Summer sun feels great but doesn’t do your skin any favors.
Cool things off with a sunshade.
What’s better on a sunny mid-summer day than catching a few rays in the cockpit, maybe while enjoying a cool libation? It’s what boating is all about—at least until the soothing sun of morning starts to crisp your skin in the afternoon. Then you need to move to the shade. And, as those of us who grew up in the years of SPF 0 can tell you, excess sun time while you’re young can put your dermatologist’s kids through college when you get older. So, keep cool and be sun-smart by shading your cockpit. It doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive.
The need for shade is no secret to boatbuilders: many include sunshades as options, and sometimes as standard equipment—but they often cover just the aft cockpit, even aboard boats with sumptuous lounging areas up forward. What about the folks up there? It’s a different challenge—the forward shade is usually longer, for a start, often too long to stretch all the way to the bow on an unsupported telescoping frame as is customary for the aft shade. But it’s an easy fix, one that most DIYers can accomplish with minimal heartache and basic skills. The investment will pay off down the road, if not in trade-in value, then in saved medical bills.
So, what are your options when it comes to rigging a shade? First, fanciest and most expensive is a horizontal U-shaped telescoping frame that mounts under a hardtop or T-top and slides out when needed, deploying sun-blocking fabric as it goes. When the shade is stowed, the fabric either accordion-folds or rolls up like an old-fashioned window shade, and the whole apparatus nestles comfortably out of the way. Most factory-installed shades are of this design, typically electrically powered, which adds push-button convenience, but also complexity and expense if you’re retro-fitting. I’d opt for manual operation for a DIY shade that extends 6 feet or less and save myself the trouble of running wires.
SureShade manufactures both electric and manual shades that can be mounted on a hardtop or T-top. Their largest models extend up to 10 feet, and according to the company, work for boats over 60 feet. BocaShade builds manually operated shades for boats up to around 35 feet. Ease of mounting, or lack thereof, depends on what you’re dealing with—whether clamping the shade to an aluminum T-top or bolting it onto a hardtop. The leverage of the deployed shade against its fastenings is substantial, so the mounting hardware must be substantial as well. You have to position the frame carefully to keep it square so it moves smoothly and the canvas stays centered over the cockpit. It’s easy to reposition a clamp, but not so easy to fill a hole drilled in error, so measure twice, drill once. If in doubt, pay the yard to do the job, especially if the shade’s electric.
Stretch It Out
If you’d rather avoid the complexity and expense of a telescoping shade, a removable pole-supported sunshade will do the trick. It’s simple, easy to install, quick to set up and strike, and easy to stow when not needed. This style shade is basically a flat piece of canvas suspended between secure mounting points on the hardtop and glorified tent poles inserted into rod holders at the far corners of the cockpit. One will work just as well over the forward cockpit as the aft and can be made as long as necessary to provide full shade. Building one isn’t rocket science; you’ll find a lot of how-to suggestions on YouTube, many based on two-by-fours, cheap tarps from Walmart, zip ties and mop handles repurposed as tent poles. If you want to look like you’ve just got yourself shipwrecked, these mashups probably work okay—but have some self-respect: Invest in a ready-made kit from a professional canvas shop. I like the one from Boat Canvas Factory in Pompano Beach, Florida.
Boat Canvas Factory owner Brian Crist builds his sunshade using two (four if the shade is long) 316-grade 1 1/4-inch stainless-steel poles that mount in rod holders installed at the far corners of the cockpit. The shade itself is custom-cut of lightweight Stamoid fabric that’s 100 percent UV-blocking. Why Stamoid and not Sunbrella or some other popular marine canvas? Stamoid comes in 102-inch widths, so the shade can be cut 8 feet wide with no seam, said Crist. (The widest Sunbrella fabric is 80 inches.) And it doesn’t have to be folded when you put it away: The Stamoid folks recommend just stuffing it into a bag, so the creases will distribute evenly over the fabric. Crist provides a stuff sack with the kit. Only thing, he says, is not to stow the shade wet, or you’ll get mold.
The shade is easy to install. Two stainless-steel quick-release clips mounted on the hardtop hold one edge of the shade; they’re fastened with just a couple of self-tapping screws. “Because they’re in sheer, there’s no need to through-bolt,” Crist said. He includes the correct drill bit with the installation kit. With one edge held by the clips, the fabric is stretched tight with braided polyester lines run through sailboat-style Ronstan pulleys on the poles and secured with clam cleats. Using a second pair of poles halfway along the shade allows for more coverage—the edges of the shade don’t have to be straight, but can follow the curve of the boat’s gunwales—and provide better support for larger shades or for running with the shade in place. Crist includes a custom-made padded bag for stowing the poles.
