Re-thinking the boat tent

I had a long drive the other day and turned my mind to first principles to try and find another starting point for the tent (previous musings here):

  • everything in a boat should have two uses (can't remember where I read that), so what can we use to avoid carrying and storing more stuff? Stowage space in a Walkabout is limited and less weight is always good.
  • avoid adding holes or fittings to the boat
  • in a boat, especially a yawl, we start with at least two advantages when it comes to designing a tent, compared with designing a tent for land: two strong uprights (masts); the ability to fix the bottom of the tent firmly to the boat, eg hooks under the gunwhale, no need for tent pegs.

So, apart from the masts, what else do I have that could be useful?

  • 2 pairs of oars (and the ability to get these out of the way when in tent mode would be good, they normally lie on one of side benches getting in the way.)
  • the mizzen boom
  • two stretchers (foot rests)
  • tiller

On the drive I turned these over in my mind and came up with the idea of a tent hung from a line between the masts, and using the mizzen boom and a broom stick handle to spread the sides of the tent. These two poles will hang across the boat from a lines from each mast to the gunwale, to form two 'coat hangers' a little shorter than the beam suspended across the the cockpit. Along each side an oar will be slung from the coat hanger.

This should form the basis of a fairly solid frame. The canvas will go over the ridge line, outside the oars and fix to the existing hooks under the gunwale with elastic lacing. At each end a series of triangles of canvas will form a bell end laced to the existing hooks outside the coaming.

I couldn't work out the detail of the ends in my mind, but there seemed to the possibility of fixing the bell ends to the main canvas with zips to allow the ends to be used as doors. And at the top of the bell ends, under the overhanging apex, space for a good sized ventilation panel with insect net.


Here's a sketch of my idea. Thinking about how to actually make it, I imagine the main 'framework' – the blue lines in the sketch – will be woven tape, say 3 cm wide, to which the canvas will stitched. The tape can be pulled tight without risk of ripping a light canvas. The oars might be lashed to velcro sewn to the tapes, or perhaps sit in pockets sewn to the tapes. The tapes will have long tailed that would feed through the forward and aft rowlock sockets, to be tied off inside – the tapes could easily be loosened or tightened as necessary without leaving the boat.

This morning I was in the boat yard sorting out my launching trolley – another story; despite the dreich weather I couldn't resist trying out this idea with some rope, my bivi tarp, and a wooden batten I found lying around.

The oars are only just long enough, and the mizzen boom is too long but a couple of broom handles could be cut to the exact length needed. To earn their keep they could be used for checking depths or as boat hooks perhaps.

The structure was only lashed together in a hurry and the oars tied on with garden twine, but it seemed to have the potential to be very solid. The 'coat hanger' did swing however, but that was soon cured by lines to the downhaul cleat: the black lines in the photo.

The spreader will be above the foredeck and not take up any room in the tent. In fact it might well end up outside the 'bell end'.

If I'm to use the bell-end as a door I'll need to either sling the tent from higher up the masts or have a less acute pitch to the roof, or possibly both.

When not in use the rowlocks live in a hole in the frame. This provides a perfect place to cleat off the line – probably tape if this tent is ever made – that feeds through the rowlock socket.

If this method really does create a robust frame for the tent, I might be able to lash the second pair of oars to the first pair. This will get them right out of the way when the tent is in use.

What do you think? What have I forgotten to take account off?



About Osbert Lancaster

Creating ripples to foster sustainability. Seeking solace & clarity on the sea by sail & oar.


  1. Great plan. Love the dual use…..wished I’d thought of that……makes perfect sense.
    What about ease of putting up when windy?
    Arwens meanderings

    • Osbert Lancaster

      Hi Steve

      I think putting it up in the wind should be ok. Assuming head to wind:
      – attach bottom of forward bell section to hooks around coaming
      – fit forward tapes to forward rowlock sockets
      – tie forward apex tape to mast hoop, hoop already at correct height previously marked
      – insert forward spreader

      Forward half-bell is now up and taut.

      – fit aft tapes to aft rowlock sockets
      – tie aft apex tape to mizzen at marked height
      – insert aft spreader

      Tent now up and main section taut.

      – hook elastic side lacing to hooks under each gunwale
      – hook lacing of aft bell to hooks by coaming
      – fit oars
      – adjust tapes to rowlock sockets if necessary


  2. Pitch of the roof look a little too flat, but the idea looks good

  3. Frank raisin

    Yes, pitch of roof with rigid eaves needs to be so steep to avoid puddles that boat could blow over! ?
    Also will walse? Around at anchor
    Bows, on the other hand could simplify everything and also facilitate partial erection – as in cuddy ….
    All the best,

  4. Osbert Lancaster

    Richard, Frank – thanks for comments. The ‘frame’ will probably be solid enough that the canvas can be kept very taut, so no difficulty shedding water.

    What determines whether a boat will waltz around at anchor?

  5. richardlozell


    Margaret and Frank Dye use to have a boat tent very similar to this. In that they used a hanger to give that straight side to the tent. You might want to see if you can find some pictures of their tent for some ideas.



