Boat Buying for Absolute Beginners, Part V

Choose your accommodations wisely for maximum comfort

17th August 2001.
By David Brown

Everything that contributes to comfort in powerboats, from runabouts to megayachts, falls under the category of accommodations. (Photo courtesy Four Winns)

Everything that contributes to comfort in powerboats, from runabouts to megayachts, falls under the category of accommodations. (Photo courtesy Four Winns)

Want to avoid one of the most painful mistakes rookie buyers make with their first boat? Resist the temptation to cram it with every conceivable option. Call them features, amenities, gizmos or doo-dads, they all fall under the heading of accommodations. Too many of them can make your boat downright unaccommodating.

In the simplest terms, it’s a matter of size. The larger the boat, the greater the number (and sophistication) of accommodations it can handle. A dinghy’s only accommodation may be a hard plank for a seat, whereas a megayacht may have everything from a trash compactor to a home entertainment center.

Consider this: The total volume of space inside a 30-foot-long boat is roughly equivalent to the master bedroom of a typical home. In these confines, less is invariably more.

How Much Is Enough?

It’s possible to pack all of the comforts of a condominium into a trailerable boat. Designers find clever ways to scale down the size of the galley or head locker (boat-speak for toilet and bathroom). For better or worse, however, boat designers have found no legal way of scaling down human beings.

Without the berth cushions in place, a dinette berth functions as a dining table and seating area. (Photo courtesy Chaparral Boats)

Without the berth cushions in place, a dinette berth functions as a dining table and seating area. (Photo courtesy Chaparral Boats)

In general, it takes about 10 feet of overall length to create enough interior space within a cruising boat to sleep one adult. This rule of thumb provides enough space not only for a satisfactory bunk, but also for shared facilities like the galley or the head. People need a certain amount of “personal space,” even if they are family on a boating adventure, to be comfortable. That’s why it takes at least a 30-footer to provide enough space for three adults.

Cruising can be done aboard much smaller boats, but only if certain amenities are left ashore. For instance, a dedicated compartment for the head takes up a lot of valuable space. However, if everyone agrees to use shoreside facilities at fuel stops, a head isn’t necessary. Likewise, a dedicated galley can be replaced with an alcohol stove (or a portable barbecue) and an ice chest. Even bunks can be unnecessary if you are willing to sleep on an air mattress.

If you are planning to spend weekends aboard your boat as a cottage or expect to do extended cruising, stay reasonably close to the “10-feet-per-person” rule.

Sleeping Arrangements

Shown with the cushions in place, a dinette berth becomes a large V-berth for sleeping or relaxing in the cabin. (Photo courtesy Chaparral Boats)

Shown with the cushions in place, a dinette berth becomes a large V-berth for sleeping or relaxing in the cabin. (Photo courtesy Chaparral Boats)

Space is always precious in a boat. Smaller boats tend to use the “great room” concept, in which the galley, dining area and even the bunks are all in one large cabin. As overall boat length increases, more privacy can be given by providing “staterooms” for the bunks and separating the dining space from the saloon. (A saloon is the nautical equivalent of living room; although in common boating parlance these days it’s often called a salon.)

Called berths rather than beds, sleeping accommodations vary from boat to boat. Here a few of the most common types:

  • V-Berth — All the way forward in a powerboat’s cabin, a V-berth derives its shape from the forward section of a V-shaped hull. It’s the most common berth found in cuddy-cabin boats, high-performance boats and small power cruisers. This arrangement makes maximum use of space that would otherwise be wasted. Stowage lockers are often located in the structure that supports berth pads.
  • Dinette Berth — On most cruisers less than 30 feet long the dinette table can be lowered between the bench seats to form a double bed. The backrest cushions fill in the table to make a soft sleeping surface. Some boats longer than 30 feet use convertible dinette/berths as “emergency” sleeping accommodations for unexpected guests.
  • Settee Berth — Built-in couches called “settees” are often designed to become single berths. The backrest may swing up to form an upper bunk, or the cushions may be used to pad a pullout extension from the seat.
  • Playpen Berths — Designers often fill the deck of an entire space with a mattress to provide a “playpen” area for children. These spaces can be screened from the rest of the boat, which allows it to remain unstowed without being underfoot.
  • Pipe Berths — Once common, these are seldom found on modern boats. They consist of a canvas cot supported by iron pipes that are hung from brackets attached to bulkheads. The main advantage of a pipe berth is that it can be removed from the boat when it isn’t needed.
  • Stateroom Berths — This term is applied to any sleeping accommodation that can be separated from the main living area of the boat, usually by a bulkhead and door. Staterooms may have either single bunks or double berths.

