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How do you make an overnight stop when cruising in an open boat?

There are two ways:

  1. You can moor the dinghy or pull it up on the beach then find somewhere to camp onshore - or even find a hotel for the night.

  2. You can put up a purpose made tent on board the dinghy itself and sp

    end the night on board, either afloat or with the dinghy dried out or pulled up on the foreshore.

The author generally prefers the second way. In our part of the world it is usually easier to find some quiet water for camping on board than it is to find somewhere you can land and camp on shore without upsetting a land owner, or find somewhere that you can safely leave a boat while spending a night in a hotel. Camping on board also saves carrying carrying gear to and from the boat, everything is just where you need it. However, occasionally one does find a good place to camp onshore, perhaps there may even be a proper campsite with full facilities. To cover both situations I usually take both a shore tent and a boat tent.

When cruising with the HSC Wayfarers, our Wayfarer crews normally do camp on shore, despite the disadvantages. The main reason is that we often have a crew of three aboard a Wayfarer which is fine for sailing during the day but is too many to sleep on board at night (at least we think so, others have done it).

How do you carry all the camping kit and personnel baggage when dinghy cruising?

Most dinghies can potentially carry a lot of baggage, certainly more than one could carry when backpacking, cycling or canoeing. Having a lot of cargo aboard a dinghy may marginally hinder the sailing and rowing performance but this is hardly noticeable since you are not racing. The extra weight will slightly improve stability and hence may actually be slightly beneficial from the point of view of seaworthiness.

It is always an advantage for a cruising dinghy to have some built in dry stowage space, the more the better, almost without limit. However, for boats without provision for dry stowage there are now excellent waterproof bags which can be used to keep kit dry. These are available from outdoors shops and are sold mainly for canoeists. Typically these are made form a plasticised fabric and are a long cylindrical shape which can be sealed at the top by rolling the fabric several times over. Such bags should be secured to the boat when at sea. Here is a little tip for packing a large sleeping bag into one of these waterproof bags. If you just try to stuff it straight in you will probably find it does not squash up evenly, there will be wasted space at the bottom of the bag. To avoid this you start by rolling down the sides of the waterproof bag until you have a much shorter bag with most of the sides rolled up. Then you unroll the sides as you stuff in the contents.

Providing a bed(s) on board a dinghy

There are only a handful of dinghy designs which were produced with sleeping on board in mind (examples include Wayfarer, Mirror16, Cormorant 12, Dockerel 17) but there are a lot more designs which happen by chance to be suitable or can be made to be suitable with DIY adaptations. The Dinghy Cruising Association Bulletin is full of articles about how to make such adaptations and there are also a couple of books on the subject.

Basically the options are either to sleep down in the bottom of the boat or to sleep on some kind of raised platform. Most dinghies have, or should have, a rowing thwart and in many cases the clear height under this thwart is too little to permit sleeping on the bottom of the boat. If designing a dinghy from scratch, it is easy to make the thwart removable, as on my boat. With an existing boat I would be cautious about making the thwart removable since the thwart may be an essential structural member.

If there is space to sleep down on the floorboards in the bottom of the boat then this is likely to be the simplest arrangement, although not necessarily the most comfortable. If the floorboards are very close to the bottom then there may be a risk of getting bedding damp with bilge water when the boat is heeled. An air bed to sleep on helps a lot!

If it is not practical to sleep in the bottom of the boat then you need a sleeping platform higher up. Does the boat have side benches each side of the cockpit? If it does then it may be feasible to have removable extensions to add extra width to these benches for sleeping. Alternatively it may be better to completely board over the space between the benches to make a wide platform which could be a double bed. The boards used for this purpose could be the boats normal floor boards raised to a higher level. The floor boards in the little 'Cormorant' dinghy are designed so that this is possible. Alternatively you can have a set of boards used only for sleeping and arranged in sections small enough that they can be stowed away for sailing. My first cruising dinghy was an 11 foot Mirror dinghy. I used a single piece of plywood together with the dagger board to cover over the space between the side seats. This large piece of ply turned through 90 degrees and stowed aft under the tiller during the day. The space under the tiller of many dinghies is unused space and can be adapted as stowage space.

