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The Frugal Mariner
Saltwater Suzi and Cap'n Larry's "Boating on a Budget" 
How to's, Information, Education & Fun Stuff about Boats, Sailboats, and Cruising

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Care of Canvas

Everything you should know about boat canvas

What do I need?

There are many types of covers available for every boat.  You need to determine what you need for your boat. 

First, do you race, cruise just on weekends and the occasional week, do you live aboard at the dock or do you cruise far and wide ?

If yours is a race boat

you probably only need sail covers and possibly brightwork covers if your boat is graced with much teak.  Keeping those varnished hand rails, toe rails and cap rails covered when you are away from the boat will save you time and money as you won't need to revarnish as  frequently.  You might want a bimini or some type of sunshade if you desire sun protection occasionally.  You will want a frame for a bimini that folds up so it will be out of the way while racing.

If you are a weekend cruiser

add to your wish list a dodger to keep those rain showers from going down your companionway and keep the spray out of your face and the cockpit.  You can add a connector that goes between the rear edge of dodger and front of bimini for more protection.  This can be solid cloth or have a clear vinyl window for better visibility. 

Live aboards and cruisers,

and folks who spend a lot of time on their boats will want space.  A full enclosure is best but if that is impractical with the layout of your boat having the sides covered will afford you good protection from wind and rain.

What to cover: Just about anything on your boat can be covered; winches, hatches, extra containers for fuel and water (jerry cans), companionways, wheel/binnacles, flag staffs, grills, etc.  If your boat has hard windows they can be covered with solid fabric or a plastic mesh material.  The first will provide shade and privacy and the second shade and some privacy. Anything of value which can deteriorate in the sun probably could be financially beneficial to cover. 

Ready-made or custom?

Several of the above mentioned  canvas items can be purchased ready made from marine product suppliers, e.g. West Marine, Defender, etc.  But they are ďoff the rackĒ items and will not fit your boat as well as custom made items and are usually only available in one or two colors.   So it will be in your best interest to contact a local canvas shop to look at your boat and make recommendations for your needs and give you an estimate.  Now if you have looked at ready made items prices donít get sticker shock when you get a price from a custom shop. Of course it will be a higher price but you will have a better fitting piece and probably better quality materials used.

For example, if you ordered a bimini and bimini frame from a ready made facility the frame would likely to be constructed of aluminum and the bimini would slide on the frame work before assembly and be difficult to remove.  A  custom shop would use stainless steel for the frame and attachment hardware and have zippers on the pockets to allow you to remove the bimini for cleaning, storage or repair.  

While we are on the subject of frames I want to mention two ways of attaching the forward and rear bows to your deck.  You can use webbing straps that attach to deck hardware or stanchions made of stainless steel tubing.  If you frequently need to fold the frame you will want straps, but if this isnít the case the stanchions afford more stability
and something to grab if necessary.  

Also, there may be limitations to the height of your bimini by your boom or the placement due to your main sheet traveler but your custom shop should be able to come up with the best solution to your boat's layout.

While most shops will have experience with frame construction, placement and fitting (patterning) for most situations they donít always have personal sailing experience so your input should be received.  For example, be sure they donít  place your frame work too close to a winch so you arenít able fully crank your winch handle or the frame makes it difficult for you to enter or exit your cockpit.


Once you have decided what you want,  you have to choose fabrics.  The majority of boat covers for sail boats are constructed with acrylic fabric with the best known brand being Sunbrella.  There are other manufacturers and the term Sunbrella has become generic like Kleenex.  Sunbrella is great because it holds up well with care and is fairly fade proof, it holds its shape well and it is breathable.  It is water resistant but not waterproof.  

If waterproof is of more importance to you there is a product called Stamoid which is a vinyl coated woven polyester.  It is flexible but does not breathe so more prone to mildew but also is easily cleaned.  It can be the best product in certain applications.

I feel that lighter colors are better than dark from the heat standpoint.  A black or navy bimini will be hotter to stand/sit under than one made with a lighter color.  You can always add a contrasting edging (binding) if you want a dark accent. 

There are many choices for the clear vinyl windows in your dodger, bimini top (to view your sail) and enclosures. 

The material is available in sheet form and roll form and in various thicknesses.  For a dodger usually a 40 gauge sheet product is recommended.  This will afford good visibility but flexible enough for your center panel to be rolled up when desired.  The sheet product is also available in a 30 gauge and also a product called Stratoglass that is the 40 gauge with a UV protectant built in.  This will generally last longer and not scratch as easily but it is more expensive initially.  The roll clear comes in 20, 30 and 40 gauge and doesnít have the optical quality of sheet products but works fine for side  and rear enclosure panels, bimini windows, etc. 

There will be other choices to make such as; Do you want screens for your enclosure?; Do you want separate panels or sewn in screens?  The separate panels are great if you have the place to store them but can be a pain to put up and down.  The sewn in screens reduce visibility and should never be used on your front panels or dodger. 

For screens you have a choice of regular style fiberglass screen,  a plastic mesh fabric like Phifertex or 'no see-um' screening.  All have their good and bad points;  the fiberglass screen has better insect protection, visibility and rolls up better but is prone to tearing, the plastic mesh is easier to clean and holds up better but doesnít store as easily and the 'no see-um' is also fragile.  You may want your canvas makers recommendation here. 
Keep it clean
Hosing off your covers about once a month or more often if salt spray is encountered will prevent dirt being deeply embedded in the fabric.  Be sure to let dry well before folding to prevent mildew.

