Friday, October 9, 2015

Cockpit design: a picture plus a few thousand words

As I mentioned before, nothing focuses the mind on cockpit design like spending 150 hours in the cockpit of a sailboat more or less in one continuous stretch. Previously, I outlined my conclusions from this experience in prose, but this time I have an actual 3D rendering of my proposed design, with all the details filled in.

And nothing focuses the mind on the need to finish designing and build a houseboat that sails more than what is currently unfolding in South Carolina, which I just recently sailed through. Last week, Charleston, where I had spent a week, had fairly deep water running over the streets. Next week it will be Georgetown's turn; the entire town, where I had spent a few days too, is going to have to be evacuated. “You are lucky to be on a boat!” people keep telling me. Indeed, I am! But it's not exactly the right boat; it's a pretty good boat, but it's not QUIDNON.

What's been happening in South Carolina is but a preview of coming attractions. People are still calling it “a thousand-year flood,” not realizing that the next 10 years will bear little resemblance to the last 1000. Interesting things happen to the normal curve when you move the mean: what used to be uncommon can become commonplace rather suddenly. This is exactly what rapid global warming is doing: moving the mean. We are already most of the way a to 2ºC temperature rise, and heading toward 6ºC. It is about time we all got used to it.

We already pretty much know that the entire Eastern Seaboard of the US, where half of its population lives and where most of the infrastructure is, is going to be underwater and uninhabitable roughly by mid-century. Well before then access to potable water, the electric grid, piped natural gas, passable roads and structurally sound bridges and other trappings of civilization will become problematic for a growing percentage of population. This is because the money needed to rebuild the infrastructure after each cataclysm will not exist.

A lot of these people will wish that they were living on a QUIDNON, with its big water tanks, propane lockers, its own electricity, a bulletproof copper-clad bottom and, most importantly, the ability to float and to move about using the wind and the currents. And this thought has given me the impetus to finish the design. Here is the picture, which I hope is worth a thousand words, and worth even more with a few thousand words added.

QUIDNON has a flush deck. There is no cabintop—just a vast expanse of flat deck, 36 feet long and, at its widest, 16 feet wide, with gunwales and lifelines all around. The superstructure consists of two masts, two arches (which serve many purposes) and the cockpit. The cockpit, located just aft of the mainmast, encloses the companionway and the cockpit well. The cockpit well's floor is made up of hardwood slats with gaps between them, and drains into the anchor chain locker below it. In turn, the chain locker drains into the inboard/outboard engine well immediately aft of it. Space for the anchor chain locker and the engine well is carved out of cabin space using three full bulkheads: on one side of the bulkheads is “boat”; on the other is “sea.” Even if a huge sea breaks on deck and floods the cockpit, it will harmlessly gurgle away through the cockpit floor in a matter of seconds.

The Dodger

The dodger is a box made of polycarbonate plastic and fiberglass-reinforced plywood. Except for its top, which is slightly curved, to add rigidity and to make it shed water better, it is a box. Most dodger designs have a windshield that slants back, but this is very bad for visibility, especially when it's raining. Most working boats have windshields that slant forward; this provides maximum visibility, but looks downright ugly on a sailboat. The compromise is to make it perfectly plumb and square. Another common concession to style is to curve the windshield, but this detracts from windward performance. When going to windward, at a 35-40º angle to the wind, it is better to present a sharp corner to the wind then a flat surface. And so the dodger is just a box: simple, sturdy, and cheap to build. I made such a dodger for my current boat before I left Boston and have verified that it works quite well. The polycarbonate of the windshield and the side windows is structural; joined at the corners using aluminum angles, it is very stiff and able to deflect a big wave and any kind of wind. Below the top of the dodger is a box, which can be locked using a lid that nestles in a slot above it, and which holds the VHF radio, the chartplotter and an old-fashioned magnetic compass (still very useful for when all else fails).

The Lazarettes

There are upper and lower seating positions provided for by two lazarettes that run fore-and-aft. The lazarettes serve as backrests for the lower seating positions, and as seats for the upper ones. All seating positions have backrests which are angled out for comfort. The seats are surfaced with nonskid because they perform double duty as places to stand. The lazarettes provide locker space for things that are generally stored in the cockpit. The two lockers inside the dodger, with top-opening hatches, can be used to store paper charts, the logbook and navigation guides; flashlights, a flare gun and flares, emergency satellite transmitter, rigging tools, snacks and drinks and so on. The four lockers further aft have hatches that tip out, and can hold foul weather gear, dock lines, fenders and other such items, none of which belong in the cabin.