Only thing is, the poles need sturdy mounts to fit into, and chances are your boat won’t have them where they need to be. Crist recommends installing stainless steel Mate Series Combination Rod and Cup Holders, 15-degree angled. The cup-holder feature makes the Mates easy to install, since the section that’s through the deck is straight; you don’t have to cut the mounting hole at the proper angle, just drill straight down. Once the holder’s installed, you can rotate it to point in the right direction—much easier than installing a conventional angled rod holder. The Mate Series also come with a proper backing plate for the fastenings, rather than going with fender washers. The sunshade will put quite a strain on the holders, so you want them as securely fastened as possible. Mate Series rod holders cost about $120 each, so factor that into the cost of your sunshade. But they also hold drinks.
How About a Folder?
Finally, let’s not forget the time-tested Bimini-style folding top, a design that’s been preventing sunburn for generations. Depending on your boat’s layout and your tolerance for permanently mounted stainless bows that get in the way, it could be an option. I found a couple of Hinckley Picnic Boats with full Biminis completely covering their vast cockpits—the Bimini is sturdier and provides better protection than a telescoping shade. The supporting structure lets you leave the top unfolded all the time; running fast doesn’t bother it under normal conditions—you leave your flying-bridge Bimini up all the time, don’t you? Attaching the shade to the aft end of the pilothouse or hardtop makes it even more secure, and if you really want to go crazy, you can add side curtains for cold-weather boating.
On the downside, the Bimini option means one or sometimes two sets of bows that can get in the way whether the awning’s deployed or not—unacceptable for folks who like to fish, or who just like a clutter-free cockpit. Designing and building the top is a job for a pro, so it’s expensive, too. But it’s something to think about if you want maximum shade and the other options don’t light your fire.
Is It Worth It?
Sunshades work best when Old Sol is directly overhead and their shadow falls completely onto the cockpit. Most of the time that’s not the case, and a good part of the shade ends up on the gunwale, or overboard. The shade is more effective if it’s bigger in area and/or mounted lower. Both factors are constrained by the hardtop or T-top to which the shade is mounted. A telescoping shade can’t be wider than the hardtop, nor much lower. A pole-supported shade can extend to the gunwales with additional poles to support it and lowered by shortening the poles—but that reduces headroom and makes it uncomfortable, and maybe claustrophobic, for folks under the shade.
So, is it worth investing big bucks in a fancy sunshade that’s going to do the job maybe half the time? I’d buy a good hat instead, and UV-protective clothing like Bahamian fly-fishermen wear. I’ve aged out of needing to get a tan, and enjoy my boat drinks under the hardtop. If I were younger or had kids in pursuit of the golden glow of youth, I’d invest in a case of sunscreen and a pole-stretched sunshade that would probably cost less than a telescopic shade, could be a little bigger if I used more poles, would require no maintenance, could be easily and quickly rigged and unrigged, and would stow completely out of the way when not needed. It wouldn’t provide perfect protection, of course, but it would help keep my crew cool, and maybe reduce their dermatologist’s bills in the coming decades. And that’s a good investment.
While you’re relaxing under your new cockpit shade, maybe you notice some light pink stains on your vinyl upholstery that no amount of scrubbing will remove. What are they? They’re a permanent reminder of colonies of bacteria—streptoverticillium reticulum—that came aboard with rainwater, wash-down water, lake or river water or most any other kind of fresh water. The critters crawl through stitching holes in the upholstery, then stow away between the vinyl and the underlying foam padding, feasting on body oil, human skin cells and PABA from sunscreen they picked up en route. They don’t live long, but while they survive they excrete the pink stain. It soaks through the vinyl, from bottom to top, and will outlive the upholstery.
Faced with pink-stained vinyl on a Sea Ray she maintains, my friend Margarita Xistris, owner of Nautical Details of Stamford, Connecticut, contacted David Kraft, a co-founder of Gestalt Scientific, creator and manufacturer of Pink Away. According to Kraft, Pink Away, developed by a team of chemists, biologists and biochemists, is the only thing that will remove the stains. Kraft sent a kit for Xistris to try. It came complete with a tube of Pink Away, alcohol wipes to clean the vinyl, pinstripe-thin masking tape, and detailed instructions.
Pink Away is easy to use: You pick a bright, sunny day; clean the vinyl; outline the stains with masking tape; apply the product and let the sun do the work. After four to five hours, depending on temperature, you do it again. And again. And again. And again—it takes five applications to get all of the stain out. Why the masking tape? After the first or second application, the surface stain will be gone and you won’t know where to apply subsequent treatments, said Kraft. And that’s just how it worked for Xistris: After the second application, the stain was barely discernible; after five apps, the vinyl looked as good as new.