However you make your sleeping platform I should cover it with something soft and comfy. There is no need to put up with a hard bed, we are not back packing so we are not all that restricted in the weight of gear we take with us. I like to use a pump up inflatable air bed. Others like the American made 'Thermarest' mattresses which are self-inflating but not quite as thick as most airbeds.

This link provides some pictures and text showing how I adapted one of the small plywood mirror dinghies for cruising befor I decided to design and build my present boat. It does show the sleeping arrangements but I have seen a number of other ways to provide a bed in a mirror dinghy, for example a stretcher type bed using the oars for the side poles.

Boat Tents

As discussed above, if you intend to cruise with an open boat there is much to be said for having a purpose made boat tent, even if you are going to take an ordinary land tent on board as well.

If you want a professionally made boat tent then many sail makers or boat cover makers could help. Most boats will need a custom designed tent, as far as I know the Wayfarer dinghy is the only dinghy for which you can buy a standard boat tent 'off the shelf', the firm which sells these being listed on the Wayfarer web site.

Making a boat tent can be quite an interesting project and does not require great skill in needlework but It does help to have a sewing machine. Now that garments are so cheaply manufactured in China there seem to be a lot more domestic sewing machines in the western world than there are people who want to use them to make their own clothes, hence second hand sewing machines are cheap and readily available. The more recent models tend to have complicated features such as the ability to do fancy embroidary stiches. While you could use such a machine to make a tent you only really need a very basic machine, although it is good to have a machine that will do zig zag stiches. Zig zag stitches are reckoned to be a bit stronger than straight stitches, presumably the reason sailmakers use them. However, if your machine is a basic one that only does straight stiches I think that would be quite adequate for tent making. It is good to have a reasonably sturdy machine, perhaps one with mainly metal rather than plastic parts, since you may want to sew several thickness of fairly heavy material.

If you have never used a sewing machine you will probably need to do quite a lot of experimenting with settings such as stitch length and upper and lower thread tension to get good results with the type of cloth and thread that you propose to use for your tent. One thing that can help a lot (so I am told) is to use an appropriate thickness of needle for the cloth and thread you are sewing with - a heavy tent material sewn with sailmakers thread will need a sturdier needle than dress making fabric. A good haberdasher shop should be able to advise on such matters.

There is a lot of variety seen in boat tents on cruising dinghies. Some people have very crude arrangements, perhaps just a rectangular plastic sheet or land tent fly sheet draped over the boom and perhaps fixed with lines passed right under the hull. If you are going to go cruising at all frequently it is probably worth having something better than that. Remember that a boat tent may have to withstand at least as much wind as a land tent and possibly more, you will try to choose a sheltered location to anchor overnight but this is not always possible. On the other hand there is no point in trying to make a boat tent particularly light weight. It is not a back packing tent and you will probably not need to carry it further than from your boat to the car boot. Hence I think it makes sense to use a fairly heavy grade of canvas. Synthetic canvas of any kind will avoid the risk of rot should it be necessary to stow the tent damp. The materials used for big boat awnings, caravan awnings or the lighter weight lorry tarpaulins may well be suitable. 

Here are links to three UK companies which supply tent making materials -

All these three companies can supply not only the fabric for a tent but also sewing threads, reinforcing tapes, eyelets etc.  One useful item is double sided sticky tape that can be used to tack fabric panels together prior to machine sewing. I find this makes the job much easier and having watched a sailmaker at work I am aware that this is how the professionals do it these days.  On the Kayo Spruce website this tape is rather strangely called 'Venture Tape'. I am not sure what the other two companies call it or where to find it on their websites.  I certainly found 'Venture Tape' very useful to hold the panels of my tent together for a trial fit on the boat as well as for the actual machine stitching. It is only lightly adhesive when first applied, so the seams are easy to adjust. The adhesion seems to increase over time so the tape probably does add some strength and water tightness to the seams.. I did have difficutly sewing the seams through the tape since the adhesive on the tape seemed to build up on the sewing needle, this can be avoided by using a narrow tape, say about 10mm wide, running a row of stitches each side of it.

