most are as cruel as Wright's often-pictured dining room chairs. 

The Crazy Creek seat, well-made of
newfangled materials, costs about the
same as the venerable Howda Seat.

To compensate for this lack of regard for the human form, which has many nice contours in the seating region, boatowners almost invariably collect things to alleviate the suffering. It's time to review the whole painful subject.

At Practical Sailor, we became so exercised about this topic that in the July 15, 1998 issue we published a photo essay on cockpit seating. The report went into anthropometry (the measurement of the human body) and discussed the important work done in ergonomic seating by Herman Miller (you know, the famous Eames chair?) and Sunnar Hauserman. We blasted a bunch of boats and praised a few.

Before that, we had, in the May 15, 1995 issue, taken note of a cockpit bean bag sold for $40 by Andy Peabody's Creative Marine, Box 2120, Natchez, MS 39121, 800/824-0355. Unfortunately, the lady who sewed up Andy's vinyl bean bags left the area and he hasn't found a replacement. (Andy is more widely known for his Max anchors.)

In the August 1, 1996 issue, was a report on a more sophisticated bean bag, a 20"x 40" Sunbrella rectangle that opened up double-width, made a float, and had a mesh panel for drainage and drying. Called the Aqua Lounge by its inventor, Roger Olson, it sold for $99. Despite a whole set of telephone stabs, we could not find him when we wrote this update. (Our ex-editor, Dan Spurr, tracing the path of the explorer, La Salle, used the Aqua Lounge for sleeping, floating around, etc. on a 1998 powerboat trip down the entire length of the Mississippi River. He wrote a fine book afterward, called River of Forgotten Days.)

We also pursued this comfort subject in a report in the December, 1996, issue on fold-up cockpit seats. We reviewed the above-mentioned bean bags and had four new seats to test.

One of them, a pipe-framed, foam-sleeved, two-position seat called the Backjack, is still made and sold for $49.75 by a company called B.J. Industries of Baltimore, MD. Phone: 410/686-5200. It's sold through various online retailers. Go to www.google.com and enter keywords "backjack chair." The Backjack is comfortable, and we've seen it in use on boats, but it has only a couple of positions and is a bit bulky and difficult to stow.

Then there was the Howda Seat, a canvas frame with hardwood slats that conforms to the shape of the horizontals and verticals you use during sitting. It also rolls up for easy stowage. Sold at that time by BoatU.S. for $45, it's not in the current catalog, but is available from various other vendors, including the manufacturer, Howda Designz of Newburyport, MA. The web address is www.howda.com. It's listed there at $42, but we note that it's also available in the gift section at www.woodenboat.com for $39.95. (Might as well refer the business to our fellow marine scribes.)

Next came the Ridge Rest-R made by a very active outdoor sport equipment company called Cascade Designs, in Seattle, WA. A hinged envelope of a material called Staytek (a highly-tecturized woven polyester) into which were inserted slabs of open-cell polyolefin copolymer foam, it is no longer made. Cascade now makes several other seats, including a lightly padded camp chair and a stadium chair with closed-cell foam cushions sewn into ripstop nylon. Back support is adjusted by side straps. The large camp chair sells for $40; the medium for $36. Cascade's catalog is worth a visit: www.cascadedesigns.com. Or call 800/531-9531.

The seat we said was the best of the four is still sold through marine catalogs and elsewhere. It's the Sport-a-Seat made by the Paradise Co. of Herndon, VA. They're at 800/870-7328, www.sportaseat.com. This is a well-padded, six-position, ratchet-hinged seat with Sunbrella-covered foam. The retail price, sometimes bested by boatshow sale prices, is serious: $95.

So, what's new?

Now, Three More
About 20 companies are known to be making seats, but few of them met the PS criteria: Padded; self-supporting backrest; foldable; stowable, and reasonably weatherproof.

One new company is HelmSense Products. Marc Cohen (he's the whole company) has spent too many hours at the helm of boats without a backrest of any kind. (He sails a Cal 33.)

