Cruising under sail and oars can be an odd combination of casual relaxation and nonstop intensity. It means uninterrupted time on the water, to be sure—and intimacy with nature and the elements. But the imperative of covering miles to make it to the next safe anchorage, or home, can sometimes involve a relentless focus that can be mentally exhausting. Getting a good night’s sleep is imperative.
Sleeping well on board starts with choosing an anchorage wisely, setting a heavy anchor on an appropriate rode, and getting settled early enough to eat well, get organized, and enjoy the evening light. In addition, having a comfortable place to bed down makes all the difference in facing the next day, especially in less-than-sterling weather. I had been sleeping on the floorboards of my 18′ No Mans Land boat, which worked well enough. But my feet were captive under the after thwart, and the space between the centerboard trunk and the side seats was, admittedly, a bit tight. Plus, the floorboards could be damp, or downright wet, from the day’s rain or spray.
It all seemed acceptable enough, though, and I didn’t give my sleeping arrangements much more thought—at least not until I happened to be in Portsmouth, England, during a voyage and went to see HMS VICTORY. There, in the admiral’s cabin, was a sort of plank-bottomed, canvas-sided box slung from the beams overhead. Though not original, this reproduction of Horatio Nelson’s hammock, down to the froufrou embroidery done by his mistress, seemed more than a bit “precious” to me. Nevertheless, the idea was interesting enough to remember.
It came back to me on a solo cruise, during a driving night rain. I had jury-rigged a tent out of my mainsail—a bad idea, since the Tom Sawyer approach is often lacking, and cheating nature is a losing proposition. As soon as the reefpoints started dripping rather liberally, I threw my gear on top of the oars on the other side, which was drier because the sail was doubled there. I perched my sleeping bag on top of it all—and I distinctly recall muttering, among other expressions, that this just wasn’t any fun. Right then, I vowed to come up with a better tent, which I’ve done. In that moment, I had time to think more about Nelson’s hammock. I also fondly remembered the security and comfort provided aboard racing yachts by lee cloths, those simple canvas panels held vertical by lines to overhead deckbeams to prevent off-watch sailors from being thrown from their berths during a change of tack. When I got back home, I made the simple canvas bunk that I designed in my head that night.
This bunk, designed around a standard camping pad, is made of readily available synthetic canvas. The bottom has five 1-1/8″ x 5/8″ wooden slats slipped into sleeves. I made the sides about 6″ high. The ends are generously peaked, each supported by an additional 3/4″ x 3/8″ slat. The whole thing rolls out on top of two oars, laid on top of the thwarts. (Aware that this “traps” the oars, I always keep a good-sized paddle forward in case I need to maneuver at night.) Lines from grommets in the end panels and sides extend up to the spar-and-sail bundle that I sling between the masts to serve as a ridgepole for my tent.
The first attempt didn’t work well. I made the slats a bit too thick, thinking they would need to withstand point loading. But with the standard foam pad slipped into the bunk, I couldn’t get my hip and shoulder to find comfortable spots between the slats. I considered adding more slats to spread the load, maybe making them thinner to avoid too much bulk to stow. But at an outdoor store I found an insulated air sleeping pad that has a built-in pump operated by hand pressure to blow it up to about 3″ thick—much thicker than my earlier-generation one. This was perfectly comfortable, plus the air pad packs in less than half of the volume of my old foam pad, and less volume in stowage is always a real benefit aboard a small boat.
The bunk, with all of its associated gear, fits into a large dry bag along with my tent and mosquito netting, and takes just a few minutes to set up. There’s ample room underneath to stow things I won’t need for the night, keeping them from getting underfoot. I am the admiral of nothing and have no embroidering mistress, but with the boat well anchored down and a good book at hand, I can look forward to a fine night’s rest and to arising refreshed at the next day’s dawn, ready for more sailing and whatever the day might bring.
Tom Jackson is the senior editor of WoodenBoat.
You can find a picture of Nelson’s bed on the HMS VICTORY web site at the bottom of the page.
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