Shallow Draft Boat Tents
by Robert West
illustrations by Claire West
Small Boat Journal #44 September 1985

Much is said about the merits of small cruising boats — small cost, small upkeep, and small draft. However, little is said about the smallest item of all, living space. This can turn out to be the biggest problem in your cruising experience, and generally shows up on the first night of your first cruise. Only then do you face the reality of life crammed amongst two weeks of tangled supplies, cameras, books, clothes, and water. And wind. And rain. You and your mate better be very good friends at this point.

Fortunately, there can be much more living space, as we first learned in a West Wight Potter, and later, in a Dovekie. We tried simple boom tents, and found they offered basic protection, but were hardly satisfactory for really comfortable nights, or extended weather watching. With a little more work, you can make a larger tent that will increase the cruising range of your boat, both on land and on water, and be even more comfortable than many sailors in large craft. You might even be able to quell that urge to “trade up,” at least for awhile. Here are some things to consider:


A well-designed tent can be used on the boat on land (Fig. 1) as well as on the water. It’s a good way to reduce traveling expenses and meet interesting, if land-locked, people. We have enjoyed state campgrounds the best.

You might have to rearrange mast and boom storage to accommodate your tent. Sometimes, as in the Dovekie, the mast and boom are integral parts of the tent, ashore or afloat. In a cuddy-cabin boat, like the Potter, you can design special gallows to hold the boom in position, or provide a short mast substitute (Fig 2). Don’t be limited by your current road rig.

2. Setup Time

Your tent should set up fast - a couple of minutes is long enough. It shouldn’t be tricky or complicated. The fewer pieces of cloth and hardware needed, the easier the whole design works. One of our first tents took over 20 minutes to rig, had over 35 separate parts, and needed a checklist longer than the boat. And it took two of us to do it. Our most recent design takes one person less than two minutes to rig. That’s what you should aim for.

3. Room With a View

You are not making a portable cave. Visibility is not only entertaining, it is essential. Our first boom tent was windowless. Once we woke to the ominous sound of splashing water. After a frantic scramble to undo the tent, we found we had dragged our anchor and were nearly impaled on some sharp rocks. Better anchoring technique was our first revision; clear vinyl windows was our second. The view is nice, and it lessens the effects of cabin fever on rainy days. Try to have windows all around.

After windows, then screens. We found that separate windows and screens worked best (Figs. 1, 3, 4, 5). Inland or Ipswich, who needs mosquitoes or greenheads? Finally, sew some curtains and keep them out of the way with simple ties (Fig 4). And keep your lanterns low unless you want to provide the fleet with an interesting shadow show.

4. Keeping Dry

Fig 4. (click to enlarge)

Water must be given a way down, or it will find a way of its own, usually on your books, or camera, or into your sleeping bags - wherever it will cause the great consternation. Include a peak or high ridgepole, and arrange your seams to shed water rather than collect it (Fig.4) Use storm flaps (Figs. 1,3) for those compound curves and angles so common small boats. Also include half a dozen horse blanket pins for unexpected leaks and similar emergencies.

5. Entry and Exit

Can you get in and out in a hurry? Check out the differences between entry and exit on land and water. Land camping will also require leveling gear (We use polypropylene utility baskets and small lumber offcuts for shims.). Generally, you will have to unhitch your car. Don’t forget to carry wheel chocks (1/4 split logs great) and a cheap level to set up the rig so you aren’t rolling into the bilges or slowly working your way forward or aft through the night.

6. The Cooktent

If you plan to cook in your tent (where else?) make provisions to avoid tent burning, a potential hazard that could make any cruise more than memorable. We keep our stove in the bottom of the boat away from the tent wall. If your stove puts out a lot of heat, hanging deflector shields of do-it-yourself aluminum might be helpful.

7. Loose Parts

The most successfully designed tent will be in one piece, with no loose parts. If this is your first attempt, you will probably think of screws and nuts, even wingnuts for fasteners. Forget it. Why? Put your hands in the freezer for 10 minutes, then balance on the edge of your bathtub, on your knees, leaning out as far as you can, and try to fit part A (the screw) with part B (the nut), all the while imagining the tub lurching in all directions, in a driving rain, one half hour after sunset.

So how do you hold the whole apparatus together? The old fashioned way - with ties. Or you can use Velcro to get started, but the final security should be with reliable century-proven knots. Large separating plastic zippers are great fasteners, adding to the convenience and versatility of the tent (Figs. 1, 3 & 5).

