Making your Cockpit Work
Just like life ashore, the modern cruising life comes with its share of encumbrances, a.k.a. essentials. Navigation and communications devices have antennas that must be placed somewhere. Refrigeration, lighting and electronics require power, and unless you want to burn a lot of diesel, that means solar panels and maybe a wind generator, each of which needs to be put somewhere. Your tender—which really is essential—also needs to be kept out of the water when you’re on passage, and if you have a RIB, which can’t be deflated, rolled up and stowed on deck or in a cockpit locker, the only practical solution is a set of davits. By now, your transom is becoming annoyingly cluttered.
All of which, in a nutshell, is why the radar arch has become a must-have accessory for so many long-distance and liveaboard cruising boats. A bimini frame might be strong enough to accept a pair of solar panels, but that’s about as far as it goes. An arch, on the other hand, becomes a structural part of the boat. Hunter, famously, was the first production builder to place the mainsheet traveler atop an arch, thus achieving the twin holy grails of keeping the mainsheet out of the cockpit while retaining end-boom sheeting—and, as a not insignificant bonus, providing an excellent handhold in the cockpit.
Most aftermarket arches installed on cruising boats will not be expected to handle mainsheet loads. Nevertheless they need to be well built and strong, especially if a dinghy is to be slung from them. The shock loads generated by a dinghy and outboard hanging off an arch as a sailboat pounds to windward in a seaway should not be underestimated. If your boat has a narrow stern, as many pre-1990s boats do, you should also think about the effect on your boat’s trim. An arch and its accoutrements should not have a great effect except perhaps on canoe-sterned boats, but if you hang a heavy dink and its motor off an arch on a smaller boat, don’t be surprised if it trims down by the stern.
Designing your Arch
If you happen to be the type of boatowner who is good with his hands and welcomes tricky projects, there is nothing to stop you from making your own cockpit arch. All it takes is the requisite amount of stainless steel or aluminum tubing, the ability and equipment to bend and weld either or both of those materials, and enough time to get the job done. It would make a great winter project, given the aforementioned skills and a heated workshop.
You also need something of an artist’s eye, because the last thing you want to stick on the aft end of your pride and joy is an ugly assemblage of tubes and antennae. An arch might not complement the lines of your boat, but at the very least it should not despoil them. Some homemade arches are very nice indeed; many more are not. Then again, a dinghy slung in davits does absolutely nothing at all for a boat’s looks, and an arch is a lot more versatile than a set of davits. It will also get the dinghy up higher, and therefore farther away from the water.
Bottom line: take some time to consider exactly what you want your arch to hold. The usual list is long indeed:
A base for one or more solar panels
Antennas for satcoms, GPS, AIS, FM stereo, satellite radio
A wind generator
Tackles for lifting a dinghy, or fold-out davits
An outboard motor mount and lifting tackle
Stern light, cockpit floodlight, mood lighting
Part of bimini installation
After all, if you’re going through all that trouble and expense, you may as well cater for all eventualities, right? Some sailors even have their deck-shower head mounted on the underside of the arch so they can stand and have a hands-free shower—luxury indeed.
Once you’ve made the decision, your first step should be to call around to various arch manufacturers and ask for quotes. Many fabricators have extensive lists of boats for which they have already built arches, so if you have a popular model of boat you can often cut out the annoying step of having someone come down to take its measurements. This also means you are not restricted to local fabricators, as you can have an arch shipped to you.
“On the other hand, if you have a rare or unusual boat then we will need to spend time on it to measure it up,” says Keith Olver, of Kato Marine in Annapolis, Maryland. “But most of our customers are not local.”
Doug Gierula, of Klacko Marine in Grimsby, Ontario, says he’ll often fly down to a boat to measure up for an arch. “Even with seemingly identical boats, you can find discrepancies of two or three inches,” he says. “And we have never made identical arches for the same model of boats, because the owners always have different requirements. The only thing they all seem to have in common is they want to get the dinghy up, and to have somewhere to put the solar panels.”
A well-constructed cockpit arch is a thing of gleaming beauty, all sweetly radiused curves and polished welds. But should you have yours built of aluminum or stainless steel? Unsurprisingly, each material has its proponents. “We use 14 gauge, 1.5-inch outside diameter heavy-wall 316 stainless tubing for the main frame,” says Olver, “with trusses made from 1-inch tubing.” Gierula uses 2-inch OD heavy-wall 316 tubing for arches on 40-foot-plus boats, but adds that proper design, rather than sheer weight of material, is key.