Galley Basics

Thanks to their compact size and versatility, microwave ovens are a popular choice as the primary cooking provision in the galleys of many power cruisers. (Photo courtesy Chaparral Boats)

Thanks to their compact size and versatility, microwave ovens are a popular choice as the primary cooking provision in the galleys of many power cruisers. (Photo courtesy Chaparral Boats)

Fact: People work up a fierce hunger during a day on the water, even when that day has entailed zero physical activity. That’s where a galley, a boat’s kitchen, enters the picture.

Boat galleys can be as simple as a carry-on cooler and an alcohol stove or as complex as those found in luxurious homes. All require some kind of stowage accommodation for perishables such as meat and dairy products. These accommodations include:

  • Icebox — Old-fashioned and low-tech, an icebox has the major advantage of not requiring electricity or other power to operate. Many boats have built-in iceboxes, but the trend in recent years has been toward using portable ice chests with padded tops.
  • Mechanical Refrigeration — Dormitory room-style refrigerators work well on boats, but require 120-volt AC electricity. Dual-voltage refrigerators designed specifically for boats can use either 120-volt dockside power or the boat’s own 12-volt DC power.
  • Thermoelectric Units — These use an electric current to either cool or heat their contents. Portable units are excellent for carrying perishable food from home to the boat.

Hot Tip: Any boat refrigerator should be provided with a secure method of holding its door closed to prevent the pickles from being tossed across the cabin in rough seas.

For cooking, there are number of options offered. They include:

  • Alcohol Stoves — Alcohol is the traditional fuel for boat stoves because it is not considered to be explosive. Two types of alcohol stoves are available: pressurized and wick-type. Both come in single- and double-burner sizes.
  • Electric Stoves — There are no 12-volt DC electric stoves. All electric marine stoves use 120-volt AC power, usually from shoreside service. An electric stove cannot be used when underway unless the boat is equipped with a generator.
  • Electric and Alcohol Stoves — These units combine both alcohol and electric burners into one stove that can function while a boat is dockside or underway.
  • Multi-Burner Stoves With Ovens — These are most often available for large power cruisers and motoryachts.
  • Household Microwave Oven — Small 120-volt AC units fit most galleys. While they can only be used dockside, these units are now the most common means of cooking aboard boats.
  • 12-Volt Microwave Oven — These use the boat’s 12-volt power, but draw lots of amps and are still relatively expensive. They are not the answer for smaller boats, especially those powered by outboard motors.

Galleys are often supplied with stainless-steel hot- and cold-water sinks. These sinks must be deeper than those found in the average home to keep water from sloshing out if the boat should rock. As is true at home, a dual-basin sink in a boat is more useful than a single-basin sink — if there is enough space.

Head Layout

Basic head-compartment accommodations often include a manual-pump head unit and a sink. (Photo courtesy Chaparral Boats)

Basic head-compartment accommodations often include a manual-pump head unit and a sink. (Photo courtesy Chaparral Boats)

It’s not the most delicate of matters, but on any boat that’s used for overnighting, the head facilities can be of utmost importance. Like other accommodations, head amenities vary with the size of the boat. Here a few of the items you can expect to see:

