Columbia 8.7 Cockpit Locker from Quarterberth Conversion

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This article first appeared in Good Old Boat Magazine

STEP-BY-STEP CRUISING MODIFICATIONS

From Quarterberth to Cockpit Locker

James Baldwin describes converting a quarterberth to a cockpit locker on a Columbia 8.7

Have you ever seen a sailboat with too much cockpit locker stowage space? Unfortunately, the reverse is more typical. A deep cockpit locker handy for stowing everything from spare sails, fenders, water cans, even the dinghys outboard motor, is often sacrificed for a spare bunk in the form of the quarterberth. On a small sailboat in the summer, or anytime in the tropics, a cramped quarterberth invariably lacking adequate cross ventilation is virtually uninhabitable. In foul weather, the unfortunate inhabitant of this bunk has his face exposed to any sea spray coming through the companionway. Most quarterberths cannot be slept in anyway because they are used as an awkward stowage area for items better stowed elsewhere.

When a friend asked us to refurbish Psyche, his 1976 Columbia 8.7 near Savannah, Georgia, one of the obvious improvements we agreed on was to convert the port quarterberth to a large cockpit locker similar in size to the existing starboard locker. A new hull to deck bulkhead located two-feet aft of the head of the berth would separate the locker from a new navigation counter with stowage underneath and radio locker to the side.

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Psyche, the 1976 Columbia 8.7 owned by Dr. Daniel Grant near Savannah, Georgia

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The quarterberth at the beginning of the project.

First we removed and discarded an air conditioner and its ducting from the foot of the berth and a refrigeration compressor to the side of it. Sagging vinyl headliner was taken down along with its disintegrating foam backing. Then the plywood bunk bottom and side was cut away and moldy carpeting peeled off the hull. With tape measure we laid out marks for the position of the forward bulkhead and the top locker lid.

Take a deep breath and begin cutting

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The locker lid is carefully cut out with a jig saw.

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Looking aft with the drainage channels sealed in epoxy.

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The drainage channels and framing cut and ready to install.

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The channels and framing in place.

In order to get maximum access to locker contents I marked out a locker lid to cut out of the seat that was slightly longer than the 38-inch long starboard locker door and full seat width minus an inch for the hinges. Holes from an 1/8-inch drill bit marked the corners of the lid which was then cut out from above with a fine-toothed jig saw. Some care was taken to make the cut straight as possible because the cutout section was used as the new lid. The cockpit seat I cut through was cored with 1/2"-inch balsa. To seal the cut seat and lid, I removed balsa -inch deep along all edges of the cut with a chisel and filled it with epoxy thickened with West 406.

Now I could work with more elbowroom and better ventilation by climbing through the new hole in the cockpit seat. My wife, who assisted me on this project, made sure the interior of the boat was protected from fiberglass dust by sealing it off with a plastic shower curtain taped in place. All fiberglass surfaces were then thoroughly cleaned and abraded with a 36-grit disc on a 7-inch variable speed sander/polisher. For corners a similar disc on a 4 angle grinder, and for really tight spots a #60 flap disc on a drill motor quickly cut through the old paint.

Although we removed the bunk, hull stiffness was maintained by not disturbing the longitudinal hull stringers. I cut the original aft bulkhead of the quarterberth away leaving some 3-inches undisturbed where it bonded to the hull with fiberglass tabbing. The hull in this area was actually strengthened overall by the new forward bulkhead. Originally there had been an engine access panel between the top of the quarterberth and the engine compartment. This panel we replaced with a larger one to give better access to the engine and the diesel tank fittings under the cockpit footwell. As an added bonus we gained access to install a second 20-gallon water tank under the footwell aft the fuel tank.

Adding the new bulkhead

At the aft end of the old bookshelf was a partial bulkhead. I cut the teak trim off this bulkhead and using a cardboard template cut a new full bulkhead of -inch plywood and sistered it onto the partial old one. Some lightly built boats may require fitting a wedge-shaped piece of closed cell foam between the hull and the edge of new bulkheads to spread the load and prevent a hard spot on the hull. The process is described well in the Scratch and Itch chapter of Don Caseys book, This Old Boat. This Columbia, with its thick hull lay-up and generous hull stiffeners required nothing more than roughly fitting the bulkhead to the hull and filling any small gaps with epoxy thickened to a peanut butter consistency. I applied a fillet on both sides of the joint by squeezing more thickened epoxy from a plastic sandwich bag with a hole cut in one corner and rounded off with a wooden tongue depressor. Before the epoxy hardened I laid four layers of progressively wider 4,6,8 and 10-inch wide medium weight fiberglass cloth saturated with epoxy resin over the joint and brushed out more resin on all exposed bare wood. Though marine plywood is generally recommended, because we sealed all sides and edges of all wood in epoxy and the strength of materials used was more than strong enough, we saved some money by using an A/B grade of exterior plywood.

