Solar Bimini

Note: this post covers the basics of what we wanted from a cockpit enclosure, and some of our design and construction concerns.  The next post on this topic will provide detailed specs and costs for the solar power system on Meander. 


1989 Catalina 36 Specs: Electrical outlines our current power setup–namely, our charging options until now have been shore power or running the inboard diesel engine/alternator in order to charge our new 410Ah@12v battery bank.

Design Parameters and Limitations

I’ve wanted solar since day one, and we both knew we’d have a solar-roofed bimini or full enclosure.  After our fall 2017 trip, we knew it would be a full enclosure!

We’ve been very slowly working our way through building a cockpit enclosure frame capable of supporting the 80# of solar panels.  Currently.  We’ve come to an acceptable compromise (for now) based on the following:

  • N wanted a full enclosure
  • I wanted solar panels
  • N wanted straight uprights, 1-inch stainless, fixed bases, a slight cantilever over the transom, and a rectilinear shape.  No bending 20 ft sections of stainless tubing, on the docks, in winter.
  • We both wanted rainwater collection and relatively flat enclosure side panels
  • It had to be capable of disassembly for future modifications (ie, streamline, strengthen, add function, fix our mistakes) or if we leave the boat unattended.
  • The whole solar project including the bimini enclosure had to cost around $2000.


Photos above (left to right): (1) Bedding aft bimini posts–through-bolted, backing plates, butyl tape.  Washers are temporary for dryfitting.  (2) 600 W of solar, awkwardly stored in the aft cabin, waiting. (3) The basic structure is up.  The pvc mockup of the solar panel is sitting atop the bimini frame. 

We’ve both been wailing and gnashing our teeth a bit.  We have access to such a sweet setup for these kinds of projects…during the summer…in Fairbanks.  What we are building feels a little makeshift in comparison to what we both KNOW we can build.  Another reason, as much as we love Alaska, to sail south eventually!

Bimini costs

I think we’ve met all the criteria above, although shipping premiums on the various components, while not South Pacific bad, are still awful for the budget.  We do have a few concerns…

  • Windage
  • Aesthetics
  • Dog ingress and egress

Concern: Windage

Going from the standard curvilinear bimini to the now much more rectilinear form will definitely increase windage.  We should be able to ease the forward profile into the dodger a bit, using the enclosure fabric, but still, if wind or water is coming on the beam, we’ll be the proverbial broad side of the barn.  We may also lose a bit of speed and a few points of sail upwind.

However, the windage may actually prove useful in heaving to–if the boat and enclosure can take it!  Of course, I looked up how windage might affect various sailing maneuvers, sketching a few scenarios, and paying special attention to the opinions of the best.  John Harries, aboard the high latitude Morgan’s Cloud, and a sailor’s sailor if ever there was, mentions his preference for heaving to in heavy weather, and has the following to say:

In recent years heaving-to has fallen out of fashion. I think this is because of the misconception that modern fin keel boats won’t heave-to well. In most cases the actual problem is the limited ability that modern sloops have to appropriately adjust their sail area to lie heaved-to comfortably, rather than a hull form issue.

excerpted from Heavy Weather Sailing, chapter 3, an ebook available to members of the Attainable Adventure Cruising site.  Worth the membership!

Looking at the rest of that chapter, and then at our boat, though, I think two things:  dang Morgan’s Cloud is a tough boat and I’m certain ours is not similarly up to heaving to; and hmm, we’ve got windage from the enclosure and from the Portland Pudgy’s humpy form lashed down just forward of the mast.  We may not want to put our boat through gale-level heaving to, but she may actually not require too much adjustment to do so! (Must test.  Adding to list. Probably wrong/wishful thinking.)

Concern: Aesthetics

Traditionalists still object to sailboats under 50 feet with pilothouses, solid dodgers, or the curvilinear cockpit enclosures–what are they going to think of our project?

The bare frame seems both puny and enormous, stark and offputting.  I’m pretty sure she’ll look good when all done, but I can’t quite visualize what she’ll look like with her clothes on.

I suspect the enclosure, when zipped shut at long last, will resemble the proportions of the one on Venture Lives, which seems just a little large for the boat.  That enclosure however, made life at anchor, and keeping watch in cold weather, SO MUCH BETTER.  So, I think I’m ok with everything.  And if I’m not, well, we’ll think about it until we can redo it someplace further south.

Venture Lives-1979 Cal 31 with full enclosure by Sailrite

Concern: Dog Ingress and Egress

She’s cute, but she’s not agile.  Honey, our adopted stray, is twelve now.  She’s doing well, as you can see from last winter’s pic, above.  Still, she’s pretty much lost her hops.  These days, we lift her through the companionway, and she has a behemoth of a ramp to get to and from the finger pier.

We’d like to take her with us on this trip, up until crossing the Gulf.  But to do that, we need to be able to take her to shore.  Ever try getting a 95 pound elderly dog into and out of a dinghy while at anchor?  Twice a day, every day?  It’s a pickle.  Friends of ours, equally fond of their dogs, actually switched to an RV this winter in the face of this very same problem.  They want a boat again–when their dogs die.

Our current notion is to buy her a life vest with the lifting straps built in, bring her up on the deck, and USE THE HALYARD to transition to and from the dinghy.  I capitalize because every time I say our plan out loud, I laugh.  Well, we’ll know whether the notion will work within a few weeks.  There may be some excellent footage.  The other option is to find a kind sucker to watch her.  (Aka: M&L, you know who you are…we love you!)

So, never mind.  Setting aside the improbability of our success in loading/unloading her, I guess she won’t have a problem with our new enclosure.  Why would she?  Why did I worry about this? Oh, right, we had thought of a rotating dinghy hoist equipped with a block and tackle, and considered locating it so she didn’t have to go forward.  Or building a passerelle in the same location.



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