  • Head — As noted earlier, aboard a boat the toilet itself is known as the “head.” There are two basic types: dedicated (permanently installed in the head locker) and portable. Anti-pollution laws require that all toilet waste be retained the boat and pumped ashore later. Dedicated marine toilets flush into a holding tank for this purpose. Portable toilets can be carried ashore for disposal of contents.
  • Shower — A separate shower stall may be provided in larger boats. It is more common to make the entire head locker room into a shower stall on smaller boats. (That’s why you may find the toilet paper in a waterproof container.) So much a part of bathing at home, hot water is at a premium on most boats.
  • Wash Basin — Most wash basins are smaller than those found at home but adequate. You can expect decent water pressure here, if the boat is equipped with a pressure system. (The more common alternative is a manual pump system.)
  • Traditional Head — This mechanical contraption uses a double-acting pump to flush the bowl and remove the waste. Manual toilets are the most trouble-free, but those using electric motors are more like home.
  • Vacuum Systems — Even more like household toilets are those heads that use vacuum assist to remove the waste.
  • Portable Toilets — These units solve the problem in smaller boats where there isn’t space for a dedicated marine head.

Electrical Systems

At home, your house has a variety of utility systems hidden inside its walls. These provide water, electricity and telephone. Boats have similar systems hidden within their accommodations. In fact, those aboard a boat are somewhat more complicated than the utilities serving a house.

It is not unusual for a boat to have two completely separate electrical systems: a 12-volt DC power system and a 120-volt AC power system.

The 12-volt system is used to start the engines, power any navigational electronics (e.g. a depthsounder or a Global Positioning System [GPS] receiver) and power lights used when underway. Small boats have only a 12-volt system.

The 120-volt system comes from a power cable connected to a shore-power outlet or from a generator in the boat. Larger boats with liveaboard facilities use 120-volt AC to power refrigerators, air conditioners and other amenities.

U.S. Coast Guard and industry standards require that the two systems be kept separate to prevent fires or damaged equipment. All marine systems must use flexible stranded wire that has color-coded insulation.

Water Systems

Freshwater systems come in both “pressure” and “manual” configurations. Pressure systems deliver water with the turn of a tap. On small boats the “tap” may be an electric switch, but larger boats use a demand pump system. Washdown systems use a separate pump from the one supplying the potable water.

Manual systems require the operator to physically push or “pump” a handle. Though low-tech, manual pumps seldom fail, even when the boat’s electrical system is shut off. Many boats have manual pumps for raw sea water to supplement a pressure system for potable fresh water.

Most motoryachts and even many compact power cruisers in the 25-foot-and-up range have hot-water systems. Just as it is at home, hot water is heated in a special tank. On boats, these tanks usually have 120- volt AC heating elements for use when plugged into shore power. Many boat hot-water tanks also use hot engine coolant to heat the bath water.

In motoryachts and power cruisers, you’ll also find gray-water systems. The term “gray water” refers to waste water from galley sinks or from showers and wash basins. Head waste material is kept in separate holding tanks.

Air-Conditioning/Heating Systems

It used to be that air conditioning on a boat consisted of opening every porthole — or simply running at wide-open throttle. Today, small power cruisers in the 25-foot range and even smaller can be equipped with air conditioners that run off either generator power or shore power. Air-conditioning systems include:

  • Permanent — Installed permanently by the boat manufacturer, these systems use power from a 120-volt AC compressor to chill the air inside the boat. These units cool themselves with raw sea water, so they need a water pump. One unit can cool several spaces, or several units can be installed in a large yacht.
  • Self-Contained — These units are similar to window air conditioners ashore. Some are designed to fit in a deck hatch so that cool air fills the cabin. A recent development is a suitcase-size, water-cooled unit that can be moved from boat to boat. Self-contained units require 120-volt AC power.
  • Heating Systems — A variety of heating options are available, but the most popular is “reverse-cycle air conditioning.” During the summer, this type of unit cools the air inside the cabin. In spring or fall, it reverses to warm the air.

Editor’s note: In “Boat Buying for Absolute Beginners, Part VI,” the final installment of this series, David Brown explores boat-storage options including on-site marina options and trailering.


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