Going back to when I started cruising with an open boat, some decades ago now, nearly everyone who made a boat tent used the boom as a ridge pole for the tent. In those days the great majority of small land tents were ridge tents, so a simlar arrangement for a boat tent seemed logical.  Since those times there has been a revolution in tent design. If you look at a campsite today you will see that nearly all the tents are supported by curved hoop poles with no ridge pole.  Some people  have used hoop poles for a boat tent but there are some potential difficulties that do not apply to land tents. For one thing the hoop poles usually need to be threaded into pockets in the tent fabric and you don't have a lot of working space to do that on board a small boat. You could perhaps have the poles permanently threaded into pockets and have the tent roll up into a long package rather than the usual compact package appropriate for land camping. Another point is that tents with hoop poles usually need at least some guy ropes to stabilise them in high winds and it is hard so see how guy ropes could be used on a boat tent - the tent pegs would either sink or float away. Perhaps you could get an adequately robust framework by using stiffer poles than those of a normal land tent but you need to be careful that the poles dont break when you bend them into position. We have a small land tent with hoop poles that keep breaking. It is easy to make the poles stiffer by increasing diameter, but, other things being the same, that also increases the stress in the pole, possibly leading to breakage.  Stiff but pre-curved or partially pre-curved poles could be an answer if you can manage to stow them. 

Assuming that you are going for a traditional shape of tent, using the boat's boom as a ridge pole, then If you want reasonable headroom along the length of the tent you will need some means to raise the height of the boom to above the normal sailing position. The gooseneck on many dinghies is mounted on some kind of vertical slide and maybe this will allow height to give headroom in the tent, or perhaps it can be extended to do so. If not, you may need an alternative boom fitting for use with the tent. In many cases the boom has a square hole in the end which sockets over a small square spigot on the gooseneck. You can then make a forked fitting with a square spigot to fit the boom and padded jaws to fit round the mast at any height. Such a fitting could be adapted from a rowlock, a plastic rowlock should do fine for this.

You also need some way to hold the boom up at the correct height and angle to suit the tent. The simplest way is to attach the main halyard (or topping lift if you have one) to the aft end of the boom and another halyard, probably the jib halyard, to the fore end. You place the tent in position and secure the sides then adjust these halyards until it is set correctly. Some people use a boom support known as a boom 'crutch'. The traditional pattern is made like a pair of wooden scissors. When opened you have two legs which fit into sockets on the boat and the other end forms a boom support. A single leg crutch is also possible but would obstruct access through the aft end of the tent. A boom crutch will make the tent structure more stable and has the advantage that it stops the boom moving around sideways as the boat rocks, such movement causing wear on the tent canvas. However, a boom crutch is one more item to stow, unless it is designed to also serve as a paddle, boat hook or spinnaker pole.

There are some dinghies which have sidedecks with a raised coaming between these side decks and the cockpit and the tent could then be fastened over this coaming rather than over the gunwhale. Fastening the tent over such a coaming allows you to use the sidedecks to move around the boat, provided that it is stable enough to walk on the side decks. On the other hand, the tent will be narrower and less comfortable to sit inside so the better option even with this style of boat is probably to fit the tent right over the gunwhales. The side decks will then become useful shelf space inside the tent.

There are a number of options for fastening the sides of the tent down over the gunwhales of the boat. The most obvious way is to have a row of hooks fixed on the topsides, these engaging loops of cord or elastic sewn into the tent. But hooks in this position could be vulnerable when coming alongside, they might look a bit ugly and you might be a bit reluctant to drill the fastening holes through the topsides, especially on an expensive new fibreglass boat. You should certainly use the smallest neatest hooks which will do the job - on a clinker built boat I have seen straight pattern hooks along the edge of a plank so as to trap a loop of cord under the land and this does not look too bad.

