Cheap and Easy(ish) Boat Trick: Cockpit Shade

This summer the Pacific Northwest fell under the spell of a particularly hot couple of weeks. We had temps in the triple digits in some places, and, while I’m not complaining, it became clear that we needed something to protect our delicate pacific northwest skin from the rays of blistering sun. Those hot days reminded me that we are, in fact, headed for weather that may be even hotter, and sun that is definitely stronger. We needed shade in our cockpit!

I left openings so it’s easy to get in and out of the cockpit without detaching the cover.

Galapagos came with a full set of canvas for the cockpit, including a pretty neat shade enclosure made of some kind of heavy screen material. Alas, it was falling apart. Literally. I mean the fabric was disintegrating. We trashed it. But I began noodling out how I could make a simple shade enclosure that would fit the bill as a ‘cheap and easy boat trick’. It had to be easy to deploy and easy to store.  This turned out to be cheap, and if you have a sewing machine, which I do not, then it would be easy. I had to do everything by hand, so let’s call this ‘easy-ish’. It’s definitely easy to deploy and store.

I ordered two rolls of extra heavy Coolaroo Outdoor Shade cloth from Amazon; enough to go around the entire cockpit, including the windows in the front when they are fully open. (You can certainly order directly from Coolaroo, but it’s more expensive that way.) This fabric is rated to block 86-90% of UV rays.

To attach the side and back panels to the cockpit, I wanted to use the existing aluminum bolt rope channels (called an Awning Track on Sailrite). Yes, this is the bolt rope that is used to make sails.  This is how our current heavy canvas enclosure is attached. I ordered 12 feet of bolt rope from Sailrite. To hold the panels down onto the outside of the dodger, I used plastic grommets in the corners.

Cost of materials:

Sunshade cloth $38
Bolt rope $27.60 plus shipping
Grommets: 2 packages $8.60
Needles, thread, para cord – 0 because I have those things already.

Total cost: $74.20 plus however much I paid for shipping from Sailrite.

I know alot of people who sew all the time would probably get busy making some kind of pattern for this thing but that’s way too much trouble. I do better just holding the fabric in place and cutting around the shape, leaving enough room for mistakes and to make a neat edge. If I have to stop and make some kind of pattern, this stops being ‘easy-ish’ and falls into the ‘hard’ category. Plus I don’t have a flat surface large enough to lay out fabric of this size.

The needle is VERY sharp.

Making the side panels was dead easy once I figured out how I could stitch bolt rope by hand. This stuff is extra stiff, my fingers are old, and 12 feet is a long way to sew this stuff by hand.  I tried using Mike’s Speedy Stitcher, but it’s made to be used with heavy waxed thread. It didn’t work well with the thread I was using; heavy outdoor ‘sail’ thread. Plus it was cumbersome. My patience wore thin. What did the trick was using the speedy stitcher as an awl to poke holes along the bolt rope. Those holes allowed my heavy needle to go through with little trouble and I made short work of getting the bolt rope attached to the panels after that.

I wanted the back panel to be in two pieces and I wanted it to go all the way back to the cockpit combing, past the mizzen mast.  A previous owner had attached heavy plastic hooks along the side of the combing and these made excellent attachment points for small bungee loops that I could put through the grommets.This part of the enclosure is large, so I didn’t want to have to take it down and store it somewhere. I wanted to be able to roll it up and tie it out of the way.

All rolled up at the back of the cockpit.

The side panels are held down by putting the grommets over stainless steel screws I put in the teak dodger in strategic places. This fabric is not meant to hold snaps. The weave is too open. Grommets work better.

The most challenging part of this project was the front, which I made in two pieces. Because we wanted the windows to be able to open, I had two different measurements for the length required to go around them. Looking more at getting something functional and fast to deploy rather than something with a tailored fit, I opted to cut two lengths of the fabric that would cover the windows on each side at their widest-open setting, then fold the extra away and secure with a bungee through a grommet if the windows were closed. It’s the least pleasing part of the project visually, but it works great and I was able to leave enough space at the top to be able to see over the top of the screen.

Openings left on either side to get in and out easily and for air flow. It feels a bit like a tent inside. Cozy and cooler than the outside.

We are very happy with the results. We store the large front pieces, which we use much less often than the other parts. The back pieces stay rolled up and out of the way unless we need them. The side panels are folded and stored in cockpit storage. The whole set up is versatile. I have no idea how long this fabric will last in the tropics, given that the sun there eats things fast. But at this price, I can buy more fabric in the states when I come to visit and remake the thing in a day if necessary. The bolt rope is protected from UV as it’s underneath the dodger. I wouldn’t have to buy that again. And the grommets are cheap.

Here’s a photo of one of the front panels. Honestly we do not use them very much up here because our cockpit seats are set well back from the windows and the dodger top has a generous overhang in the front. It has to be pretty hot to deploy these. It’s possible in the future if we end up using these front pieces a lot I may decide to make 4 panels for the front, making one panel each for the opening windows and one panel that covers the two fixed windows on each side. That would require more attachment points, which means more little holes in the dodger. But it would look better and might give us even more flexibility. The way I have it now,  wanting the flexibility of opening the windows, which we almost always have open, means there has to be enough fabric to accommodate that. For now, I call this ‘good enough’. I did end up using large cup hooks tucked up under the dodger top so that I could put two little bungees on one attachment point.

Not great, but effective.

We’re still anchored here at Cabbage Island. It’s a great place and one of our favorites. S/V Galapagos, out.


7 thoughts on “Cheap and Easy(ish) Boat Trick: Cockpit Shade

  1. Great job! You’ll really appreciate these shades when anchored in the tropics. It is particularly useful that each panel can be deployed independently; while the shade cloth provides good protection it’s also almost as efficient at filtering out any cooling zephyrs. Being able to raise the shades on the shady sides to allow these breezes to reach you, while simultaneously blocking most of the suns rays, you will be most comfortable. Look forward to your continued cruising adventures.

    • Thanks, Peter. Our thoughts exactly! Up here we’ve experienced that sometimes the wind is cool enough that putting up one of these is a welcome respite. I’m sure our desire to block the breeze will diminish considerably as we go south! As an aside, we also have a fabulous cockpit fan that goes with our portable/rechargeable Ryobi tools. It works amazingly well, goes for a very long time on one charge, moves a ton of air even on the low setting, and is actually quiet!

    • Darn tootin’! But I did think of you, and your skill that go with that nice machine you have. This is as close to canvas work as I want to get. Except for covers for things. I could do those. But I can also do them by hand.

  2. Very nice Melissa! I commend you for sewing that all by hand. I know you don’t have room to store a sewing machine. Some libraries have them if you are in a place that HAS a library. You may also be able to rent one. For a bigger project it might be worth it.

    We use a thin tablecloth I bought on clearance at BB&B and some alligator clips to block the sun as needed. Not nearly as classy as your screens. LOL

    • The real story about the sewing machine is that I don’t want to spend the money on the kind of machine I would use, and if I did get one, I’d feel like I had to use it to justify the expense. We call that a ‘first world problem’ around our house. 🙂

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