Improving Your Boat's Companionway

Portions of this article first appeared in Cruising World Magazine

AtomBars_2

Companionway bars keep intruders out while letting air in

AtomBars_3

Detail of companionway bars in open position

AtomBars_4

Companionway bars folded ready for storage

AtomHatch_7

View from inside with bars in place

AtomDodger_1

Looking forward with dodger sealed by boltrope in aluminum extrusion

AtomDodger_2

Discontinuous handrails keep forward dodger edge well sealed

AtomHatch_1

Boltrope extrusion is screwed down to sea hood and teak trim

AtomHatch_2

AtomHatch_3

There is a teak center drop board as well as this one in acrylic

AtomHatch_4

Companionway screen

AtomHatch_5

Elastic strap holds drop boards in place. Note handrails on each side

AtomHatch_6

The standard companionway on most small cruising sailboats is a design compromise best suited for boats kept in marinas and used for daysailing in protected waters. For extended offshore cruising, my list of essential companionway features include: the drop boards and hatch itself made as watertight as possible, good visibility out through the closed companionway while sailing as well as privacy when in a marina, a well sealed dodger, ample ventilation when needed, screened to keep out insects, sturdy locking mechanisms, and a convenient way to secure the drop boards at sea when the hatch top is open. Fortunately, most any companionway can be modified to meet these needs.

The common companionway system, which has a sliding top hatch with either hinged doors or drop boards that drop into wood or aluminum tracks, is notoriously difficult to make leak-proof. Ive seen home-built flat-decked sailboats that eliminated the sliding hatch for a gasketed hinged hatch that, although being more awkward to climb in and out of, is strong and absolutely watertight. At the other end of the spectrum are companionway entrances that extend nearly to the cockpit floor. These are convenient to step through and provide excellent ventilation, but can quickly flood the cabin in storm conditions or when cockpit drains become plugged. When I delivered a small boat with this type hatch, before heading offshore, I inserted the lower drop board and ran a bead of silicone sealant around the outside edge to seal it for the duration of the passage.

Improving the companionway system begins with installing a canvas dodger on a folding stainless steel tube frame. To protect against waves rolling over the deck, dodgers for offshore do not merely snap in place. They should be sealed along their lower forward edge using a sewn-in bolt rope that slides into a curved or segmented track mounted on the deck cabin top. A hatch cover, or seahood, installed under this track is essential when beating into large seas to prevent water flowing under the sliding hatch and into the cabin. Although the dodger must be low enough to clear the boom when sheeted in, it should be high enough to minimize contortions needed to enter the boat, and have large window panels for visibility. The dodger design should also present low windage and for aesthetics at least, try to avoid a front panel that is nearly vertical. I favor a folding canvas dodger over a permanent hard dodger on small boats because in port or during calm weather the dodger can be folded down to allow unimpeded access, ventilation and visibility. Shade and rain protection in port is better handled with a large awning than a dodger, unless high winds are expected. A clear, removable roll-down flap on the aft end of the dodger prevents rain or spray coming below when the companionway drop boards are out or the hatch slid open to provide ventilation.

If you lack a proper dodger, there are other ways to minimize leaks around the companionway. On my 28-foot Pearson Triton, Atom, I added pieces of teak that fit close along the outsides of the hatch top and along the vertical wood frame of the drop board tracks to serve as additional drainage channels and baffles that break up the force of waves sweeping in behind the dodger before they pour through the tracks and into the cabin. I also extended the aft lip of the hatch top another inch to further overhang the companionway entrance to reduce drips inside. If the hatch does not slide easily, adding a handrail on the aft end of the hatch top makes it easier to close.

A barrel bolt or similar latch installed inside the hatch frame prevents the hatch from accidentally sliding open at sea. Make sure the bolt is vertical and cannot slide shut accidentally and lock you outside which has happened to more than one sad sailor. When no one is inside the boat to lock or unlock the bolt for the on-deck crew, you may be tempted to use your key lock to secure the hatch from outside, but make sure you have a spare key hidden in a secure place outside or youll find being locked out at sea is infinitely worse than dropping your keys overboard at the marina.It would be better to install another barrel bolt on the outside of the hatch for this situation, provided you have an emergency egress point at the forward hatch.

When the hatch is open at sea, any number of the drop boards can be secured in position by an elastic strap hooked into an eyebolt inside under the bridge deck with the other end of the strap hooked over the uppermost board. One set of drop boards should be clear acrylic (plexiglas) or polycarbonate sheet (lexan). Aboard Atom, I use solid teak drop boards for privacy and have an extra center board of clear acrylic for visibility out through the closed hatch at sea. I prefer the options of teak and clear drop boards to having one set of dark tinted acrylic boards which lack privacy with cabin lights on at night and reduce visibility out during darkness.

