During the times I have spent in nautical cockpits my mind has been most concerned with what would happen if a big wave came flooding over the stern and filled the cockpit. At times like this, in the middle of a dark night, I try to calculate mentally how quickly the water would drain away through the patently inadequate drains provided by most boat builders. I never succeed in this calculation. Even if I remember that pi are squared and pressure is equal to something to do with height, minus friction in the drain pipes, I can never come up with a figure that is reassuring. It always takes too long for the cockpit to empty itself.
With a cockpit full of water, the boat will be trimmed way down by the stern, and succeeding waves will find it easier to roll on board and find their way down below, even if you have a nice strong bridge deck and sturdy companionway washboards.
I find myself wondering if the bilge pumps can cope with this sudden rush of water into the bilges, and trying to remember when last I cleaned the strainers. And so the watch passes in nervous contemplation until, at last, I am free to hand over the helm, take a large suck at the rum bottle and throw myself upon a warm bunk.
You might well ask why the cockpit is situated so far aft, in the position most vulnerable to large following swells. Well, it’s because that’s the place from which the person at the helm can get the best view of the sails. This is especially true for small boats, although some bigger boats can accommodate center cockpits that are less likely to be flooded.
One of the great authorities on ocean cruising, Eric Hiscock, said it was debatable whether the cockpit should be made self-draining. I would have thought this a no-brainer, but I have learned to be cautious about gainsaying the old-timers, and I’ve noticed that several well-known designs, such as the Nordic Folkboat, have cockpits that drain directly into the bilges. Their later fiberglass version, the International Folkboat, does have a self-draining cockpit, however.
Hiscock’s observation was that a self-draining cockpit in a small yacht would have to be so shallow, to keep it above normal water level, that the crew might washed out by a boarding wave. Obviously, the more freeboard your boat has, the deeper a self-draining cockpit can be, and the better the protection for the crew.
My own observation is that the cockpit drains are never big enough, and the seat-locker lids are never waterproof enough. Furthermore, luckily, the instances of sailboats being pooped are reassuringly rare.
Some people say that most of the water in a flooded cockpit would be flung out quickly by the violent motion of the boat. Hiscock was one of them. But I have my doubts. In any case, I don’t want to try it. I might get flung out with the bathwater.
Finally, I’d like to share something it took me many years to figure out, and that’s why the drains in most cockpits are situated at the forward end of the cockpit sole, not aft where it would seem to make more sense. It’s because when a boat sails at speed she raises a quarter-wave that rises aft, sometimes almost up to deck level. With the water level outside so high, the normal gravity drains would never work; in fact they might back-flood water into the cockpit. So yacht designers place the drains close to the forward edge of the cockpit where the water level outside is lower.
For various reasons, some boats never manage to empty the cockpit completely when they’re under way and heeled. Often, you’ll find them equipped with teak gratings to keep their owners’ tootsies dry, but if your boat doesn’t boast this deluxe feature I’d recommend a pair of rubber boots. As nautical couture goes, it’s not very haute, but it’s a lot cheaper than a teak grating.
In smooth water God help me; in rough water I will help myself.
— George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum
“This here plant belongs to the fuchsia family.”
“Uh-huh. You just looking after it while they’re away?”
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