Locker lid drainage channels go in

With the bulkhead in place, I moved on to complete the drainage channels and supports for the locker lid. These channels can be built in several ways. You might imitate the factory method by making a mold, lay up the pieces with fiberglass and glass them in place. This makes sense when building a hundred boats. For this job I found it easiest to construct the channels from 1/2"-inch plywood and 1x2 (actually by 1 -inch) white oak. The channels tapered from 1-inch deep near the cockpit coaming to 8 inches deep where they drained through two holes drilled into the side of the footwell. The lower the drainage holes, the better the channels drain when the boat is heeled. Eight inches was a compromise between good drainage and overly obstructing locker access with channels that are too deep.

As seen in the accompanying photos, the oak and plywood pieces were screwed and glued to the surrounding fiberglass, strengthened and waterproofed with epoxy fillets, fiberglass cloth and resin. Using wood that was screwed and glassed in place made the structure immensely strong. It could have been built lighter, but at some point the ultimate strength of the construction would be in question. We dont have to guess if its strong enough after giving it the backyard-engineering test of jumping on it, we know it is strong.

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The finished locker lid.

A watertight fit

The tops of the wood channels were carefully lined up to fit evenly to the bottom of the locker lid minus a 1/8-inch in height later made up by adding a rubber gasket to seal out water. The bottom of the locker lid was not perfectly level itself. That was corrected before the gasket was applied by squeezing out a line of epoxy under the lid where it met the wood channel tops and setting it in place with a thin piece of plastic sheet between the epoxy and wood. After it set up, I lifted the lid off and ground away the hardened epoxy that squeezed out from the high spots and we had a perfect fit. The lid is attached with two stainless flat hinges and a lockable latch.

The two engine access panels, notched at the top to fit around the engine exhaust outlet hose, fit in place with barrel bolts for easy removal. Another removable panel made a level bottom to the deepest corner of the locker and protected the wiring and plumbing running through there. We painted the locker with Interlux Pre-Kote primer and Brightside one-part polyurethane.

A permanent nav station

Back in the salon we tackled the new navigation station. In this conversion, merging the old cabinetry to the new navigation station was made easier by using some of the existing shelves and bulkheads and keeping to a similar layout. Outboard the forward end of the quarterberth below two shelves was a sliding hide-away panel used as a makeshift navigation table. Besides offending the senses, that wood-grained Formica sliding table had to go because it blocked locker space. The sliding table was replaced by a mahogany-trimmed and canvas-patterned laminate countertop that can be partly lifted or taken off to access items in the locker below.

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The new nav station with front panel and countertop removed. Batteries are located below locker.

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The finished navigation station.

After ripping off more moldy foam-backed vinyl from the hull next to the old bookshelf, I converted this area to a radio locker at the top with counter space below and locker under. The VHF was mounted here and space left for a future SSB installation. There is adequate space on the aft bulkhead to mount a new GPS or possibly a multi-function radar chartplotter. Since we were in the process of refinishing the entire boat with Honduran mahogany trim and veneer we used the same woods for the navigation station including applying veneer to the main bulkhead and other vertical panels with contact cement.

The nav table lifts up to access the huge locker underneath. Below that is the battery locker. For easier access to change batteries the forward vertical panel under the nav table slides up and out of its tracks.

Conclusions

The entire conversion took roughly $390 in materials and some 60 hours labor, not including the varnishing which took place later as part of an entire interior refinishing. Depending on the layout and degree of changes needed, another boat might take less time, possibly slightly more.

Besides the usefulness of a deep cockpit locker to swallow the loads of gear every cruising boat carries and all the benefits of this conversion mentioned earlier, the owner now has a useable permanent navigation station and extra counter space that extends right through to the galley.