The perils of too much sun are well know, so decent shade on board is essential via a boat cover, awning or bimini, says Miranda Delmar-Morgan

Most people realise that yachts cruising in the tropics need decent shading, but it hasn’t normally been necessary for sailors in northern latitudes.

That is changing though and we are increasingly getting searingly hot spells here in the UK, making a boat cover, bimini or awning more important kit.

People are also now more conscious of skin damage and exposure. It is time to think about decent shelter and protection from the sun.

Last year Edward and I were fried to a crisp for several days when on the Hamble, so we decided to tackle the setup on our boat.

You will have seen, in pictures at least, large, graceful yachts rigged up with vast awnings above canvas deck chairs to stop the ice in the gin and tonics melting. Two or more masts obviously make awnings easier to suspend because there is so much more rigging for tensioning it, and good tension is essential.

The bigger awnings seen on large charter yachts have bolt ropes and grommets along the edges in order to maintain tension on rigging fore and aft. The Royal Navy even have dedicated manuals on how to rig awnings securely.

Warmer summers and a better understanding of skin damage makes proper awnings worth the investment, even in the UK. Photo: Pete Goss

Even on small boats, however, they are going to have to withstand sudden gusts and squalls at anchor, and rain showers. Plus they need to be able to throw off the water rather than pool and sag.

They nearly all need suspension along the centreline and that can be achieved with hoist points and lines running to a central ring and onto the main halyard.

Single-masted sloops, as most boats are these days, present a problem and a different approach is required.

Our three-quarter tonner, Polar Bear, had a lovely big cockpit and a 3.3m beam. René of Quay Canvas at Bursledon made us a very nice, quite wide awning with no centreline. Large panels were stitched with seams across the width rather than along the length.

If you want to cover your tender, dinghy or kayak, check out YBW’s guide to the best boat covers

Fibreglass rods of varying lengths were inserted into sleeves across the width which stopped it from collapsing.

The rods were bendy but robust and could withstand considerable tensioning. The pocket ends of the aftmost one were tethered to the pushpit, and the forwardmost one had lines running to the lower shrouds, thus providing good fore-and-aft tensioning. Bigger boat covers on larger sloops will need more rigid end bracing poles.

Access slits at the mid points allowed for the insertion of hoist lines around the rods to facilitate suspension from a halyard.

Article continues below…

The beam ends had grommets for tensioning downwards either to the toe rail or the outside of the lower guard rails. The longer rods are cumbersome to stow on smaller yachts. Ours were cut in half and had stainless sleeves to join them together. One half of the rods could then be left within the sleeves and the other halves removed. The whole awning could be folded in half lengthways and rolled up for stowing.

This meant it was already part assembled for our next hoisting and we could get it up pretty quickly at the next stopover.

They need to be easy to drop and raise not only because you are then more likely to use them, particularly if the crew is already hot and frazzled, but also if you have to do a quick drop in a drama. All that canvas causes windage and can unsettle your anchor if you start yawing about in heavy gusts.

Larger vessels often have large, heavily made canvas awnings

It is useful to have it designed in such a way that, having swung the boom and main sheet to the side deck you can either keep the awning low, below the boom, if you want to keep out the rain; or high, and possibly above the boom if you want to let air flow through, and that works best if you drop the sprayhood.

It may well work better in one particular position and might be less suited to the other, but you will be so grateful for the shade provided by a boat cover that if it isn’t immaculately suspended in the alternative position I suspect that will be less of a concern.

There are a few other decisions to be made about your awning or boat cover. Many boats that spend longer periods at anchor in the Mediterranean or the tropics have awnings that cover the whole boat to protect the deck from the sun, and thus keep the inside of the boat cool. These can be made in one, two or three parts, covering the cockpit, midships, and the foredeck.

While this might be overkill, a simple boat cover draped across the boom will help keep the saloon cool.

That’s all well and good while the sun is high in the sky, but in our latitudes, the sun’s rays are often at an oblique angle and it is amazing how much heat and glare come in from the sides when it is scorching hot and the sun is getting low. It is important, therefore to think about shading from the side as well.

You can have drop skirts made for suspending from the sides, attached by Velcro or zips.

Alternatively, in extremis, you can suspend something like flat bed sheets, or beach towels. If you gather the corners with hitches you can tether them to the awning sides. You then need to take the bottom corners over the top guard rail and tie them down to the stanchion bases thus creating skirts.

Using bed sheets will look messy, but they do work, and they do at least satisfy the ‘dual purpose’ role for something you are already carrying around. Sheets and towels won’t work as rain deflectors though, whereas canvas will.

Lateral poles will help maintain height across the full beam. Photo: Miranda Delmar-Morgan

Awnings can vary in fabric and weight and you will have to be guided by your canvas maker. Obviously the heavier they are the bulkier they are to stow and more cumbersome to erect.

Acrylic is often favoured for a more classic look. The lighter weight ones can be noisy if they flap about. Modern fabrics usually have high UV resistance. They are breathable, durable and water resistant; so they serve you equally well in heavy downpours. Most canvas makers generally use a UV-resistant thread.

Bits of tarpaulin simply draped across a boom and tied down to the guardrails don’t work very well. They are better than nothing at all but the lashings impede your passage up and down the side decks and pulling the fabric down towards the guardrails reduces the overall coverage.

Other alternatives to a boat cover or awning might, with a little ingenuity, be adapted from items bought at a camping or outdoor shop. You can get lightweight sunshades held open with collapsible poles like a tent, that you can hoist with a halyard or secure to the backstay, and then lash in place from the corners.

Camping tarpaulins are also lightweight, come with guy ropes attached and are shaped in a way that makes them easier to tension. Even umbrellas, parasols or the top of a gazebo might be pressed into service, though are unlikely to be satisfactory long-term solutions.


At sea, of course, a bimini is invaluable. If they are well made, well secured and taut they should be able to cope with windy conditions.

A well set bimini can be used underway in a decent breeze.

One canvas maker says he designs his biminis to withstand going to windward at 8 knots in 35 knots of wind. He has so much work he prefers to remain anonymous.

Biminis have a permanent tubular structure and stow in a canvas zip up ‘sausage’ either in front of, or behind the cockpit. They are permanently on deck and so are quicker to raise and stow than an awning and obviously they do quite a different job.

They are best stowed aft of the cockpit if possible because if they rest forward of the cockpit they can impede the view. They can also obscure your immediate overhead view of the boom and mainsail, but it is a price worth paying.

Most are made in such a way that the main sheet can be reached and adjusted whilst under sail, and the detachable drop skirts are often see-through but offer shading and a wind break.

It’s also worth remembering to wear plenty of sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and a long-sleeved shirt. Gone are the days that peeling skin was considered an acceptable stepping stone to building up a decent tan.

A really good awning provides a wonderful outdoor living space and an element of privacy. If you intend living aboard for any length of time it is without doubt an essential item.

All these awnings, boat covers and biminis are usually custom made and therefore expensive. However, lying beneath a well-tensioned awning, watching the stars and planets twinkle in a balmy night sky as the boat swings to her anchor is a magical experience. You will never regret the expense.

Enjoyed reading this?

A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.

      • Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
      • Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
      • Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.