Since the advent of the Global Positioning System of navigation (GPS), I have not found much use for the chart table on my brigantine schooner Britannia. Most of our passage-making navigation is done on the Raymarine multi-function display on the helm pod, then transferred to a paper chart on the saloon table roughly every hour. The chart table was only used to store things which didn’t have a permanent home and as a desk for my laptop.
Considering that the chart table and seat took up over forty percent of the length of the port side saloon it was not a very efficient utilization of space. The layout also left a lot to be desired. The gap between the edge of the table and companionway ladder was a narrow ten inches, and squeezing into the seat frequently resulted in accidentally tripping contact breakers on the master power distribution panel at the side of the table. The chart table and seat was 9” inches higher than the remainder of the saloon—for only one reason I could think of—so anyone sitting there could look out the windows. The half bulkhead also impeded sliding in and out of the seats when the saloon table was up. It had to go!
I am a sailing traditionalist wouldn’t have built a square rigged schooner if I wasn’t. However, advancements in equipment, particularly electrical and navigational devices should cause us to re-think some of the more traditional methods and layouts—like chart tables. Our trusty sextant served us well on past ocean passages, but now hangs in its teak box on the saloon wall, an enchantment of bygone days.
I thought about extending the saloon seating into the corner, where it would have made a lovely snug spot in a seaway. However, not having a chart table at all might be a drawback if I eventually decide to sell.
I found an ornate secretary's desk, (bureau), in one of the antique malls around Orlando, Florida, where I live. It has a hinged drop-down lid with drawers and compartments inside and four large drawers below, which adds nicely to our storage. With the lid open it was nearly the same size as the chart table and would easily fit in the existing space. Unfortunately it was stained a horrible brown/black color and I wasn't quite sure what type of wood it was made of, but I took a chance and bought it for $214.00.
An important measurement was the companionway which the desk had to go through with a maximum diagonal opening of 32” inches. The bureau was 31” inches wide. Before I could install the desk, the complete chart table and seat moulding had to be removed. This was complicated by the location of the master AC/DC power distribution panel.
DISMANTLING THE CHART TABLE AND MOULDING.
I knew this would be a tough job, because in places the moulding was a sandwich of 3/4” inch marine plywood plus two layers of fiberglass, all heavily bonded to the side of the hull. I christened it “Stonehenge” because the manufacturers clearly never meant it to be removed or to fall over! It certainly was well made, but a pity it was so “big” and un-ergonomic. I think the Druids of Stonehenge could have actually designed it better!
Before starting to dismantle this edifice, everything loose was removed from the saloon and galley and things which could not be moved covered with cloths. I knew what was about to happen.
Unscrewing the teak chart table was easy enough, it was just sitting on top of the moulding—except it was so heavy two people had to lift it of the boat. The instruments at the side of the table also came out, along with the two small drawers and the cupboard and all the teak fiddles.
I then set about sawing the fiberglass support structure into small enough pieces to pass through the companionway. I used a combination of circular saw, reciprocating saw and oscillating cutter—along with a big hammer and pry bar! It was hard going, with fiberglass dust all over the place. I tried to minimize this by positioning my shop-vac nozzle near the cutting edges of the saws. All together, including the chart table the pieces weighed 200 lbs!
Next I attacked the half bulkhead which no longer needed to be so high. This was two ply bulkheads thick, totaling 1½” inches of plywood and fiberglass. I carefully removed the teak edging trim, reshaped the panels and then refitted the trim to form an arm rest.
Unfortunately, the builders had not extended the teak and holly cabin sole under the chart table, as they had on other parts of the boat. It was just raw plywood, under which were the conglomeration of wires leading to the electrical panel. I cut the floor completely out and after rerouting the wires I made a new floor with 3/4” plywood, including a hatch to give easy access to the three sea-cocks and filters below.
During all this I needed to keep the boats electrics running, particularly the air conditioning, so I had to be very careful not to cut through any wires.
I soaked my aching back in Britannia’s hot tub every evening.
With Stonehenge fully excavated I now had a large open space to play with.
The first thing to relocate was the electrical panel which was a spaghetti maze of wires, bus-bars, connectors and relays, some original (circa 1977), some I installed when I fitted new equipment. The whole conglomeration could only be described as a wiring nightmare which had needed sorting out for a long time. Some wires went to devices not in the cockpit and some to the engine instruments mounted lower down on the pedestal.
