If your boat lies unattended, even for a short time—be it in a marina, (in or out of the water), or on a mooring—it doesn't take long for it to become grubby, from bird droppings or wind blown dust. For all the many intricate and expensive devices available to deter birds and keep decks and cockpits clean, an awning is the simplest and most effective method. This is particularly true if you want to protect a large cockpit, a Bimini, or hatch.
I particularly wanted to cover the center cockpit and Bimini on my 45’ foot schooner, Britannia, to shield if from the Florida sun as much as anything. The enclosure leaked a little and I never met one which didn't, especially during some of the horrendous cloudbursts on summer afternoons in The Sunshine State.
Of course, it's always possible to have an awning custom made, at any canvas or sail makers loft—for a price—and considerably more than the one I concocted.
The simplest and easiest way to create an awning is to buy a cheap plastic “tarp” from your local DIY store, drape it over a boom and attach it to the rails with bungee shock-cord, to basically form a simple tent or lean-to. The main boom on Britannia passes straight over the cockpit, so making a tent was easy. Most tarps have eyelets every 18” inches or so all round, so threading bungee shock-cord through and hooking the other end to the rail was simplicity itself.
However, as might be expected, such a simple solution has its inadequacies: First, you can only cover the area where there is a support boom. Second, if you anchor the sides down to a rail it can become a bit of a scramble to edge along the side decks. Third, the tarp will probably rub against the sides of the Bimini, which can cause chafe to both materials in high winds. The forth shortfall tarp tent looks cheap—mainly because it is! What do you expect for under fifty dollars?
Canvas awnings can also be stretched between two poles attached to masts or rigging. They flap about alarmingly in even a slight breeze so sometimes they are attached with Bungee shock cord down to the rails. Water can also collect in a flat cover and become very heavy.
I wondered how to overcome all these shortcoming and make an awning that was both more effective and looked more professional.
An idea sprung from seeing covered wagons in an old Wild West movie and I decided to try to make a curved cover like those wagons. Such an arrangement might also hold the tarp clear of the Bimini and allow air to pass between. It should also offer more headroom along the side decks ands overcome the access problem.
I bought a 12’ x 16’ foot tarp from my local hardware store, which nicely fitted my main boom length of 16’ feet and the boats beam at that point of 13’ feet, tapering down to 10’ feet towards the stern. As an added benefit the awning also extended over the aft hatch. Tarps are available in many different sizes and colors, so it should not be difficult to find or tailor one to suit almost any boat.
I then needed three curved support bars. I found these at tent pole technologies, who sell demountable poles (www.tentpoletechnologies.com). These types of poles are in 21” inch sections which slot into each other, so they are easy to stow when the awning is not in use. I bought three aluminum sections of different lengths to fit well clear of the main boom. I then fastened three short lengths of 1/2” inch pipe to the stanchions each side of the boat using hose clips, after first taping the stanchions to prevent scratching by the clips. The awning rods easily curved over the boom and into these sockets, forming three perfect arches.
After dragging the tarp over the boom I used cable ties to strap it securely to the rods, through the eyelets in the front and back of the tarp. I then used 1/4” inch line to secure the awning round the mast and a cable tie at the rear to fasten it to the end of the boom. I could only fasten the center support rod at the edges of the tarp, but it has stayed in place so far in all winds.
I then bought ten 3’ foot lengths of bungee shock cord, (blue color to match the rest of the boat), with per-made hooks on each end to anchor the tarp to the side lifelines and the front and rear rods. All that was needed to attach the cord to the tarp was to cut the hook of one end, then thread it through an eyelet in the tarp and tie a single overhand knot to stop it slipping out.. The central arch not only supported the middle of the long tarp, but it provided more room to get under the awning and made it look neater. Shorter awnings than Britannia’s might not need a center support This completed what is really a simple structure,
Dismantling the awning when we wanted to go sailing actually proved to be quite simple, and my wife and I soon became proficient. Leaving the two center fastenings front and back still attached, the shock-cord is unclipped and the rods removed from their sockets. The rods are pulled out fhen unscrewed, and one side of the awning folded over the other while still attached to the boom at both ends. Depending which way the wind is blowing (to make it easier), we then remove either the front or rear center attachment and the awning can be tightly rolled up along with the rods. I tie the rolled up tarp to the lower lifelines on my boat, where it is out of the way, again using bungee shock-cord.
Like I said, keep in mind my title, because this inexpensive awning effectively protects Britannia’s canvas Bimini from the fierce Florida sun as well as any expensive custom made cover. Temperatures in the cockpit are also significantly lower than when the awning is not fitted, and I can comfortably get along the side decks.
consider this to be more than enough reward for the financial outlay and small effort. I can even put up with the occasional remark that it “looks like a replica of a Conestoga wagon,” because envy is just another form of flattery...