Parting Shot: “Berthright”

As I recover from what seems like an endless boat show season, I have a question for boatbuilders and designers: What is it you don’t get about beds?

You weren’t raised by wolves and you don’t sleep on the floor, so you must be sleeping in a bed at night. And you must get up in the morning, and I’d guess that at least some of you make the bed as part of your morning ritual. So why are you inflicting boat owners with five- and six-sided beds that leave me wondering which end is for my head and which for my toes? I even saw a seven-sided bed just last week.

I grew up knowing that V-berths were up in the sharp end and therefore the berth was pointy at one end, which made for some interestingly tangled feet at times. But the rest of the berths—pilot-berths and quarter berths—were essentially rectangular. Convertible dinettes ended up as squarish. Even transom pullout berths were rectangular.

With the growing hordes of multisided berths that don’t even vaguely resemble queen or twin size, do you expect everyone to have their sheets custom-made? (This must be a ripe-for-the-pickin’ cottage industry.) As a kid, my mother dealt with the V-berth by simply taking a cheap sheet from Sears or Penney’s and running it through the sewing machine to alter it so it stayed tight all night. I can’t imagine asking her to knock out a seven-sided sheet.

And then there are the designer/builders of sailboats who plant the berth in the owner’s cabin athwartships or at some cockamamie angle. At sea, the owner would have to tell the watch on deck, “Hold starboard tack for at least six hours, because I want to sleep with my head up.” I once helped deliver a yacht with one of the angled berths and ended up sleeping on the sole, because the berth was like sleeping on a weird slant board.

At a boat show, one of these out-of-kilter berths had a beautiful duvet coverlet and, as the finishing sales touch, a lap tray with coffee and a plastic croissant. I wanted to giggle uncontrollably at the idea of that darling lap tray offshore.

An even bigger loss on modern yachts is the traditional pilot-berth, which, for those of you not old enough to remember rear-engine Volkswagens, was tucked outboard of the settees on each side of the cabin. Not overly wide and often close under the deck, it had high rails on the inboard side that would hold the occupant in place at high angles of heel. Lee cloths, or canvas flaps that lie flat under the cushion until needed, could be lashed or hooked into place to provide absolute security even in a knockdown.

I know, because I treasured the pilot-berth on a Cal 40 (39.3/12m) I sailed on in one Transpac race. At one point, the idiots on watch (IOWs) put the spreaders in the water, and I watched as stuff on the high side fell straight across the cabin. I know we weren’t down quite 90°, because we later measured the trajectory angle to the dent the radio direction finder had made in the opposite bulkhead when it fell from the nav station.

When asked why a supposedly “offshore cruiser” had no pilot-berth, a boat salesman pooh-poohed the idea. “Just a waste of space,” he said, pointing out that the off-watch could sleep on the wide settee cushions.

I’d like to throw down the BS flag on that one. Sleeping on a settee is like sleeping on a bench in Grand Central Station. The other watch is coming and going, packing sails, getting Oreos, looking for a Band-Aid; activity that all goes on unnoticed when you’re cossetted away in a pilot-berth.

Today’s boats seem to fill space once dedicated to pilot-berths with other “essentials” such as huge flat-screen TVs or eight-zillion-watt sound systems.

Pilot-berths were just as useful even when it wasn’t blowing 40-plus. On day sails or weekending, they’re the perfect catchall for jackets, sweaters, and duffels. And while the pilot-berth may have been designed so that the harbor pilots could sleep soundly in all conditions while waiting for incoming vessels, it’s equally perfect for a youngster’s afternoon nap.

Another thing they are perfect for is tucking in under a soft blanket on a rainy day with a good book and listening to the rain patter on the deck. I had a 37 (11.3m) Dutch yawl that was user-unfriendly in so many ways—a knee-banging cockpit, a head compartment too small to pick up dropped soap in, and a galley with no counters. But it had a wonderful pilot-berth facing a tiny charcoal fireplace set in Delft tiles on the forward bulkhead, which gave off all the warmth of a single birthday candle. I spent a lot of hours in that pilot-berth with that flickering glow and a good book, like The Riddle of the Sands, and I kept the yawl far longer than was sensible.

I don’t begrudge designers and builders who want to use the space for wet bars or cute little louvered lockers, which look great at boat shows and in a marina. But when it’s gusting 30 and the lee rail is regularly buried in white foam, trust me on this: there’s nothing better than climbing into a pilot-berth for 40 winks.