Rewiring the panel, with its hodgepodge of wires could easily turn into a real nightmare if I got them muddled up. It is at moments like this my wife always reminds me of the timeless boaters adage: “If it ain’t broke, it will be when I fix it.” Actually that really needed tattooing on my right arm, so I could contemplate it before I started complicated projects like this.
I planned to reposition the panel higher up in the corner where the breakers could no longer be accidentally tripped. For this I built a teak framework under the curve of the deck then used an old louvered door to give access to the wires leading to the panel above. I fitted a piece of 1/2” plywood below the panel to carry the four generator and water tanks gages.
There are different ways to re-wire an old boat. You can buy individual lengths of wire, or you can convert to a NMEA (National Marine Electronics Association), networking system. This interconnects nearly everything and can be read on a multi-function display screen, including engine instruments. You can even convert to Wifi wireless and have hardly any wires at all. These last two options were well outside my budget for this project.
I decided to use regular wire, but instead of buying individual lengths I bought a twenty foot length of multi-conductor cable containing 20 wires of 14 AWG. (American wire gauge). These are all in different colors and very much cheaper than buying individual wires.
However, a problem can occur when using multi-conductor covered wire—wires can become hot, even with just 12 volts. So I completely stripped off the outer rubber casing using a sharp knife and peeled it away from the wires, along with the two inner string cords. Individual wires are now less susceptible to overheating and easier to pull through holes and curves. Also I could pull a few strands out of the cluster, which went to places other than the electrical master panel.
I drilled a hole in the cockpit sole and wound the wires all the way to the back of the electrical panel, supporting them as necessary. I enclosed all the wires coming out of the pod in a nice plastic split wire casing, just to keep them tidy down the side of the pedestal.
I disconnected the AC and DC power to the panel and supported it so I could work on the back. For temporary lighting and power I used an extension cord direct from the marina dock. As each wire was replaced I switched the power back on to check if the equipment still worked. It was a slow, tedious, and at times quite a strenuous process—reaching behind panels and pulling the old wires out. I also used an awful lot of crimp connectors.
On the 120 Volt AC side the heavy duty cables leading from the two ship/shore power plugs were long enough to reach the repositioned panel and thankfully did not need extending, just sorting out from the tangle in which they had been installed.
It took four weeks to completely re-wire the panel, then transfer it to the framework I had built next to where the new desk was to fit.
A dedicated engine start battery which had sat under the seat of the original layout needed relocating. I built a shelf under the new floor and fastened a battery box to it. This was now easily accessed through the hatch in the new floor.
I was actually quite amazed that everything continued to work as before, and for once I proved the old adage wrong. I didn’t actually need that tattoo, just to remember to work carefully and methodically.
A NICE NEW DESK.
During breaks between all this dismantling and re-wiring I found time to renovate the bureau desk in my garage. The moment I put my sander to it I knew I had a gem—it was real wood with a beautiful Walnut veneer! It was therefore a pleasure to strip all the stain, clean the veneer and re-varnish it.
I even found some ornate brass drawer handles on the web to replace the horrible black painted handles. They were only $2.02 each and look superb on the curved Walnut drawers.
To fit my large screen laptop in the desk I had to remove the vertical dividers and mount the five small drawers at the top of the desk. With the flap open the table is almost the same size as the original, but when closed it takes up less than half the space. I in-filled between the ornate feet with a plywood plinth to stop things rolling under the desk.
I hoped my companionway measurements were accurate as my wife and I carefully manhandled the posh new desk down the deck and into the cockpit, trying not to scratch the newly varnished sides. On its side it slid through the opening with about 1/2” inch to spare. Whew! but an inch is as good as a fathom for a job like this. The desk then slid sideways neatly fitting under the curve of the deck.
I already had a comfortable folding deck chair which fitted perfectly and can be used at the dining table when needed. As an added touch I bought an antique looking 16th century globe drinks holder which fits nicely next to the bureau, secured in two teak collars in the floor.
It is now considerably easier and much more comfortable to sit at the desk, and the saloon appears much bigger. The electrical panel is easier to operate and not a single breaker has been accidentally tripped. It is now more akin to a neat little office than a navigation area.
Smaller boats might greatly increase living space by redesigning their chart table area. It just needs a bit of bold, out-of-square thinking. I even sold the old chart table, offsetting some of the cost.