Fig 5. (click to enlarge)

Tent poles should be aluminum, of the same length, with identical end fittings. Poles can be joined in the middle with a dowel fixed in one segment. Its exposed end should be heavily varnished for waterproofing and loosely fitted in the other pole. (A loose fit will prevent the two halves from becoming permanently joined when its rains.) Poles can be secured with compression cords made up of line and bungees (see SBJ#41).

Decide where and how you will hang lanterns. Again, watch the heat. Some lanterns have built-in deflectors; some do not. Look for the simplest solution to whatever problem you have. If the answer comes very quickly, be suspicious of it. If the answer is too complicated, start over. Play What If? What if I drop that piece over the side? What if it is wet, will it come apart? Will it go together? What if I have to take it down, or put it up alone? Although your final structure may be as sound as the dollar in West Germany, there might be a time before all is done that it’s very tender. Can parts be blown over the side? How will those yards of cloth handle in the wind?

8. Does It Fit...People?

So far we’ve only been talking about how the tent fits the boat. It must fit you, too. Poles intruding on what little space you have, lines running wild through living spaces are not useful by any stretch of the imagination. You want clear room wide open spaces.

In our Dovekie, we built for overhead clearance and rain pitch by using a “dolphin” ridge piece (Fig 5). The mouth of this 3/16-inch piece fits over the permanent boom gallows. A hole in the lower rear part of the dolphin accommodates a 3/4-inch aluminum tube, which spans and rests on top of the boom and mast. This arrangement supports the tent with no center poles or lines encroaching on the living quarters. The aluminum pole slips out of the Dolphin, and both store flat against a locker.

On cuddy cabin boats, you might consider using large sail battens as crosswise inner tent bows. They are flexible and store flat. You should use pockets and ties to keep them in place, similar to those shown on the West Wight Potter tent de- scribed in SBJ#41.

We have seen much larger boats than ours with less living room than our tent provides. In fact, we are able to use the standard road tonneau cover to help form a two-room tent, at no extra cost (Fig. 6). This is not to suggest you plan for three rooms and a sauna, but the peculiar construction of your own boat may lend itself to unique solutions and directions you may not consider at first. Take your time and think things out.

Fig. 6 (click to enlarge)

9. Sewing

Can you sew it yourself? You need a machine, confidence, and a willing and patient helper who will gather, hold and feed shapeless gobs of material, vinyl, and screening. Just about any machine or stitch will do. We used a 36-year-old Singer and a straight stitch with a simple cap seam where we attached the vinyl and screening and a folded seam elsewhere (Fig 7). For truly inaccessible areas, fall back on a Speedy Stitcher or a palm and needle. This is especially handy to retrofit chafing gear, or in general repair work.

Our first two tents were of standard, sale-priced awning material. Cheap, but heavy. Our next tent was made from synthetic sail cover material, much lighter, much softer, much more expensive, and worth every penny. Don’t use material so waterproof that it will sweat.

10. Spare Parts and Repairs

For emergencies, wide duct tape, large safety pins (also called horse blanket pins), and a hank of 1/8-inch line are essential. Spare tent material and suitable chafing material will be handy sometime. A Speedy Stitcher, sewing palm, and needles should be included. Keep all the needles wiped with Vaseline and in a separate container, perhaps a used pill bottle. A small lump of paraffin will help lubricate zippers. Cheap grommets will either rust or pull out. Get quality grommets from sail material suppliers.

11. Dry Runs

After you complete your tent, plan several sessions rigging and unrigging it in your driveway. Do it in the wind and rain, going up, and coming down. Amuse the neighbors by settling in for a night, and work the tent. Do all this well before a trip to give yourself time to make and test changes. This should also familiarize you with the road rig, getting your shims, boarding stools, and wheel chocks together. Play What If? with your leveling routines. This dry tenting will save you a lot of headaches later.

12. One More Time

This is not a circus tent designed to amuse onlookers. Keep it simple. Play What If? as you design it. Measure three times (in place, on the boat), cut once. Have no loose parts, if possible. Use it ashore and afloat. Plan for a fast set- up and tear down, by one person. Arrange for a view, keep out bugs, and stay dry. Do all this, and you’ll cruise with the comfort of 40-footers in waters they can only dream about.