Sunday, June 26, 2011

Seating Positions in Cruising Dinghies

I'm now nearly 57 years old, and for most of my life I've been sailing small cruising and racing dinghies.

As far as I'm concerned, there are only two places to sit - either on the bottom of the boat with one's weight in the turn of bilge, or on the gunwale/side decks to work the boat in heavier conditions. I love the inside position, as the side-deck carlins support the back and shoulder blades nicely, the view is unobstructed by the sails, and there is an enhanced sense of speed due to having sight lines which are closer to the surface of the water.

You may have seen this photo before, but it shows two of my sons and me at the end of a nice afternoon sail on Moreton Bay. Conditions outside had been quite lively, but the only person who had to change sides was the skipper.

The above photo shows the relaxed position, and the one below shows the only other position I think worth considering.
That is me, enjoying a gentle afternoon sail in my wooden International Finn.  This particular boat was built for the 1956 Olympic Games. In a Finn you need to be hiking out in just about any wind.
Despite what I've just said, there is still a strong demand for side seats from people who enquire about my dinghy plans. On paper these side seats appear to be very comfortable and convenient, but in my experience they rob the interior of the boat of room to move, and the seating position is neither one thing nor the other. The crew end up too high to see under the sails, are too high to receive meaningful back support, and are too low to be able to hike out. Other than when hiking out on the rail, the turn of bilge sitting position provides the best live ballast location, and provides protection from the elements.

Ok! You now know where I think people should sit, but the fact is that many crew members like the idea of side seats. In order to give the option of side seating without ruining the boat, I have come up with an idea which provides removable side seating, and also solves one of the major problems when beachcruising in a small boat, which is where to sleep out of bilge water, with room to store gear.

The concept works on both my Phoenix III and First Mate designs, but is adaptable to many others. Paul Hernes, who built the first Phoenix III thought it worth a try, and here are some pictures.
This is Phoenix III showing the main thwart in the foreground and the stern sheets (aft thwart) in the middle distance. The aft edge of the main thwart and the forward edge of the stern sheets are parallel and at a similar level.
This is First Mate under construction. You can see the same arrangement of main thwart and stern sheets as in Phoenix III.  In fact both boats have identical internal arrangements - just the hull construction (and therefore, shape) are different. 
My proposed method involved gluing and screwing some 3/4" x 3/4" (19mm x 19mm) wooden cleats to the aft face of the main thwart, and to the forward face of the stern sheets, and dropping a pair of removable side seats onto those cleats. Easy to remove if required, and they can then be stored upright against the side of the centreboard case, taking up very little room. Better still, remove them altogether and leave them at home.....
This is Paul's Phoenix III with a nice set of side seats installed.
Another view. The cleats are hidden under the ends of the seats.
Now for the important part. My idea had been that the side seats could be slid into the centre of the boat, giving a sleeping platform which is up out of the bilge water, with stowage space underneath. After a night's sleep, the bunk flat turns back into side seats, or better still, gets removed and stowed alongside the centreboard case. The length for sleeping is the total of the width of the main thwart, the width of the stern sheets, and the length of the side seats - this turns out to be adequate for most normal-sized humans in these small boats, and the sleeping width is the accepted standard of 22 inches.
Paul's Phoenix III with the seats arranged for sleeping. The system works very well indeed.
So there you go, folks - multi-tasking!


  1. Having sailed in a few small boats myself, I concur very strongly with Ross regarding side benches. If the seaway gets a bit active, they get in the way very quickly. If one really MUST have them, they should always be removable, but latched down with buttons so they don't come loose when things get really rough, as sooner or later they will if you sail much.

    As for me, same as Ross; sitting low in the bottom of the boat with back against the coaming, or sitting on the windward washboard (side deck) is the way to sail a small boat.

    For sleeping with a decent amount of dry, level room in a small open boat, one you won't roll off of, why not build in a pair of risers just above the height of the thwart and the sternsheets, with buttons on the backside of each, facing outward to the hull's planking? Then when you want to sleep aboard, you unroll your strong canvas trampoline, slip its grommets over the buttons, stretching it between the risers, and sleep on that up out of bilgewater and high enough above the thwart and sternsheets to avoid hard corners in your back. On some boats that might create a space wide enough for two to sleep.

    No need for the obstruction of side benches at all, and the risers, if made a bit wide in their vertical plane and thought out carefully, notched into half frames, should make a good backrest supplementing the coaming or washboard carlin each side. Adds a bit of weight, but I'll wager that it'll be a lot less than the side benches, with no obstruction of internal space and no loose hunks of wood coming loose on you at the worst possible time.

  2. Forgot to mention that the risers are handy for lashing down your oars and fishing poles, and a handy place to tie on your bumpers when you have to tie up next to another boat or a dock. You'll think of other uses.

  3. Ross,

    I really enjoy this blog, and especially appreciate the post on this topic. I am planning on building a 15' sailing dinghy soon, and I have been also considering seating. My limited sailing experience only includes the Optimist pram, Sunfish and Hobbie cat.

    I was not very fond of the pram precisely because the only place to sit was on the bottom of the boat. Constantly sitting in water was not very pleasant. While I can appreciate all your points regarding seating, what can you offer regarding the wet butt problem?

  4. Scott, Thanks for the comment. The obvious solution to the wet-butt problem is to have floor-boards on the bottom of the boat. However, a friend of mine, Doug Laver (ex-Army Engineer) made up some moveable seat-sized floor-board panels which sat on the bottom of the boat and were angled just right for comfortable seating. I'll try to dig out some photos and put up a post.

  5. As a keen canoe sailor, I can very easily relate to al being said here. Ballast in the belly of the boat works best!