In terms of strength, there seems little difference between the two materials as used in an arch. Aluminum has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than stainless steel, which is nearly three times heavier. The issue here is stiffness—you don’t want your arch shimmying and shaking in a seaway. A correctly fabricated aluminum arch will be just as stiff and strong as a stainless structure. On the other hand, the aluminum arch will typically be made of larger-diameter tubing and will therefore be a little more visually obtrusive, at least on smaller boats.
Smaller aluminum arches, such as those made by Atlantic Towers in New Jersey, are typically constructed from 2-inch OD or thicker Schedule 40 tubing. They are overwhelming favored by powerboaters, but are seen increasingly on sailboats. Arches made from raw aluminum are often powdercoated or painted, though it is notoriously difficult to keep the latter stuck to aluminum.
The higher initial price of a stainless steel arch is mitigated by the fact that it will keep looking good for longer. Aluminum suffers in salt air, and coatings inevitably bubble in proximity to stainless steel fasteners. “I think it is impossible to keep aluminum looking good beyond five years,” says Gierula. “We’ve built many aluminum arches, and they do need maintenance.”
The weight issue is not such a factor—Olver says his stainless arches for 40-foot-plus boats will typically weigh between 120 and 180 pounds, depending on the type of boat and how many options are on the arch—but in practice, few sailors seem to complain about the extra encumbrance on the stern, viewing it as a more than fair trade for the convenience offered by an arch.
In terms of cost, you can look forward to paying significantly more for a stainless steel arch. Some fabricators will have price lists on their websites, but these should all be taken as “starting from” costs. For instance, Wells Marine in Florida quotes its base price for an 8ft-wide arch at $5,350, Kato’s bottom price is $5,400, and Klacko Marine’s price list starts at $3,000 for a basic arch to fit a sub-40-footer. These are for bare-bones arches. Start ticking off options, and by the time you’ve run out your wish list you could easily spend twice that base price. “Most of our arches go out the door for between $10,000 and $12,000,” says Olver.
That sort of sticker price can be hard to swallow for owners of older or smaller boats. If your boat is only worth $30,000, you’re not going to want to spend a third of that amount on an arch—which is why aluminum arches rescued from defunct powerboats can often be seen on veteran sailboats. Atlantic Towers, better known for its fishing-boat arches, produces a DIY aluminum radar arch kit for sailboats as part of its Tower In A Box line that has a starting price of just $1,699.
The final part of the equation, once the design has been finalized, the options chosen and the check written, is to install the arch. “Our arches have four mounting points, and we try to through-bolt the uprights as close as possible to the hull-deck joint, through solid glass,” says Gierula. “This is a very strong part of the boat.”
Another way of mounting an arch is to weld it to the existing stern pulpit, thus avoiding the need to drill more holes—providing the stern pulpit itself is securely mounted with strong backing plates, of course. Sometimes it is as cost-effective for fabricators to replace the entire stern rail section with an integrated rail/arch.
Whichever you choose—stainless or aluminum, bolted-on or welded to the stern rail—you can be sure that a well-constructed cockpit arch will enhance your cruising lifestyle.
Installing a Radar Arch Kit
Over the course of 10 years of cruising, the aft end of my 34-foot Dufour, Gypsy Wind, had morphed from a clean and simple look to—well, a complex mess. First came the wind generator and its pole. The addition of a solar panel added another pole and crossbar, and of course there was the wiring for both units. Next was the bimini and its hardware, the mount for the outboard, the ring buoy, and I had yet to consider davits for the dinghy, which to this point had either been towed or stowed on the foredeck.
I knew the solution was an arch, but a quick call to a stainless fabricator had disabused me of that notion, since I have no elderly aunts waiting to bless me with a large inheritance.
Then I happened across Atlantic Towers, a New Jersey company that fabricates aftermarket boat arches for many different styles of boats, including sailboats. I took one look at the clean lines, the sturdy yet lightweight aluminum construction and the apparent ease of installation, and I was intrigued. Then I looked at the cost and I was hooked. These beauties started at about $1,700, considerably less than their custom-built counterparts. —Wally Moran
Read all about Wally Moran’s installation of a radar arch at sailmagazine.com/arch
Atlantic Towers, atlantictowers.com
Kato Marine, katomarine.com
Klacko Marine, klackomarine.ca
Wells Marine, wellsmarine.com