By: Heather Francis
Besides a stiff upper lip, what makes sailing a little more comfortable, rain or shine? The exterior canvas. Providing much-needed shade from the fierce midday sun, a place to hide behind when the wind pipes up and something to crowd beneath when it starts to rain, the exterior canvas on a boat cannot be overlooked. Over the last 10 years I have replaced ours twice with the help of my Ultrafeed LSZ-1, each time tweaking the design to take advantage of all that canvas offers to a boater.
The first time I replaced the dodger and bimini was shortly after we purchased the boat. The canvas we inherited was not only powder blue and clashed with the newly painted green topsides, but it was also well past its prime. I estimated and ordered the new Forest Green Sunbrella for the project but it wasn’t something that we needed to finish to set sail, so it got shuttled down the to-do list for an entire year.
By the time I was ready to start sewing I knew what I did and did not like about the design. For instance, we had unzipped the middle section of the dodger only once in those 12 months, but constantly complained that the vertical frame the zippers were sewn into blocked our line of sight. We never used the overhead windows in the removable midsection because we always took the midsection down underway. When the old canvas finally ripped I knew exactly what I wanted to change to make it more functional for us.
Several years later, we changed the design of our bimini to incorporate a place to mount our solar panels, wind generator and radar. Now larger and flatter, the bimini was much more efficient at collecting rain water. Resources like water are as precious as gold on board, so it was a no brainer to incorporate ways to funnel it off the bimini and into the tanks. By adding some easy to install, large snap together grommets and tie downs at the lowest corner, I created a natural path for the water to follow. Collecting it was as simple as putting a bucket underneath the steady stream that flowed.
Having then spent 5 years sailing in the tropics, I also knew how much a bit of shade cooled both us and the decks. Using a light weight shade cloth I sewed panels that could be moved around the cockpit to provide sun protection. A few well-placed zippers made it possible to quickly add and remove these large sections on the front, back and side of the permanent canvas, giving us maximum shade protection anytime of day at anchor but without added windage if we needed to use them underway.
Although fabrics like Sunbrella are designed to withstand the elements, they don’t last if they are not taken care of. Unfinished edges will fray quickly when left flapping in the breeze. An easy way to prevent fraying is to cut Sunbrella fabric with a hot knife rather than a pair of scissors, sealing and finishing the edges while you work.
My most frequent problem with the exterior canvas on board our boat is that the thread becomes fragile and seams suddenly give way. To extend the life of the seams I always use the recommended UV stable polyester thread. I also do regular inspections of all the exterior canvas and take down and resew any seams that appear ready to split.
I thought creating a suite of custom exterior canvass would be difficult but with their extensive library of free DIY videos I was able to see how to do things like install zippers and properly sewing in windows. For the past 10 years my Sailrite sewing machine has made sewing through heavy fabrics a breeze. Now, if only it could make finding wind while becalmed just as easy.
BIO- Heather Francis is originally from Nova Scotia, Canada. For over a decade she has travelled the world living and working on boats. In 2008 she and her Aussie partner Steve bought their Newport 41’, Kate, in California and have been sailing her full-time since. They are currently looking for wind in the Philippines, you can follow their adventures at www.yachtkate.com