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DIY: Installing a Dodger

Arguably, there are few items on a cruising boat more oriented to your sailing comfort than a dodger, especially in Maine, where cold water rules. Bashing to windward, pushing to get somewhere in a cold downpour or just keeping the crew happy, the dodger plays a major role.
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A couple of years ago we brought our cockpit dodger, which was over 25 years old, to a local shop to get it re-stitched in a few places. Upon retrieving it we were told emphatically, “Please, don’t bring this back to me!” We took that as the final sign that we needed a new dodger, and as last season ended we committed to the project.

Arguably, there are few items on a cruising boat more oriented to your sailing comfort than a dodger, especially in Maine, where cold water rules. Bashing to windward, pushing to get somewhere in a cold downpour or just keeping the crew happy, the dodger plays a major role. Yeah, you can pull down your foulie hood, wrap a towel around your neck, and duck whenever you find yourself on the receiving end of a dollop of spring. But I am no longer an in-any-weather sailor if I can help it. For me a good dodger is a requirement if I’m to fully enjoy the boat.

That summer we spent a good deal of time eyeing dodger designs as we cruised our home waters. Dark colors, light colors, lots of windows, hardly any windows, folding, not folding, surrounding curtains, open concept, tall, squat, pockets—the options were seemingly endless, as were the canvas shops equipped to build them to their own favorite design. Ultimately, and after a good deal of consideration, we invited Seth Hetherington of Mobile Marine Canvas (mobilecanvas.com) to visit the boat, and he promptly walked us through the process of designing, building and installing a new dodger. He also asked us a lot of questions regarding how we used the boat and what options were important to us. Clearly we had managed to hit on the right guy for the job. We ended up settling on a few key items:

A big opening forward window

There are typically only a few days each season when we want to fold the dodger down, and an opening window allows air to flow through a raised dodger without compromising the tensioned design of a new frame or the longevity of the Strataglass used in the window.

Correct frame dimensions

We needed to ensure that a new frame didn’t obstruct proper winch grinding, which was a problem with our old dodger.

A taller frame

The new dodger needed to be 2-3 inches higher to allow my crew to easily see under it through the window. Because our helm is forward in the cockpit, a lower frame was not an option, as it would restrict companionway access.

Safety bars

The old dodger was very flimsy, and grabbing it in a seaway, or even just moving around the cockpit at anchor, was an uncertain proposition. (And as Hetherington kindly reminded us, “We ain’t getting any younger!”) With the new dodger, safety bars would serve a triple purpose—providing solid handholds, protecting the fabric and increasing frame tension.

After that we took some time to gauge sight lines from various positions to properly position frames and windows. As we did so, Hetherington moved around the boat, sketching designs, taking photos and videos to document where design lines and quirks of the boat would meet the dodger. (A 45-year-old boat has plenty of quirks!) It took a while, but in the end Hetherington gathered all the information he needed and left us with fabric samples, a sketch, a price and a promise that he would be back in two weeks with a frame and the necessary supplies to build the full pattern.

Although each shop has its own approach to the patterning process, Hetherington likes to build a full “perfect” pattern, making for less labor and less wasted material in the final fitting. We picked a day with little wind and started early in the morning for what turned out to be a few hours of sticky tape, indelible markers, scissors and plastic pattern material. I mostly stayed out of the way and saw to other projects. Hetherington also attached pieces of “track” to the hatch turtle at what would become the front of the new dodger—the bottom of the dodger would slide into this track much like a headsail fits into a luff groove, making for a very secure attachment.

The pattern evolved into six different pieces (top, front and two on each side), each with various reference marks and lines to indicate stitching, windows, frame and notes on other key construction details. Because the dodger was not going to be made until the winter, Hetherington said he wanted to have as much information as possible for his fabrication team: to this end he took copious notes and pictures. Although we considered a laminated vinyl product called Stamoid for the dodger fabric, in the end we went with Sunbrella in a Cadet Gray tone—a well-used product in the industry, the care and feeding of which is well documented. Hetherington suggested we use Strataglass for the windows and Gore-Tex thread to stitch it all together.

In mid-May, we brought the boat to the dock for the moment of truth—the frame was installed, the dodger was bent on, and a few final measurements were made for the grabrails. After that, I’m happy to report that all that patterning paid off as the entire dodger fit really well, showing proper tension all around with no excessively tight spots at the many corners.

Although higher than our original dodger, the amount of volume and light in the new design is amazing. Moving below is much easier with the higher frame, and wonder of wonders I can actually see out of the new Strataglass windows! The new color is also much better suited to the boat than the original Marine Blue color. Once summer arrives, we will be glad to unzip the large center window for some additional airflow, keeping all two- and four-legged crewmembers happy as we enjoy the summer on the coast of Maine.

Care & Feeding of Your Dodger

Since a new dodger is a substantial investment—perhaps as much as a new sail—it is wise to heed the maintenance recommendations of the fabricator and the material supplier. Dodgers are a pairing of fabric and “glass”, each with differing needs and differing warranty restrictions. Sunbrella has a comprehensive guide on its website, but recommends a mild soap and water solution for general cleaning, occasionally followed by treatment with 303 Fabric Guard to restore the fabric’s water repellency—straightforward enough.

The Strataglass website also covers most maintenance situations, but they recommend a multi-product application approach to keep the glass clean, clear, and, most important, within warranty. Strataglass recommends products from IMAR. As a rule, Strataglass does not like harsh chemicals, petroleum-based products or hard bristles so check your cleaning bucket before getting the hose out.

As a preventative measure, we have taken to religiously rinsing the Strataglass with fresh water after every weekend to remove salt and dirt.

For in-season or post-season storage of removable windows, a separate fleece bag can be easily made on a home sewing machine. When storing at the end of the season, clean the dodger per recommendations and let dry thoroughly, remove and store those parts that can be separated, lay flat or fold at natural fabric seams (do not fold on the glass), and hang in a clean place or place in a bag to hang or lay flat. Craft paper (not plastics) should be placed between any facing pieces of glass. –AH

All photos by Andrew Howe

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