A Practical Look at Sailboat Cockpit Design

PS outlines what to look for when searching for a comfortable, functional cockpit.

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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 its 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 thats 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, Americas 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 Hoods 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 Morgans 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 boats 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 its 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.

Dufour 445
Twin wheels on the Dufour 445 (top) allow for a clear path fore and aft up the center of the cockpit, and clear sight lines on windward or leeward sides. Sheet leads take priority on the Farr 400 (bottom), with its broad, shallow cockpit that places efficiency under sail as the highest priority.

Industry Trends

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 whats 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 theres also some real differentiation within the ranks of cruisers themselves.

In Practical Sailors recent scrutiny of cockpit designs at local boat shows, weve 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.

Dufour 445 dodger
Isinglass in the Dufour 445 dodger offers a peek at sail trim (top). An electric windlass helps with halyards. The traveler on the Tartan 4000 (middle) crosses the cockpit sole, easy to trim at sea, but a toe-stubber at rest. The mainsheet winch on the aft coaming of center-cockpit boats like the Hylas 54 (bottom) is also easy to trim from the helm.

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 wont 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, heres 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.

Beneteau Sense 43
Removing the wheel opens the cockpit of the narrow, Seaward 26RK (top). A folding wheel is also a popular option on narrow-cockpit boats. The wide patio-like cockpit of the Beneteau Sense 43 (middle) relies on a centerline hand rail and grab rails to afford security underway. Companionway grab rails on the Passport 545(bottom) make the cockpit-to-cabin trek safe, but the horned protrusions can snag a line.

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.

Theres 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 Admirals Cup, or German mainsheet). Fast, no-load hand trimming is the upside, but in any breeze, theres 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 whats happening whey they are pulling the strings.

eopard 39 cockpit
The Leopard 39 cockpit (top) offers an easy pathway to the sea —not always a good thing, especially underway. The mainsheet traveler on the new Coast Guard 44 (bottom), built by Morris Yachts, is handy for the helmsman but divides the cockpit. Note the space for the valise-packed life raft under the transom seat.

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 manufacturers 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. Whats 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.

Conclusion

There is no ideal cockpit that meets everyones 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.

A DIY Guide to Rating Cockpit Ergonomics

Rating cockpit attributes is a worthwhile endeavor for a serious boat shopper. Start by rating component parts. It will allow you to more effectively compare and contrast one boat with another, according to your specific sailing plans and needs.

For example: Above, we have focused on seven key cockpit attributes and rated five new boats accordingly. Below is a brief explanation of each of the criteria selected. The result of the data table is not a winner-take-all report card. It’s a means of determining what has been emphasized in a specific cockpit design on a wide variety of very different vessels.

Trimming

Rating for this attribute reflects both the location of a winch and the way in which crew members must bend, lean, or contort themselves while sheeting. We considered how efficiently a manual winch could be cranked and whether or not an electric winch could be safely operated while retaining a clear view of the sail being sheeted or hoisted.

Steering

This was not a look at the vessel’s steering hardware, rudder design, or feel of the tiller. It was more focused on helm location and how the person steering the boat could carry on the process comfortably for lengthy periods of time.

Reefing

We consider the ability to quickly and efficiently reduce and add sail area to be a primary aspect of seamanship. Cockpit layouts teamed up with efficient well-chosen hardware can make or break this facet of cockpit ergonomics. Awkward winch placement, too many lines clustered together around a big bank of rope clutches, and attempting to place sheets, halyards, and reefing lines all in the helmsman’s lap with only one or two undersized winches usually lead to lower ratings.

Visibility

Collision avoidance requires seeing what’s about to cause trouble well ahead of time, and anything shy of a 360-degree angle of view detracts from the process. We were concerned about view angles and obstructions ranging from dodgers, to deck-sweeping headsails, cabinhouse bulkheads, and other design features that limit the helmsperson’s field of vision. Aboard many multihulls, there’s a growing trend toward providing one perch that offers an all-around view. But when the vessel is operating on autopilot and no one is in the elevated helm seat, watchkeeping efforts are hampered.

Heeled

When floating on an even keel, it’s easy to get in and out of most cockpits. However, a modest heel of 15 degrees can turn wide-open cockpits with awkward coamings and narrow sidedecks into a hazard. Getting around on a vessel in a seaway requires good nonskid, an abundance of ready handholds, and an unobstructed pathway in and out of the cockpit. Seats need to be usable underway, and the dodger, companionway, and bimini must work in concert.

Short Handing

Because most cruisers sail short-handed, we are always on the look out for features that make watchkeeping more user friendly. These include line leads and winch layouts that allow headsail trimming from the helm and may even offer the chance to tuck or shake a reef from the confine of the cockpit. Crew alone on deck also benefit from deeper-welled open space. Giving the short-handed crew protection from seeping seas and offering well-placed hardware goes a long way to ensure safe, efficient passagemaking.

Entertaining

At anchor and in port, the cockpit changes from an operations center to a backyard patio. Gone is the need for seakeeping attributes, and what counts is how well the area at the aft or center portion of the boat stacks up as a place for stationary fun. Tables that can serve dinner for six or drinks for 10 get high marks. Transoms that fold down, offering access to the sea, are also a current rage. It’s no surprise however, that many of the attributes that drive high scores for entertaining earn a lower grade at sea—the reason many designers and builders have spent time developing fold-up swim platforms and wellreinforced drop-leaf tables ready for sea duty.

VALUE GUIDE: Comparing Cockpit Design

VESSELTRIMMINGSTEERINGREEFINGVISIBILITYHEELEDSHORT HANDLINGENTERTAINING
FARR 400ExcellentExcellentFairExcellentExcellentPoorFair
BENETEAU SENSE 43FairGoodGoodGoodFairFairExcellent
DUFOUR 445FairGoodFairGoodGoodGoodGood
LEOPARD 39FairGoodFairFairNAFairExcellent
PASSPORT 545 CCFairGoodGoodExcellentGoodGoodExcellent
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida.

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