The Companionway

The companionway hatch lid hides in a slot just aft of the companionway. To close the hatch, it pulls out of the slot and flops forward over the companionway. The hatch lid holds a bug screen inside it, which can be pulled out and used separately. This, it turns out, is a very big deal at certain times. When sailing past an agricultural area with an offshore wind, flies that get blown off the land head straight for any sail they can spot. Then they get hungry, and very bitey. For those in the cockpit, swatting as many of them as quickly as possible is a good idea, because then they eat their own dead, preferring cannibalism to human flesh. For those in the cabin, the idea is to keep them out of the cabin.

The Tiller

As I explained previously, I have determined that wheel steering is a bad idea, and that a tiller is the way to go. But what sort of tiller? Having had quite a lot of experience with tillers, I designed one that I think will be particularly versatile. It is an aluminum pipe—strong and lightweight—that is precisely horizontal. It positioned so that were it to swing violently (as tillers are sometimes wont to do in sloppy conditions) it wouldn't cause too much damage.

For someone seated in the lower seating position, where the seat is at deck level and one's back is against a lazarette, it should hit that someone right below the belly button. Anywhere lower—and it may hit a kneecap; anywhere higher—and it may hit the solar plexus. If it hits even higher, it may hit the funny bone or crack a rib. None of this is helpful for one's continued ability to steer a boat. And so right below the belly button is where you want to hit an inattentive helmsman—if you have to. The gut is fairly immune to blunt trauma, being well protected by a layer of muscle (for those who do sit-ups) and a layer of fat (for those who also regularly exercise with 16-ounce weights). For the upper seating position, the tiller should hit the shin, or the sea boot if one is wearing them. This is painful, but the shin bone is strong and can take it, and the pain is rarely bad enough to force you to neglect your course-keeping duties.

Inside the tiller tube lives the tiller extension. It is made up of two more tubes, which slide inside one another and can be locked together at an arbitrary length by twisting them against each other. At the outer end is a comfortable handle. At the inner end is a hinge; when pulled out of the tiller as far as it will go, the tiller extension can be operated from any angle: seated on a lazarette, or even standing at the lifelines and looking over the side—this being very useful while docking. When pulled out only part of the way, the tiller extension can't pivot and just makes the tiller longer and increases its lever arm. This also makes it possible to steer while sheltering under the dodger as you would during a torrential downpour.

This tiller design allows for a lot of comfortable and useful steering positions: seated facing forward with one arm draped over the tiller; in the lower sitting position facing sideways, with one foot on the tiller; in the upper sitting position, with the tiller extension tucked under the armpit; standing on a lazarette and peering over the top of the dodger (as you have to in fog, when the dodger becomes opaque because it becomes coated with tiny droplets of water); leaning over the lifelines while steering toward the approaching dock; and so on.

There is one more steering position that I would be remiss not to mention: with the tiller swinging between the legs, or tapping against a thigh. When dropping anchor, or weighing anchor, or doing anything at all with the sails, it is very useful to be able to free both hands for the operation, while continuing to steer the boat, and being able to steer with your legs is what makes it possible. I once asked Chris Morejohn what his trick was for tacking the huge genoa on his Hogfish all by himself, and his laconic response was: “A sheet in each hand and the tiller up the ass.” (I am sure that he was speaking figuratively, and that we both reserve our anal sphincters for purely sanitary uses.) Here too the vertical position of the tiller is important: it should rest against the thigh; any higher, and one's continued ability to beget progeny may come into question.

Lastly, there must be a way to fix the tiller at any given angle. This is provided for using a tiller rack, which is a toothed rack mounted directly below the tiller at the back of the cockpit. The tiller has very restricted vertical travel—less than an inch—and is equipped with a spring-loaded detent that allows it to be either all the way up or all the way down. When forced into the lower position, it engages the toothed rack and cannot be moved sideways. This is an essential feature. The rudder is fixed at an angle when heaving to. It is fixed amidships when engaging the autopilot (which takes over the steering at a point between the tiller and the rudders). And it is clamped down at some appropriate angle when temporarily abandoning the steering because there is something more important for you to attend to.


QUIDNON's two anchor rollers are located on two sides of the bow, some feet apart, because with QUIDNON's hull shape anchoring at an angle to wind and waves, splitting them along the hard chine instead of taking them head-on with the bluff bow, produces much more pleasant motion and far less noise.

The anchor chain locker is located underneath the cockpit, with the anchor chains running in a channel and around rollers along the deck. The two chains converge at the cockpit, where, on the starboard side, is a manual anchor winch. The chains then disappear down holes just aft of the anchor winch, and are pulled down into the chain locker by gravity.

Two short snubbers (not shown) can be used to hook the chains right in the cockpit. Of course, a real snubber, fitted right at the bow, is always an excellent idea, and the anchors should always be secured at the bow while underway. But all other anchoring operations can be performed right from the cockpit, while steering and using the engine—a single-handers dream!