Here are some alternatives to the use of hooks fastened to the topsides:

  • For boats which have no side decks and which have single skin topsides, small holes, say 4mm diameter, can be drilled through the topsides just under the gunwhale. Cords attached to the tent, say 3mm diameter, can be threaded through these holes and fastened inside. I used this method for the boat tent on my Mirror dinghy and it worked well. The tiny holes in the topsides are so high that they are hardly ever under water unless you are just about to capsize in which case you won't be worried about a few drops leaking in. I am not sure I would want to use this method for boats which have side decks since the holes could then be underwater for longer periods. Maybe holes with screw in or push in bungs?
  • A cord tied tightly to the topsides just under the gunwhale and held in place with small fittings, eg very small plastic or metal fairleads. The bottom of the tent can then be fixed with ties round this cord or more conveniently with velcro covered flaps which loop round it. This method does not avoid the need for permanent fixings on the topsides, it just uses fairleads instead of hooks. The advantage is that the tent attachments are free to slide horizontally and this should help getting the tent to set nicely.
  • Suction cups to secure to the topsides. I have heard of this being done but have not seen it in practice. In the UK there is a mail order company called Betterware Ltd. which markets various household gadgets. They offer some suction cup with attached hooks, I daresay you can buy similar things elsewhere. The cups have a diaphragm action worked by a cam mechanism and this does seem to make them stick very firmly and semi-permanently to a smooth surface such as glass. I don't know how well they would stick to a typical painted boat hull but they should work well on smooth fibreglass. This method avoids the need for any modification to the hull so it might be useful if you want to use a tent on a borrowed boat or to transfer it from one boat to another.
  • Cords passed under the hull. This is what people sometimes do when they first try dinghy camping and want to avoid permanent fittings on the boat in case they don't want to camp again. It is a fiddle to set up and the cords can get messy when the boat grounds.
  • An alternative to the above is to tie a loop of rope horizontally round the hull and fix tent cords to this. The flare of the topsides keeps the rope from riding up. Awkward to set up and would not work well with some hull shapes
  • For my own boat I have a cord sewn into the hem of the tent fabric where it drapes over the rubbing strake. At each end of the tent there are slots behind the rubbing strake through which this cord is passed and the ends of the cord are then made fast inside the boat. Because the rubbing strake is curved, as seen from above, when these cords are well tensioned the tent fabric tucks in under the rubbing strake and stays there. It is a neat and simple system, but does need the cords in the hems of the tent to be well tensioned.  I have loops in one end of each cord, these secured to small hooks fixed in the boat while the other ends of the cord are pulled tight and held in the jib sheet jamming cleats. On the new version of my tent I also have hooks that secure the tent fabric under the rubbing strake midway along the length of the tent, just to make sure tent fabric does not ride up over the rubbing strake in high winds. I probably should do a diagram to better explain all this. The picture further down this page shows what it looks like when set up.


Some boat tent ideas seen at recent DCA rallies:


Many people do like a more spacious tent then the simple ridge tent. As shown in the second of the sketches above, the tent can be extended across the foredeck to give more space to put things down. Also the tent can be fitted over some kind of box shaped frame or a set of hoops as on a covered wagon, so that there is more comfortable sitting space or even standing room inside. A really good tent of this kind should provide more indoor space than a small cabin boat and there is no reason why it should not be similarly weather proof.

 Windows in flexible plastic, zip doors etc are all features which can enhance a luxury boat tent. Interestingly, I have never seen a double skin boat tent but most land tents have an inner tent and a fly sheet. Perhaps this would be of no advantage if the single layer of the boat tent is substantial enough to be fully weatherproof.

Another little point to think about is how will you use fenders when the tent is set up. It is probably not a good idea to have fenders or their securing lines rubbing against the tent fabric. I usually find that I can get away with one large fender placed just forward of the tent, adjusting the mooring lines so that only this fender is needed. On big boats the fenders are often tied to guard rails or cabin top. On a dinghy there are no such securing points and the fenders tend to hang too low to be much use. If you use a single big fender then this can be attached to a shroud. However, even if you use a proper rolling hitch the fender line will slide down a wire rope shroud. The trick here is to fix the end of the fender line to a spare halyard to keep the fender at any required height. If you dont have a spare halyard you can use a length of line to any suitable fitting part way up the mast. Also, when alongside a floating pontoon in a marina it is often better to fix fenders to the pontoon rather than the boat but don't forget to take them with you when you leave.

