How to Build a Hard-top Dodger

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Made in the Shade

Made in the Shade

Looking for a little more protection from the elements onboard my Najad 343, Panthalassa, I built a hard dodger for her. It turned out to be one of the best additions I ever made to my boat in terms of comfort and convenience. The hard dodger helped me stay warmer and dryer than my previous soft dodger would have allowed during my trips up and down the Eastern Seaboard from Cape Cod down to Miami and into the Bahamas and Caribbean.

The additional protection of the hard dodger provided dry space for my laptop, which I use for navigation in most coastal conditions. This, in turn, allows me to forego the need for an electronic chartplotter in the cockpit, even when cruising offshore. It also keeps the companionway dry at anchor and at sea in all but the most severe weather.

From left: Monofilament fishing line can be used to stitch the plywood pieces together before they are glued; Cardboard templates were used to shape the panels for the dodger; It’s important that the dodger be stiff and stable; the author found it necessary to add stringers

From left: Monofilament fishing line can be used to stitch the plywood pieces together before they are glued; Cardboard templates were used to shape the panels for the dodger; It’s important that the dodger be stiff and stable; the author found it necessary to add stringers

That said, it was far and away the most underestimated project I have undertaken in terms of time needed, so be forewarned: this project is one that is best conquered during the off season, when you have some time. If, however, you are a serious cruiser and prefer comfort and protection from the elements over the notion of the wind in your hair then this is a project for you.

A good time to consider this project is when your old canvas dodger needs to be replaced—a difficult job for most do-it-yourselfers that requires sewing skills and a proper sewing machine. For me, the hard dodger project took more than just a few days, and I suppose it will for most cruisers if any sort of aesthetic accomplishment is expected. No special skills or tools are required, and the materials needed were not that expensive, at least by marine standards. Custom options such as opening windows or hatches in the dodger are a very nice feature, but only add to the cost and complexity of the project. For me, the most important tool required was patience.

[advertisement]If your particular cruising style does not lend itself to longer passages or spending a considerable amount of your time at anchor, perhaps your time and money can be better spent elsewhere. For those sailors who can’t live without embracing wind and feeling the spray on their face, you would probably be better off by investing in foulweather gear and towels instead.

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Designing the dodger

The build process for this job begins with creating a cardboard prototype, which will be used to develop templates. If you have an old dodger and you’re happy with its layout, then the best way to go is to use the original shape as a starting point and improve on it based on your specific needs. My Najad’s factory-installed windscreen made a solid foundation.

There are certain things you need to take into consideration when determining the height of the dodger. You will not want it obstructing your view from the helm. Also think about the location of stereo speaker boxes, power and USB outlets, reading lights, shelves, hooks, grab rails, small solar panels, antennae mounts and permanent and opening windows. An opening window or a hatch on centerline will significantly improve ventilation in the cockpit. Also, make sure that you allow enough room for operation of all winches and rope clutches.

Use tape, monofilament line or metal wire to assemble the cardboard panels. When designing the dodger, it is best to avoid flat surfaces, especially horizontal surfaces. Panel curvature will contribute to strength and stiffness. Same thing with any shelf, box or perimeter reinforcements. Rounded and beefed-up outward edges will also provide stronger handholds and will help the rain run off faster.

Final touches on the dodger are in place, such as speakers, lights and power outlets

Final touches on the dodger are in place, such as speakers, lights and power outlets

Building the dodger

When the desired cardboard prototype is finalized, take it apart and use the pieces as templates to cut out a series of plywood panels. I prefer to use thin marine plywood to reduce weight and allow for panel curvature. The plywood panels can then be assembled by stitching them together with monofilament line.

Drill small holes near the edges of connecting panel sides and then use these for running the line. This is a very low-tech and forgiving process, as later this will all be covered by filler, fiberglass tape and epoxy. Good overall shape is what is most important here; small gaps between panels do not matter.

[advertisement]When the plywood dodger has been completed and is in place in the desired location on the cabintop, fill the seams where needed with an epoxy with any low-density filler that is easy to sand, such as Bondo. Apply fiberglass tape with epoxy where accessible, and add stringers and edge reinforcements for strength and stiffness.

Now it’s time for add-on elements, like speaker boxes, bases for the optional opening hatch frame, grab-rails, hooks, solar panels, recesses for side windows, electric conduits etc. A tight fit for everything is unnecessary, as it will all be glassed over later. Now is also the time to pre-drill holes for hardware mounting. (A tip: oversize the holes to ensure everything will fit, and allow for epoxy and paint.)

Let it spray! The completed dodger adds lots of protection from the elements, and allows the author to keep his laptop safe and dry under way

Let it spray! The completed dodger adds lots of protection from the elements, and allows the author to keep his laptop safe and dry under way

Finishing the dodger

The next step is to fiberglass the entire dodger. With the dodger in place, install temporary cross-members to eliminate shape distortions and then put the dodger in a convenient place for fiberglassing. I used standard 9oz tape and cloth, and West System epoxy.

All corners and gaps need to be filled and rounded. No fancy fillers are necessary here—Bondo, West System fillers, heck, even epoxy with unscented baby powder or talcum from your local pharmacy will work. Good sanding and fairing afterward is going to make the dodger look much more aesthetically pleasing.
Once the dodger has been fiberglassed and faired, it is time to paint. What type of paint you decide to use is really up to you. Whatever paint you prefer will work, so long as it can stand up to the marine environment to which it will be exposed.

As an advocate of simplicity and cost-effectiveness, I use oil-based RustOleum Stops Rust protective enamel, because it is relatively inexpensive, readily available and easy to apply. In the years since, it has worked fine for me in various climates, and when needed I can easily put on an extra coat on to freshen things up. In my experience, surface preparation and proper application are more important than paint itself.

Once the paint is dry and you’re happy with the finished product, it is time to attach the dodger to the boat. There are lots of options out there—screws, bolts, 3M 5200, 4200, and 4000 UV adhesive sealant, Sikaflex 291, Bed-It butyl tape with mechanical fasteners, etc.—so again, it’s largely up to your own personal preferences.

[advertisement]Once the dodger is attached you can add whatever personal touches you’re interested in. If you have chosen to put permanent windows with opening hatches in your dodger, this is the time to install them. I had framed windows originally installed by the boat manufacturer, so my dodger went straight on top of the existing windows structure. If I were to make windows, I’d use tinted Lexan through-bolted in a recess on Bed-It butyl tape. I would also install a center opening hatch facing forward with hinges on top. Install any LED lights, switches, power outlets, speakers etc., and make sure that they are all placed where you like.
The final step? Cast off the docklines and go sailing with your new hard dodger.

Capt. Michael Tetelbaum has lived aboard Panthalassa since 2003. He was a mechanical engineer and computer programmer before becoming a professional captain, working on private yachts and boat deliveries

February 2016

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