On the isenglass, if they have salt spray on them, be very sure to hose it off thouroughly before wiping down with a chamois or soft cloth.  The salt will scratch the surface of the isenglass if you don't. 
At the end of the season you will want to remove the covers and clean well before storing.  You can use any detergent and also add bleach.  I suggest a ratio of 1 cup of bleach to 5 gallons of water.

Allow the canvas to soak then lightly scrub, not too much because Sunbrella does not stand up well to abrasion and chafe.  Rinse well and allow to dry.  NEVER put in a dryer.  You will then need to re-waterproof the fabric. 

There are several products available for waterproofing; the manufacturer recommends 303 Fabric Guard which provides water repellency, UV protection and helps repel dirt and stains.  You mist the product on the exposed side of the fabric, two light coats are best, do not saturate the cloth.  Allow to dry,  preferably in the sun. 

If you want to do spot cleaning in season use a non-detergent product like Ivory Snow or Woolite. These will not remove the water resistant quality of the fabric.

Regular cleaning of vinyl windows prolongs their life.  First hose off any loose dirt with fresh water.  Then use a product designed for vinyl windows and follow directions.  Most will require misting and cleaning with soft cloth (Not paper towels) and then polishing with a clean soft cloth.  Old t-shirts work best.  Donít forget to clean the insides of the windows too.  After cleaning I use cotton gloves when I want to roll up panels so I donít get finger prints or skin oils on the clear.  Also it is a good idea not to roll up the panels when they are wet.  Moisture gets trapped and then heated by the sun causing the clear to ďfogĒ . 

As mentioned before, Sunbrella does not hold up well to chafe so donít lay a tarp over your bimini or sail cover. 

Every few years your covers may need to be re-stitched as the thread is effected by the UV rays.  Most canvas shops offer reasonable repair prices, just donít wait till things have really fallen apart before having them repaired.  Also the clear in your panels can be replaced without replacing the whole panel if your panel becomes broken, scratched or brittle.

Cockpit Cushions

Exterior cockpit cushions can be a great asset and comfort.  There are three types of foam available:

Open≠-cell - not recommended for exterior applications because if it gets wet it attracts mold and mildew and takes forever to dry.

Closed-cell -  Stiff but waterproof.  Becomes brittle when exposed to sunlight over time.

Reticulated (dry fast) - Recommended.  More comfortable than closed-cell and water runs through it.

Covers can be made using Sunbrella, vinyl or Phifertex (vinyl mesh) or a combination of two.  I have found that Sunbrella on the top and sides of cushion and vinyl mesh on the bottom works well (with the reticulated foam.)  The sunbrella is comfortable to sit on and any water that enters drains out the bottom mesh. 

Some people prefer cushions which can flip over (put the clean side up when company comes?)  That works if your cockpit is configured symmetrically - you can change them from one side to another.  If the cushions themselves are symmetrical this is also possible; but most boats need some curves rounding the back corners of the cushions so they aren't symmetrical from front to back - however, you may design them so you can flip them end for end.  Just some things to consider.
These shroud covers can help protect your expensive sail inventory.
Keeping your varnished toerails covered while away from the boat is a good investment...
as well as covering your handrails.  Spend less time (or money) varnishing and more time sailing.
This companionway dodger can keep spray and water taken over the bow from running down your companionway
Use of stainless steel tubing instead of webbing to attach forward and aft bimini frame bows to the deck or rail makes for a much sturdier bimini as well as something sturdy to grab on to when needed.  The drawback being, you cannot conveniently fold down the bimini.
While sometimes restricting visibility while sailing, the connector between the dodger and the bimini can make relaxing in the cockpit much more pleasant.
While this cover may help keep rain and snow out of the cockpit, it is very hard on the Sunbrella sailcover because Sunbrella does not hold up well to chafe.
These two, left and below, have very nicely solved the chafe problem by suspending their awnings.  After all, most boats sit at the dock, a mooring or at anchor about 99% of the time.  We might as well make ourselves comfortable.  Notice the lightweight, (stows easily) bright white (reflects a lot of sun) fabrics.

Caring for your canvas covers:

If properly cared for Sunbrella products like biminis and sail covers can last up to ten years or more. 

Here are some hints:
Whether sailing or lounging at anchor, these lee clothes can afford protection from the wind.  They can also help keep pets and small children confined.
A nicely fitting sail cover has zippered slots to accommodate the lazy jacks used to confine the sails when they're dropped.

Some useful links for tools, materials, instructions and information:

Sailmakers Supply
Prices at this writing are a little better than Sailrite.  We have never dealt with them but it looks like they sell a similar product line.
Probably the leader in the industry.  And they are excellent to work with as far as helping the amateur get started. Very extensive product line.

Useful Books you may want to consider

We have seen both of these books and can comfortably recommend them.  However, read the reviews first to make sure they are what you are looking for.
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Making Lee Cloths - a Sailrite Video
The Seamless Sailor - excellent site with lots of canvas instructionals. Click here.