The engine is an outboard that is mounted inboard, in a well right behind the cockpit. Instead of tipping up when not in use it slides up on a track. The engine is pulled out of the water using a hoist, the line from which is found among the running rigging.

The hatch over the engine well is slightly recessed and made up of hardwood slats with gaps between them, just like the floor of the cockpit well, so that any seas that wander aboard from the stern find an easy way back down instead of inundating the cockpit and drenching its inhabitants. Inside the engine well, right below the hatch, is a baffle that deflects the flow of water away from the engine while also providing sound insulation.

The engine control box is mounted on the starboard lazarette, just inside the dodger, and includes an integrated shift/throttle lever, a starter button, a kill switch, a fuel pump switch (since there is no convenient way to access a squeeze bulb) and, for the engines that need it, a choke lever.

Running rigging

All of the running rigging enters the cockpit through the front of the dodger and goes through a block of rope clutches. It's all 3/8" 3-strand polypropylene line, and there is a lot of it, because everything is done using blocks instead of winches, the only winch being the anchor winch. The halyards alone are 200 feet apiece. A 600-foot spool of 3/8 3-strand polypropylene, of the sort fishermen use, is around $50; fancy Regatta Braid will run you almost 10 times that.

Since the line is purchased in bulk, it isn't color-coded, so that the only way to identify a line is by looking at the cluck block, which is labeled as follows:

port centerboard hoist
stbd centerboard hoist

engine hoist

fore halyard
aft halyard

fore topping lift
aft topping lift

fore reefing line
aft reefing line

fore sheet
aft sheet

The lines are paired up—fore/aft and port/starboard—because you might actually use them together, raising, reefing and lowering the two sails in tandem, dropping and raising both centerboards at once, and trimming the sheets on both sails together. Hoisting both sails together would take quite a bit of muscle: all hands on deck, and an appropriate chanty to be sung while heaving them up.

After they exit the clutch, the lines disappear into a slot which leads them to a set of take-up reels mounted in a cage at the top of the anchor chain locker, right below the floor of the cockpit well. These are spools, like the ones that rope or heavy-gauge wire comes on when purchased in bulk. Inside the hub of each spool is a loop of neoprene strapping arranged to create a “rubber band motor.” Each spool is spun up using a winch handle to tension the neoprene loop before the bitter end of the line is attached to it, then the spool is released and it spools up all of the slack. Once in a while the neoprene loop will snap and one of the dozen lines fails to disappear below deck; then it's time to lift out the cockpit well floor, grab a winch handle and a spare loop of neoprene, jump down onto the anchor chain and fix it. I believe that this is a small price to pay for not having to live in a rat's nest of line, and I am sure that once you experience this system, the usual ways of handling line will seem absolutely stone-age.


There are handrails (bent and welded out of 1-inch thick-wall stainless steel tubing) that go all the way around the cockpit, so that no matter where you stand or sit there is always a handhold within easy reach. The rails along the sides of the lazarettes and the back of the cockpit double as backrests. The vertical rails on either side of the dodger are helpful when climbing in or out of the cockpit. The horizontal rail along the back of the dodger is used when climbing in or out of the companionway, or to steady yourself while using the instruments under the dodger. The rails that wrap around the front of the dodger help you catch yourself instead of going splat against the windshield when a big wave knocks you off your feet.


Because there is plenty of room on deck, this cockpit design can be scaled based on the height of the intended crew. The only dimensions that are fixed are those of the companionway and the cockpit well.

Minimum height is more important than maximum height; having to stoop a bit or feeling a bit cramped is never lethal, while not being able to reach something essential, or to steady yourself because the handholds are too high or too far apart, very well can be. Women tend to be shorter than men, and rather few women are over six feet tall. And yet I have seen plenty of cockpit layouts designed for someone at least six feet tall—probably a man, and probably a man who expected some poor woman who, chances are, is significantly shorter than he is, to go sailing with him—and to actually enjoy it! This goes double for children: if you expect them to enjoy sailing with feet dangling and nothing within reach to hold on to, then your expectations are a bit unrealistic.

And so it turns out that the best cockpit design must take these considerations into account, making it possible—though not necessarily comfortable—for everyone to do everything. The shortest crew member has to be able to peer over the top of the dodger on a foggy day; the tallest crew member has to be able to stretch out (almost) all the way when lying down in the cockpit. And so the design parameter I plan to plug in everywhere is 5 feet 6 inches, or 168 cm. Of course, it will still be possible to plug in a bigger number when building a QUIDNON that is to be operated by a race of giants, as I am sure it will be.