Some notes on the two boat tents that I have made for our own boat

I have now made two tents for our own boat. The first one was made shortly before the boat was first launched and was made in a bit of a rush, I recall that the job was done from start to finish within a day. The second tent, made in 2012, was done at a slower pace and with more care, it took quite a few days work.  The first tent was made from a dark blue pvc proofed nylon fabric, not unlike the fabric often used for tarpaulins on lorries. This fabric was fully waterproof although there was some annoying leakage at the gaps where the boom fitted through the tent. The fabric was also very durable. After some thirty seasons use there was slight wear where the fabric rubbed on the top of the boom but the tent would probably have lasted many more seasons. The main reason that we chose to replace this tent was simply that we never liked the dark blue color which we found dark and gloomy inside. For our second tent we choose a light beige color which we much prefer - it is lighter inside both in daylight and when lit by an LED lantern at night.  Having said that, some people do prefer a dark colored tent since they find it difficult to sleep in a light tent if there is still daylight outside, we have not found that a problem.

The type of fabric we used for our second tent is called Odyssey, manufactured by Marlen Textiles in the US and available from Kayospruce in the UK, possibly also from other wholesalers. It is an acrylic coated polyester fabric, weight 6.5 oz per square yard. We have found this a very suitable fabric for a boat tent, it is stronger than the fabric of most land tents but not so heavy that it cannot be stitched with a domestic sewing machine. For all practical purposes it can be considered to be water proof but it is not a breathable fabric and there is often at least some condensation on the inside. 

boat tent

Our first boat tent (pictured on a beach in the Scilly islands)

Both the tents I have made for our boat are simple ridge tents covering only the open cockpit and also the hatch into the stern locker aft of the cockpit. This makes for quite a small tent that is easy to set up and to fold away since you dont have to handle a large area of canvas. I felt that it was particularly important to be able to set the tent up quickly and I was prepared to compromise on spaciousness to achieve this. Sometimes you sail into harbour feeling very tired and then you just want some weather protection as quickly as possible. The last thing you want is to fiddle with a large and complicated tent, even if it is going to be more luxurious when you eventually get it set up. I am always amazed at how suddenly a cold wet dinghy becomes a cosy home once a tent is up and a lantern lit inside, just shielding the wind makes a huge difference.

tent 02

Our second boat tent (pictured in the harbour at Teschelling, Friesland)

The main difference between the first and second tents made for our boat, apart from the color of the fabic, is that the first tent draped over the boom whereas the second one is hung from a row of five sliders that slot into a groove in the underside of the aluminium boom extrusion. There are advantages and disadvantages to both these options. Simply draping the tent over the boom is the simplest option but we have found that hanging it from below the boom is actually somewhat quicker to set up. With the tent over the boom, but not extending to the mast, the boom had to be threaded through a hole in the front of the tent. This hole was a potential leak point and on a dark night it could be a bit difficult to find the hole and get the boom threaded through, delaying getting the tent set up. With the slider arrangement we just reach up and thread the sliders into the boom one by one, then drop a cord into a clam cleat to tension a length of webbing that is sewn into the ridge of the tent, this avoids the ridge drooping excessively between the sliders.. Another advantage of having the tent hung from under the boom is that the mainsail can be left furled on the boom at night. On the other hand, if the tent is draped over the boom it is possible to fold back part of the tent so as to leave the front of the cockpit sheltered for cooking etc. while leaving the aft end open to sit outside or stand up to don oilskins etc. The abilty to do this was a nice feature of our original tent but we have not been able to work our a way to do it with the tent hung from below the boom. 

The method I have used to get the right cut for a boat tent is to use the boat itself as a three dimensional template. The main panels of the tent are sewn together then the tent is fitted to the boom and draped over the topsides. Sticky tape can be used to fix the material in position and adjust until there were no wrinkles before marking out for the final hemming all round the lower edges. I found that to minimise wrinkles it helps to cut and sew the corner seams and any 'bell end' seams slightly concave. By that I mean that the cloth panels adjacent to corners of the tent were cut with an inwards curve of something like one inch in one yard. This gives a nice wrinkle free appearance to the tent but one would not want to overdo this or space inside the tent will be unnecessarily reduced.

The fixing of both the first and second tents at the gunwhale is as described in the paragraph above where I list various alternative methods to fix a tent to a boat. It is a neat way to do it, but does require the rubbing strake to have slots through it in the right places, for this boat these slots were incorporated when the boat was built.

