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Leeboard vs. Leecloth

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What is the issue?
Passagemakers typically use settee berths in the main cabin when underway. These bunks are often fairly narrow when used as seats but make for snug sea berths. The problem occurs when the boat heels over and lays open the outer edge, or lee side, or when sailing downwind where one finds yourself rolling about in the bunk in accord with each roll of the boat, and in heavy weather when motion can be violent. Without some robust measure of securing an occupant on a settee berth, they will be thrown out.

Why address this?
Rest is imperative to function properly whilst making passages. If you think you are about to be launched across the saloon with every breaking wave, or each time a boat heels over badly, you are not going to get much rest and will quickly become exhausted. If it comes to you actually falling out of a bunk, you could get badly injured.

How to address this?
Occupants of settee berths can be safely restrained from rolling out by two means, leecloths or leeboards. Most vessels already come with one or the other as standard. But this is an important area that is well worth focusing upon for those intent upon extended cruising.

Almost all European vessels use leecloths as picture above. Made from a hard wearing and strong fabric, about 35 – 45 cm (12 to 18 inches) high, they are frequently secured to the outer edge of the bunk and stowed below the cushions. Then, when they are needed, they can be pulled out and attached by lanyards, attached to grommets in the top edge of the canvas, that are tied off to padeyes or grab handles on the bulkhead above. Once made off tight, they then provide a secure lee side preventing the bunk’s occupant from falling out when the boat is heeled in that direction.

Leeboard on a settee berth
Image: Tony Gibson

Most American vessels prefer traditional leeboards, which are removable boards that are made to slot in, hinged or fastened into place with sliding bolts. Leeboards work like a raised side on an upper bunk bed providing sufficient height to stop the berth’s occupant from rolling out. They are fitted when the vessel sets out on a passage and are removed and stowed out of the way when not in use.

Unlike easily stowed leecloths, leeboards are big difficult items to store and take up significant additional space. In their normal form, they tend to have the additional problem of not being large enough. Most leeboards are about 15 cm (six-inches) high, which is just too little to provide sufficient protection in severe conditions so that a leecloth is required in addition to the leeboard in any case.

Leeboard section
Image: Tony Gibson

For these reasons, leeboards are becoming less popular in modern vessels. However, I would not be so hasty in overlooking the leeboard. Having spent three years circumnavigating and Lee Gunter, the original suggestion contributor, having spent five, we both believe the leeboard setup to be a far superior deep ocean sailing solution.

The problem with a leecloth is that no matter how well it is tied up, it always sags out in the middle. This opens up too much space which causes you to be thrown about uncomfortably when conditions are really boisterous. Worse, when you are really going through horrific conditions, the leecloth just does not give you the purchase you need to secure yourself in place. We experienced this running off before a Pacific cyclone for six days. When conditions are that violent the only way to prevent oneself being flung around the bunk is to wedge your body against some hard object and simply pass into unconsciousness. Leecloths just do not provide this type of solid purchase.

They also have other issues that occur in regular use. No matter what you do with them you will always find yourself eventually coming up against the raised edge of the bunk that holds the settee cushions in place. This then digs into your hip bone in an extremely uncomfortable way. Leecloths also force you to clamber about to get in and out and the pillow tends to fall out the open end which tends to wake you.

All of these problems can be completely resolved by leeboards made slightly higher, made strong enough to take the weight of a heavy body, and padded for comfort.

So from experience, I would suggest you should have both. Leeboards should be fitted wherever possible and will suffice 99% of the time as a much better solution. Then, should you be unlucky enough to get badly caught out, attach the leecloths in addition as a secondary precaution for added peace of mind.

With thanks to:
Lee Gunter and Michael Harpur, yachts New World and Obsession.
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