Even in protected waters it may be wise to secure the lower one or two drop boards to prevent them from falling out during an unexpected knock-down. This nearly happened to me when tacking into an anchorage in Hong Kong under full main and genoa on a blustery early spring day. Close under the mountain the winds were light to nonexistent with occasional strong gusts funneling down the steep hillside. As we worked our way in during a calm spell, I went forward to prepare the anchor when a blast of wind rolled down the mountain and hit us at such an angle that, even with the boat heeled beyond 45 degrees, the wind did not spill from the sails. Instead, we heeled over further until half the lee deck was underwater, including the cockpit within inches of the companionway sill. By the time my friend recovered from the shock, let go the tiller and reached underwater to release the sheets from their cleats, a couple gallons of sea water had sloshed below through the companionway. We just crossed 600 miles of the South China Sea without mishap and then got clobbered when we let our guard down in the harbor.

A watertight companionway, good security, and ample ventilation are nearly impossible to achieve with a single system. This point was brought home to me when a close friend had a tragic experience while anchored in a harbor in northeast Madagascar. On a hot windless evening, he went to sleep and, as we all sometimes do, left his companionway and hatches open for ventilation. After midnight he awoke to see three men with knives standing over him next to his bunk. Although he offered no resistance, he was stabbed, tied up and tossed on the floor while the men stripped his boat of everything they could carry. Thankfully, he recovered from his wounds and the police later caught the men and returned some of his belongings. This experience wouldnt have happened if he had some way of securing his hatches without suffocating from the heat.

The problem is that most boats have solid companionway drop boards that restrict air movement when the boat is locked up. If you have a screened board, its easy for an intruder to knock it out. Another common setup is to have angled slots or holes in the boards. Unfortunately, even with dorades and solar vents, often there isnt enough air flow to sleep comfortably through a hot night. When a boat is unattended, hatches are usually kept closed in case of rain. In the summer or in the tropics, particularly for a boat in storage, everything inside grows moldy from the heat and humidity.

After my friend was attacked, he decided to adopt my tactic for hatch security. Whether Im sleeping aboard or off the boat for the day, I lock the companionway with a set of bars made from stainless steel rod that slip into the tracks in place of the drop boards. When Im outside, they secure with a padlock that fits into a flanged stainless steel U-channel bracket recessed into the sliding hatch. This same bracket also takes the vertical bolt from my teak drop board lock assembly. When inside, I drop the bars in, slide the hatch shut and secure it with a vertical barrel bolt at the forward inside end of the hatch.

The bars were made of 3/8-inch (10mm) solid round rod by a metal fabrication shop according to my dimensioned sketch. They are constructed in two pieces connected by two rings to fold for storage and to permit insertion or removal when the dodger is up. A similar one-piece bar locks into the inside of the forward hatch frame. Air can then move freely, while security is maintained. Steel bars wont do much good if they are only held in place by a flimsy strip of wood that can be broken off with any small tool. I strengthened this area by installing stainless-steel U-channels into the frame sides. The bars and boards now slide into an unbreakable frame. On some boats I have installed 1/8"x1 1/2" or 1 1/4" stainless angle bar as the drop board channel as it's easier to source than a custom fabricated U-channel.

The 1 1/4" angle bar can be cut down on one side to 3/4" to accommodate your drop board thickness.

To keep out smaller creatures, namely insects, I epoxy-glued a strip of Velcro around the entire inside perimeter of both hatches, cut nylon screens to match, and sewed the opposite strips of Velcro onto them. Forget using contact cement or other one-part glues that wont stay up longer than one season before peeling off at the edges. MarineTex epoxy works well for this job. Besides keeping mosquitoes out while you sleep, the screens prevent bees or other nesting insects from building a home inside your boat while in storage. It can be awkward to seal the velcro screens in place from outside, particularly if you don't leave some slack in the screen when cutting it to size. You may find it easier in this case to make a screen to toss over the outside of the hatch with small lead fishing weights sewn in the perimeter of the hem to keep it in place. These also work well to place over other open hatches. Standard mozzie screen allows plenty of air flow compared to the tight weave of no-see-um screen, but is too large to keep out the sand gnats found in many areas, so you may want to make two sets of screens for maximum comfort.

Other improvements to our companionway included installing teak hand rails inside on both sides and removing the companionway ladder. Without the ladder, we could extend the counter forward to serve as top step, thereby reducing clutter, gaining counter space and increasing locker storage.