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On Powerboats - The topside safety equation

Look for adequate cockpit depth, plenty of toe-kick and non-skid that’ll do the job

Look for adequate cockpit depth, plenty of toe-kick and non-skid that’ll do the job

In the past few months, we’ve looked at design elements that are central to how smoothly a boat rides, how dry the ride is, steering responsiveness and visibility from the helm. This month let’s shift gears and consider some interrelated safety and comfort issues that are worth paying attention to when shopping for your next boat.


Topside walking surfaces on fiberglass boats are usually covered with a non-skid surface that’s molded into the deck. The non-skid pattern is chosen by the boatbuilder, and these patterns vary widely in terms of how aggressively they grip your shoes, and how easy they are to keep clean with a hose and scrub brush.

Some boatbuilders opt for an aggressive diamond tread pattern that grips boat shoes very well, especially when the deck is wet. Yet these decks are still easy to clean since there’s enough room between the individual high hills in the profile for a brush bristle to fit in and reach the valleys. Other builders use a smoother, largely ineffective pattern that offers little slip resistance, with little depth or hard corners to those peaks. That’s because they pick a pattern to use in the deck mold that’s not well-suited to the job, such as a pattern similar to that on a fluorescent light cover.

Some boats have a spray-on non-skid that mixes a fine grit into the coating as it’s being applied to the deck. This same fine-grit pattern can be used in the fiberglass tooling used to manufacture the deck, producing that pattern in the finished deck. The fine non-skid also does a good job gripping your Topsiders, but it can be a bear to keep clean.

My advice is to talk to owners of boats built recently by the same builder, or take a walk around a local marina to look for signs of hard-to-clean decks. The best non-skid patterns do a great job keeping you from slipping, aren’t too hard on bare knees, and are easy to clean at the end of the day.

Cockpit depth

Cockpits, whether in hardcore tournament sportfishermen or cruising boats, have several design criteria to consider. The rail, coaming, washboard, covering boards — or whatever you prefer to call the part of the boat you lean against while in the cockpit — should be high enough to keep passengers from inadvertently going swimming. If you’re on a Coast Guard-inspected vessel, like a cruise ship or ferry, railings and bulwarks are 39 inches high, and it’s not easy to fall up and over a railing that tall (except maybe if you’re blind stinking drunk on a cruise ship). That’s also way too high to work on a 30- or 40-foot cruiser or fishing boat.

My view is that 30 inches is just about right; much lower, and it gets easier to lose your balance when leaning against the coaming. A lot of sportfishing boats have a 25- or 26-inch coaming height, which is certainly on the low side balance-wise, but anglers like the fish-handling ease that this low freeboard provides. In any event, 24 inches or lower is really pushing it, and a coaming that low makes the boat unsafe, especially when running at higher speeds.


The better boats have a deep toe-kick space so you can stand up straight, with your feet lined up directly below you under the washboard, when your thighs are up against the coaming. Without a toe-kick, you’ll be off-balance even before you lean over the side to grab the fishing leader or dock line. So toe-kick is very important to your safety. It’s also important that the toe-kick continue all the way around the cockpit, including across the transom, live well and transom door.

Most boats are built in two major fiberglass pieces: the hull and a one-piece deck and superstructure. The latter includes the cockpit deck and liner (the inner sides of the cockpit) but doesn’t include the washboard. This 8- to 12-inch-wide flat section, upon which you can carefully walk around the cockpit, is a separate fiberglass part often made of a single U-shaped section that stretches across the top of the transom and up the sides as far as the side decks. The washboard is what provides the toe-kick space.

If you’re looking at a budget boat, the entire cockpit — including the washboard — often is made from a single piece of fiberglass, in which case there is no toe-kick (unless the builder uses special breakaway tooling, which is rare). I recommend avoiding these boats for a couple of reasons. First of all, this design is unsafe. Also, since the boat is built this way to save the builder time and money, you have to wonder if there are areas you can’t see that present equally good reasons to avoid the boat. Bottom line, the combination of ample coaming height, aggressive non-skid, and generous toe-kick space add up to a safe cockpit.

Deck height

The height of the cockpit deck is driven by competing interests. First, there’s minimum deck height. The deck has to be high enough above the waterline to provide plenty of reserve buoyancy so the boat won’t be swamped if it is heavily loaded down by the stern, or in the event a wake or wave makes its way on board. Obviously, the higher the deck is off the water, the greater the reserve buoyancy and the less likely the boat will swamp. Minimum cockpit deck height also is driven by the internal height and volume needed for steering gear (rudder posts and boards), fuel tanks and lazarette storage.

There also are maximum deck height considerations, especially with sportfishing boats. Anglers and mates handling fish close to the boat like to be near the water so it’s easier to reach a fish with a gaff and hold the leader away from the hull when the catch is swimming around or under the boat. If the deck is 6 or 8 inches off the waterline and the washboards are 25 or 26 inches high, that’s close enough to touch the water from the cockpit.

This low deck design works fine for smaller inshore boats that stay in bays and other protected waters. But bigger oceangoing boats need more deck height, both for seaworthiness (remember, reserve buoyancy) and because the deck would be too wet to fish. Whether rolling in the trough at a slow trolling speed or, especially, backing down on a fish, water would be sloshing around and getting everyone’s feet wet, and that’s not much fun. I’ve found that cockpit deck height on sportfishing boats, fully loaded with fuel, ranges from about 10 to 14 inches. Any lower and the deck gets really wet; any higher and it gets harder to handle a fish close to the boat.

Of course any discussion of the reserve buoyancy provided by higher decks should include the underlying assumption that the deck itself is watertight. Otherwise, deck water would flood the bilge, requiring the bilge pump to keep up. I’ll further address deck watertightness, bilge pump capacity and cockpit drainage in a later column.

Eric Sorensen was the founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he has spent 40 years operating charter and commercial fishing boats, Coast Guard vessels, and Navy ships and patrol boats.