What makes for an
Efficient Sailboat Cockpit?

Perhaps because sailboat cockpit design doesn't present the same marketing opportunities as the living space below it, it's not unusual to find that cockpit layouts have been compromised in favour of a commodious aft-cabin.

This is borne out by a number of modestly sized boats that accept the disadvantages of a centre-cockpit in favour of a veritable bedroom in the stern where the cockpit should rightly be.

Underway, the cockpit is the centre of activity. Helming, watchkeeping, sail trimming or just plain relaxing - it's all done from here.

Sheets, cleats and jammers should fall readily to hand, and winch handles must be able to operate 'full circle'.

Properly thought out, it will be a satisfying and safe place to be - efficient for sailors and comfortable for our guests.


Keeping the Helmsman & Sheet Handlers Happy

sailboat cockpit layout and ergodynamics, operating the sheet winches An ideal winching position

Foremost in the cockpit designer's mind should be the requirements of the helmsman and the sheet handlers.

For a wheel-steered yacht a 'T' shaped cockpit is often the preferred solution, giving the otherwise trapped helmsman room to move around the wheel into the main part of the cockpit.

The cockpit seats of a tiller-steered yacht must accommodate the sweep of the tiller without interference, and the tiller itself should be of a height and shape to avoid the knees of a sitting helmsman.



Sailboat Cockpit Ergonomics and Dimensions

It's not enough for the cockpit to be secure; it must also feel secure. But it won't if the sensation is of being perched upon on it rather than being in it.

Security is largely a function of the depth of the cockpit, over which other factors have a controlling influence:~

  • At extreme angles of heel the leeward edge of the sole must remain above the waterline level to enable it to drain;
  • The cockpit sole should not be so deep such that it is impossible to see over the coachroof when standing up;
  • Although the dimensions of the human body determine the height of the seat above the sole, usually 375mm to 500mm, ideally you'll also be able to see over the coachroof when sitting down.
sailboat cockpit layout and ergodynamics, steering positionAre you sitting comfortably?

Other features to be found in a good, sea-going sail boat cockpit layout include:~

  • Seatbacks that are at least 350mm high and angled such that you can remain sitting upright on the windward side when the boat is heeled;
  • Seats wide enough, around 500mm, to provide adequate support under the thighs;
  • Seats that are parallel and close enough together to enable seated occupants on the windward side to comfortably brace their feet against the leeward seats when heeled;
  • Moderate volume and adequate drainage. For an aft-cockpit boat, the most efficient drainage is through the transom. A couple of 50mm diameter holes here will drain a moderately sized sailboat cockpit inside two minutes;
  • A bridgedeck to at least the height of the seats, which not only reduces the volume of the cockpit well but also provides a step-up to the companionway sill;
  • The companionway sill should be at least as high as the coaming, thereby preventing a cockpit full of water from finding its way below;
sailboat cockpit layout and ergo dynamics, washboards in main hatchModerately angled sides like this one are safer
  • A main hatch, preferably on the centreline, with moderately angled sides. Washboards in a heavily vee'd hatch only have to float up a short distance before they fall out.

Artwork by Andrew Simpson



A Cockpit Table?

The final embellishment for the perfect sailboat cockpit is a cockpit table, which four people can sit around comfortable.

A cockpit table in a tiller steered yacht

Many sailboats with wheel steering have a fixed table attached to the pedestal as shown here, but my preference is to keep the cockpit clear when underway, and have a table that folds down against the pedestal.

Tiller steered sailboats usually have a removable cockpit table for use at anchor or in harbour.

Read here the argument for where the sailboat cockpit is best placed - centre or aft?



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