When I first saw the Jimmy Skiff II (above) that I reviewed for this issue, I was pleased to see its interior equipped with an offset daggerboard trunk. In “Getting Out of Line,” I had mentioned my fondness for off-center trunks, and Bud McIntosh expressed a similar sentiment in How to Build a Wooden Boat: “The centerboard and its trunk take up room in the best part of the boat, and create an antisocial barrier in an otherwise friendly cabin.” I think he’d also agree that thwarts, as their very name suggests, create a barrier to an otherwise friendly cockpit. The Jimmy II’s removable slip thwarts, and the side benches that support them, are features I’ve found very well suited to rowing, sailing, and sleeping aboard.
My path to considering slip thwarts and side benches began with the Chamberlain gunning dory I built in 1980. In its 19′ length it has five thwarts, and three of them intersect the centerboard trunk and the mizzen partners, so getting from one end to the other at any speed rocks the boat and begs for barked shins.
I’ve spent just one night at anchor aboard that boat—long, uncomfortable, and sleepless hours waiting for daylight—plenty of time to let it sink in that the boat wasn’t at all suitable for cruising. While that boat pointed out the problems of a cluttered and unalterable interior, the 13′6″ sneakbox I built in 1985 provided some solutions. The seat for rowing was not a fixed thwart but a box that could be tucked under the deck at night to open up the cockpit for sleeping. Its daggerboard trunk was set 12″ to starboard and part of the coaming, leaving the center of the boat free.
In 2005, when I built a Caledonia yawl for camp-cruising with my two kids, I kept the hull and sailing rig as designed but started from scratch for the interior arrangements. Applying the sneakbox’s lessons of asymmetry and adaptability, I moved the centerboard trunk 14″ to starboard. (Keeping its top at seat level and raising it bottom up the slope of the garboard diminished the depth of the trunk, so I made it longer to give the board the same area.)
The trunk led to wide side benches with parallel inboard edges, and those invited a modular system where slip thwarts and floorboards could rest anywhere on ledges to fill the gap between the benches.
The resulting width of the side benches brought some benefits I hadn’t anticipated. Standard benches are usually fairly narrow, and their curves parallel the contour of the hull. A 9”-wide side bench, like that in my 14’ Whitehall, is not much of a seat while at anchor, let alone when a boat is under sail. When the boat heels, the weather inwale angles into the small of your back and pries you off the bench. With a wide side bench you can lean against the inwale and still be well planted on the seat. In light air, the wide bench also allows you to shift your weight inboard in response to lulls in the wind. The inboard edge of a leeward wide bench, which is closer to the centerline than that of a narrow bench, can make a foot brace that’s better positioned to keep your weight on the high side.
Side benches also provide voluminous, out-of-the-way storage areas. The Jimmy II has watertight flotation or storage compartments; those in my Caledonia just have slatted tops and canvas-panel fronts, but they protect the dry bags and keep the hull’s sloped sides from funneling them into the middle of the boat, right where I need to put my feet.
My yawl has a bit of deadrise, so it needs floorboards to provide a flat surface to stand on. I made the floorboards as wide as the slip thwarts are long so they can also be set on the bench ledges to create a large sleeping platform. Some argue for sleeping in the bottom of the boat to get the best stability, but I’ve never had any issues with sleeping at bench or thwart level in any of my boats.
Other extensions of this “modular” approach made possible by galley-box benches supported by the ledges—right side up to cook, upside down and closed to be used as a thwart while under way—and a dining table created by setting a floorboard on a pair of slip thwarts set on edge.
When I decided to build a boat with accommodations for cruising in the off season (see “A San Juan Islands Solo“), I incorporated the the side-bench/slip-thwart concept in the cockpit and the cabin.
In 1927, the architect Le Corbusier wrote: “Une maison est une machine-à-habiter”—A house is a machine for living in. We inhabit our cruising boats, and they too should be machines designed for our living aboard them. A good measure of their performance is the ease with which we can use them. Your boat should adapt to you, not the other way around.