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You just can’t get the security of a pilot berth anymore

2009 November 1
It's both the end of summer and the start of boat show season as I write this and, as a result, I've been going through a lot of different sailboats recently. Some were new boats at shows, others were friends' boats, but overall, I had a strange sense that something important was missing. It was as though I was in a familiar room from which something had been removed, and I couldn't quite figure out what was absent.

It wasn't until I was looking through an old box of slides for a photo of our crew from a Transpac Race decades ago that I realized what was missing.

Pilot berths.

They seem to be as rare as honest politicians these days, but once they were an essential part of any sailboat that was designed to venture offshore, and many that weren't.

For those of you who aren't old enough to remember rear-engined Volkswagens or First Ladies wearing furs, pilot berths were single bunks tucked outboard of the settees on each side of the cabin. They were supposedly adapted from pilot boats, on which the harbor pilots had to sleep soundly in all conditions while waiting offshore for incoming vessels.

Pilot berths were usually fairly narrow and close under the deck, but their distinguishing feature was a high rail on the inboard side which would hold the occupant in place at high angles of heel. On racing boats, "lee cloths" were often added, which were canvas flaps that lay flat under the bunk cushion until needed, and then could be snapped or lashed to the overhead to provide absolute security even in a knockdown.

In looking around many modern sailboats, I can't imagine how you sleep when the yacht is offshore and heeled over. Yes, having berths wide enough for two people is wonderful for a lot of reasons that I don't need to discuss. Having all that acreage of mattress in a marina or a quiet anchorage is one thing; trying to stay on it when the boat is heeled far over in big seas is another. I've tried, and it's like napping on a bucking bronco.

I love the master stateroom on a fairly new sloop owned by a friend, but I ended up sleeping on the cabin sole while helping him deliver the yacht because it was just too hard to stay on the big bed. And that berth was complicated because it was angled across the cabin rather than fore-and-aft, so one tack was like sleeping on a slant board and the other put my toes far above my head.

I've spent a lot of very happy and secure hours tucked in pilot berths on long passages. Cal-40s had great pilot berths and, having ended a watch on an ocean race like the Transpac, I would drift into Nod-land with the slosh and roar of water rushing past just inches from my ear. I could allow myself to relax into a deep and refreshing sleep because there was no fear that the other watch might change tacks and I'd fall out of bed. I was as secure as a baby in a crib.

I mentioned the absence of pilot berths to a yacht salesman, who pooh-poohed them. "Just a waste of space," said he, pointing out that the offwatch could sleep just as comfortably on the wide settee cushions.

I can only speak from my own experience, but sleeping on a settee during an ocean race is like sleeping on a bench in Grand Central Station. The other watch is always coming and going, getting Cokes or jackets or rooting around for a Band-Aid or repacking a sail on the cabin floor. If you're in a pilot berth, all this can go on without disturbing your sleep at all. You're cosseted away from sound and light and thoughtless crewmembers in your own little realm.

Pilot berths aren't just wonderful offshore, but at rest as well. Though I've spent a lot of hours sailing across oceans while tucked in a pilot berth, some of the best times have been at anchor on a rainy day. Snuggled in a pilot berth under a soft blanket with a good book and the rain pattering on the deck just overhead is an exquisite pleasure.

At one point, I had a 37-foot Dutch yawl that was excruciatingly unfriendly in many ways: a tiny knee-banging cockpit, a head compartment so small you couldn't turn around, and a galley with no counters. But she had a pair of cozy pilot berths behind the button-tufted settees and, even better, a tiny charcoal fireplace set in Delft tiles on the forward bulkhead. Of course, the fireplace gave off about the same heat as a single birthday candle, but it was all about the flickering glow and the ambiance. I spent a lot of pleasant hours in those pilot berths, reading books like Riddle of the Sands. Those pilot berths were solely responsible for my ownership of that yawl for much longer than was sensible.

Pilot berths have other uses, too. First, they're a great catch-all when daysailing or even weekending aboard. Everyone tosses their duffel bags and jackets and
sweaters into the pilot berth, where they are out of the way but readily accessible.

And they're the perfect place for kids. Babies can be tucked in a pilot berth without worries, and youngsters can have their afternoon naps in complete security.

I don't begrudge modern designers and builders who want to use all that space for wetbars and flatscreen televisions and cute little louvered lockers. Those things certainly look better when you're standing in a quiet marina or at a boat show.

But when it's blowing 25 and the lee rail is buried in white foam, trust me: there's nothing better than climbing into a pilot berth for 40 winks.