The aft end of our boat tent has 'doors' like most land tents. These can often be left open since the wind comes from ahead on a moored boat, unless you are tied alongside a jetty or in a marina. To make the tent as weatherproof as possible there is no door at the front end of the tent but the front of the tent can be unfastened from the cockpit washboards and you can then get out underneath the front of the tent onto the foredeck. You do need to some way to get to the anchor lines from inside the tent and indeed we find that when the tent is in place we usually get on and off the boat via the foredeck, this just seems easier than via the tent doors at the stern. 

Dinghy cookery

You can cook aboard a dinghy using a camping stove. You can of course also visit pubs/restaurants/chip shops wherever you go ashore and the Hostellers Sailing Club often takes this attractive option. However, we would not be without our camping stoves for breakfast and for brewing cups of tea during the day. The Hostellers Sailing Club used to have a club owned collection of paraffin primus stoves but a few years ago we had an unfortunate incident which left all these at the bottom of the sea a couple of miles out from the mouth of the Blackwater estuary! Our members now mostly use camping gas stoves which are less trouble to light and cleaner but they do cost a lot more in fuel. The best type of camping stove to use on a boat is the low lying type which has a tube from the gas cylinder rather than the upright type with the burner on top of a cylinder. The latter type could so easily fall over if someone passes by leaving an unexpected wake. With the squat type of stove I think it is reasonably safe to cook on board with the boat at anchor, keeping an eye on the stove and another eye for passing boats which may leave a wake. We also do make cups of tea on board our Wayfarers while at sea in fair conditions but this needs great care and occasionally a hand to steady the kettle on the stove. Do be careful with camping gas stoves - many years ago a member of the HSC was injured when a camping gas stove was knocked over and this was on shore in our club hut, not afloat.

One point if you sail to France - Make sure that you either have a stove which is compatible with the gas cylinders sold in France or that you have an adapter for the French cylinders or make sure that you have enough gas to last all your holiday. The type of cylinder which used to be called Epigas, now Colman or Primus, is not available in France. Once you get used to having hot drinks available on your open boat you really miss this luxury if you suddenly find you have no gas!



Above is a picture of a single burner stove I made for dinghy cruising and which we have used for many years now, both afloat and when camping on shore. Actually I did not make all of the stove - I started with the regulator, gas hose and burner from a standard stove and fitted this into a home made sheet aluminium housing which offers improved wind shielding and stability.

The width and height of this assembly means that it can hardly tip over, it would slide sideways first or the pan would spill. We use the pan shown in the picture both as a kettle for boiling water and for cooking food but we do also have a second pan for more complicated meals - e.g. tinned curry plus rice cooked separately in the other pan. Anything much more complicated usually means a trip to a local pub.  

The gas burner for this stove is mounted under two stainless steel 5mm diameter rods which support the pan above it and there are also some little pegs that locate the pan horizontally so that the pan does not slide around. The dimension between the burner and the pan was copied exactly from the original stove. The metal sides extend about 40 mm above the bottom of the pan to act as deep fiddles for the pan and extra wind shielding. I thought I might need air holes for the burner but it works fine without,

I have fitted piezo electric lighters to this stove, so that it lights by pressing a button. This is is much handier than matches but the lighters I have dismantled to fit to this stove have suffered from corrosion in a marine environment and have needed to be replaced after a few years.

The sides of the metal box do get warm when the stove is in use but not warm enough to set light to any woodwork. I have thought about adding some internal sheet metal baffles to further reduce the external surface temperature. I have a large drawer which slides out from under the foredeck and which contains most of the cooking equipment and some of the food aboard the boat. I have found that I can operate the specially shielded stove inside this drawer, in which case it is protected from almost any amount of wind and will work at some angle of heel.

I hope that these details of my stove are not going to get anyone into trouble - if you make something similar to the stove pictured above do test it thoroughly to make sure that it cannot overheat or burn incorrectly and I would never operate it in a boat without keeping it under close observation and with the gas tap accessible to turn off if anything goes wrong. Also do not store gas in an unventilated space. One member of the Dinghy Cruising Association kept a gas stove in a locker which was so well sealed that the gas collected and eventually caused quite a serious explosion.