So Cohen, a 39-year-old engineer out of Tufts University in Boston, invented something different. He calls it a Helmsman's Backrest.

Basically, it's an 18" x 36" cushion attached with hook-and-loop to a thick backing plate (made of high-density polyethylene like Starboard) that accommodates (in various positions) a pair of standard powerboat radio antenna mounts, thus giving the backrest adjustability. The antenna mounts join, via two PVC thick-wall pipes, to small universal mounting brackets clamped to the stern rails. It appears that with a bit of tinkering the brackets could be deck-mounted. All the parts are shown in one of the accompanying photos.

For stowage, the rig comes off quickly via two Fastpins, leaving only the two (relatively) inconspicuous stainless steel brackets in place.

Because of tooling and fabrication costs, Cohen has to ask $219 for the kit. If it can't be made to fit, he'll refund the whole amount. He's reachable at 617/794-8368 or 19 Phillips Lane, Newton, MA 02460.

The Crazy Creek fold-up chair is a sort of space-age cousin to the Howda Seat, which is an old New England design originated for circus-goers. While the Howda uses hardwood slats, the Crazy Creek seat (billed for use in the stadium, campsite, and cockpit) is built of light, high-quality fabric and closed-cell foam over padded internal struts. The sewing is first-class. Except for the struts, the Crazy Creek seat is mighty reminiscent of the Cascade Designs chairs.

Crazy Creek's standard chair costs $38.50; the large one is $41.75. If your cockpit seats are narrow, Crazy Creek's stadium chairs (with shallower seats), might be the ticket. All of them fold and stow beautifully.

Crazy Creek's catalog is available by calling 800/331-0304. The web address is www.crazycreek.com.

And finally, at the Newport Boat Show a year ago, we bought a thing called a Nada-Chair®. It's a clever strap-and-pad arrangement. A big, flat pad fits behind your lower back. Two adjustable circular straps run forward and around your knees. You lean forward slightly and cinch the straps up snugly, then lean back and find yourself well-supported and comfortable, with your leaning weight transferred to your thighs fore and aft. It has optional strap extensions that allow you to use it with your legs extended, as in the hamstring-stretching, anti-shin-splint position.

You can find out about the entire range of these Nada-Chairs (two of the models have roll-out seat pads), which sell for about $40 to $125, by contacting NadaChair at 800/722-2587. The Web address is www.nadachair.com.

Spanish-speakers will note that "nada" means "nothing" or "none," so the NadaChair is nicely named.

The Bottom Line
All of these seats are luxurious, at least when measured against a barbarous slab of cold, flat fiberglass with a low (or no) backrest.

To make the helmsman happy, Marc Cohen's backrest, mounted with its lower edge resting on a cockpit seat cushion, would make the hours while away wondrously. It well might be left in position for a season, but demounts easily and stows fairly well. The $219 price might make you think twice, and it's only for the helmsman.

Crazy Creek's very light, fold-up seat is fine, too. It can be used anywhere, stows very quickly (just fold and roll), and the padding, while skinny, is still pretty comfortable. It's really ideal for backpackers (and football/soccer fans). The same comments would probably apply to the new Cascade Designs chairs, but we can't confirm that because we haven't actually sat in 'em yet.

The NadaChair® is a back-support device and, because it lacks a padded seat, doesn't actually qualify for comparison with other chairs. Still, it's worth consideration: It's small, very stowable, and priced fairly, at least the basic models. We found that the pressure on the knees and thighs begins to get tedious after a half-hour or so, and that it's necessary to get up and move around a bit before harnessing up again.

The seat that, year after year, hangs in there in the marine catalogs is that nice, thick, six-position, ratchet-hinged Sport-a-Seat, which sells for $95, in six colors, no less. It's a bit difficult to store, of course, and is pricey—but for sheer comfort and adaptability, it has yet to meet a peer.

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