26 April 2016

Staying Onboard (Part 3)

<< Part 2

Next to locking yourself in the cabin, you would think being in the cockpit would be your next safest bet. But as I've mentioned before, Robert Manry was washed overboard several times during his voyage across the Atlantic. Looking at Tinkerbell's cockpit, it's easy to see why.

Reporter swims over to Tinkerbell to conduct interview
By comparison, the Blue Moon's cockpit is a cocoon of safety. It has nice high bulwarks all around, and there are so many lines to grab onto -- including the strongly rigged running backstays on either side -- that I've usually felt very safe.

Ten miles off the west coast of Florida
In fact, Tom Gilmer designed the Blue Moon's cockpit for ocean sailing. It's actually not a cockpit at all. You sit on the deck with your feet in a small footwell. Those really are bulwarks around the deck. If pooped -- that is, if a wave broke over the stern and filled the cockpit with water -- two very large scuppers at deck level, plus two 2-inch drains in the footwell, would rapidly drain it, while the high bridge deck would keep the water out of the cabin.

Many blue water cruisers adopt this approach of sitting on deck. For example, the Westsail 32, has exactly the same layout: you sit on the deck with a small footwell for comfort, surrounded by high bulwarks.

Westsail 32 with sit-on-deck cockpit
These cockpits are not designed for comfort. There are no seat backs or coamings to lean your back against.  Other than the deckhouse, they provide no protection from wind or spray or rain. And it bears repeating: you are not sitting down in a cockpit; you are literally sitting on the deck.

It's easy to add comfort to the Blue Moon's cockpit. As you can see from the photo above, there is plenty of room for a nice fat, comfy chair -- self-steering lines not withstanding! In fact, lack of room is not the problem. Too much room is the problem.

Cockpit of Gilmer-designed Southern Cross 31
Because you are sitting on the Blue Moon's deck, instead of down in the deep cockpit of a Southern Cross 31, for example, its easy to get knocked around. The deck feels a bit too wide. You slide around. There's not enough to hold onto. When heeled over, if you are sitting to windward (as you should), when you look down at the water rushing by to leeward, you can't help noticing that there is nothing between your feet and the water but that 10-inch bulwark. No lifelines, no running backstay to grab onto, no nothing. I'm used to that view, but I must say that Helena and even some of my sailing friends, like Tony, find the openness a bit disconcerting.

So, there's that.

Also, there is the fact that the closest I've ever come to dying on a boat was in the safety of a deep center cockpit on a very large boat. So safe did that cockpit seem, and so experienced the captain, that it never occurred to me that I could be decapitated by an accidental gybe. But I nearly was.

So lets list the risks of being in the cockpit and see how they can be addressed.

Minimize the risk of being washed overboard
  • Add some strong padeyes to the deck and on the back of the cabin, and clip on before even leaving the companion way. Two harness lines -- one on either side, would be even better.
  • Add lifelines, just in case
  • Add pushpit (stern pulpit)
  • Add hand-holds 
  • Add foot-straps in the footwell
Minimize the risk of being knocked around like a pea in a can

This is actually the biggest problem with the Blue Moon's cockpit. It's just easy to get thrown around a bit, when the motion is violent and you are just sitting on deck.
  • Reduce the width of the cockpit somehow
  • Add some sort of coaming so you can brace yourself between the coaming and the footwell
  • Add more hand-holds
Minimize the risk of exhastion by being exposed to wind, rain, and spray
  • Add a small doghouse or dodger
Minimize the risk of being decapitated or knocked overboard by the boom
  • Pay attention to your steering
  • Bear off a bit so you are not steering so close to the gybe point
  • Keep your head down
  • Use preventer
  • Add a gallows frame
A gallows frame will not only prevent injury if the topping lift lets go and drops the boom into the cockpit in heavy weather, it is excellent to hold onto. 

Reducing the width of the cockpit, adding high combings, a doghouse, and a gallows frame would require a significant rebuild, but would dramatically improve the safety and comfort of the cockpit. 

I'm sorely tempted...

Any other cockpit risks I'm forgetting? I'm sure there are. Please leave your suggestions in the comment section below.

Next Up: Guest Post -- Buying Taleisin


  1. Just adding my 2cents here. I have a friend who is a big proponent of permanent preventers. Every boat he's owned has a pair of 3:1 or better tackles running from the toe rail to mid-boom which can be adjusted from the cockpit. The two together allow you to position the boom anywhere and lock it there. They are so effective that he has removed the main sheet from all of the boats.
    Another small note on tethers. Most marine retailers, and thus sailors, think of tethers as a way to stay attached to the boat when you fall overboard. This is deadly thinking. Tethers should be short enough and jacklines and pad-eyes should be situated so that your tether cannot reach over the toe-rail. Which, by extension, means you literally cannot fall overboard. Unfortunately most commercially available tethers are way too long, so one must construct or modify their own. If you build a tether so that it has a longer leg and a shorter leg you can use the long leg for walking and the short for clipping in to pad-eyes and holding you there while you work. Also, having a pad-eye on the mast, for example, gives you a point you can clip into with your short tether and lean back against. This gives you two hands to work as your tether is steadying you instead of your second hand.

    1. I'm with you on the need for a preventer (called a 'fore guy' in some books) for both the main and the boomed staysail.

      In my book, a preventer or fore guy should be rigged to the end of the boom. The bending strain is just too big when its rigged in the middle of the boom, I think. This may be an old-fashioned prejudice, but I've seen the gigantic forces applied to a preventer and would not feel safe with one rigged mid-boom. Tom Cunliffe tells a story about a boom rigged with a mid-boom preventer snapping like a toothpick when the sail accidentally gybed. I'd rather not!

      I'd call what you describe a 'vang'. A vang holds a boom down, a fore-guy holds a boom forward. Sometimes you need both.

      I'm also totally with you on tethers. I like two tethers in the cockpit, one on either side of the boat. Impossible to be tossed over either side.

  2. The best advice I can give is this: After I had built and launched my yacht, my boat builder uncle pointed out that you should be able to stand on the cockpit floor with the boom being able to swing over in an unexpected gybe without it hitting you on the head. I immediately raised the boom to give this clearance ----- something that has honestly saved my life on a number of occasions.

    If the yacht is far too small for this to be practical then at the very least the boom should clear your head when in a sitting position - anything other than this is lethal madness.

    1. Standing 'boom room' is not possible on my boat, or most small boats, but sitting is no problem. Being alert is the main thing, I think!


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