  6. Dave Stewart

    Hi, just a couple of quick thoughts on tents. You might want to put tapes on your canvas along the oars in the frame, so you can put some tension in the fabric to cut down on flogging in the wind. Also I once had a very nice shore tent, that had tapes running through cam lock buckles so I could take up tension from inside to stop flapping without going out in the storm. nice in bad weather. Dave

  7. David Kirby

    A better idea than your previous ones, will give a better useable area. The comments about shedding water are good ones. Maybe some part hoops in 15mm plastic water pipe which has various secondary uses, often see it washed up here from lobster pots or possibly pipe insulation sewn in permanently? If you are having a tent made up then maybe windows to add light on those rainy days? David

  8. Interesting, but I have to admit I’m not a fan of the “double use for everything” philosophy, though it obviously works for some. I just find it adds extra complications that outweigh the small benefit of carrying one less piece of carefully chosen gear with its own dedicated use. For example, have you considered the possibility that you may need to get to the oars and start rowing in a hurry? I think I’d always want to have oars handy at a moment’s notice, though probably 99 times out of a hundred that won’t matter.

    I’ve been going back and forth between adding a boat tent to my Alaska, or using a standard backpacking tent that can fit on my sleeping platform. That’d be another kind of double use, as I could use it ashore, too. That’s probably not an option the way Walkabout is designed, though.

    Either way, good luck with it.

  9. MIke

    I like your ideas. Before you commit $$$ to the project go out in the boat in shallow water on a nice day -anchor and see if you can rig the tent with no drama.Now imagine it is blowing abit and raining-could you still do it?You did not mention what cloth you will use -dont use nylon-condensation will make it rain inside!Suggest talk to a tent factory or similar.I have had a lot of joy with Sunbrella canvas -made for marine use -very tough fade resistant waterproof and strong. Go and handle a few square metres of cloth to see how heavy or light it is . It is about 9oz?? per square yard and comes in about 20 colours.(most small boat sail cloth is about 4-5oz)You want a cloth that is not too stiff so you can fold it easily. I would not use oars to brace the cloth-1 they are very heavy and 2 you may need to row when the tent is up!

    Make up some nice jointed poles using light ply? and /or cedar? all epoxied with alloy tube joiners. Even 4mm ply is very stiff on edge .Perhaps 3″deep x 1″wide held apart by 2 bits of W. cedar 20 x 20? Keep it light but make the section as large as practical to prevent bending . Rounded off rectangular section?? Maybe they could be inserted in pockets like a sail batten?This would be handy of you just roll the cloth around the “poles” and store it on one side? I would definitely have 2 small windows and a flap for venting if you are planning to cook or boil water inside. If in salt water zips are not so great-get clogged with salt-suggest hooks, loops and ties or shock cord. Make the canvas taunt or you will be awake all night !If you have to have zips a spray can of silicon is good and an old toothbrush/nail brush to get out the salt.

    Think of putting up the tent on a cool drizzly windy day-you want to be dry as quickly as possible-10-15 mts?Make sure attachments and adjustment can be mainly made from inside the tent. You make want to increase the size of your anchor or add more chain for security-a tent makes a great wind catcher. Have plenty of nylon anchor warp and dont skimp on length. Raise centre board and rudder. Not sure if this design would bow slap like some flat bottom boats but tie a cloth (big towel?)under the fore foot and move portable weight forward will help to keep the stem immersed.Or a big meal and a few sifters as well. Good luck Mike

  10. Scott

    I am enjoying reading about your ideas and process. Thank you for sharing. A lot of modern tents are using alluminum alloy tent poles. They can be pre-bent and shock corded together so they fit in a small space, are fairly stiff, but still have the proper curve. Also, if sailing around an anchor becomes a problem, consider making the tent lower in front and taller aft.

  11. Erwin

    Just wondering: what is the double use of your sails? Are they both for power and for steering? Or both for sailing and for sleeping?
    I imagine most people camp on small boats in moderate to nice weather. Then a full tent may not even be necessary but some cover above your face while sleeping in a water tight sleeping bag can be convenient. I can image to somehow cover most of the cockpit with the lugsail with the help of the gaff, the boom and one or two oars. Why do you care the wind blows through?
    Success in keeping everything nifty, bye, Erwin.

    • Osbert Lancaster

      Never thought about two used for the sails; I don’t pretend to be consistent!

      I keep the mainsail permanently laced to the boom and yard so using it as a tent would be fiddly; the fact the sail isn’t actually flat wouldn’t help either.

      I’m not convinced about a loosely fitted ‘tent’ for two reasons:
      – here in Scotland the weather is very changeable, and a loose tent would not only let in rain, but also be vulnerable to damage in high winds.
      – because I’m sleeping on the bottom of the boat, only raised by a thermorest mattress (2cm?) I want to keep water out. If I had slats of some kind, it would be a different story.

  12. Malcolm Forbes

    I come late to the party on tent design, but this is the way I do it.
    For about 25 years I have owned a 16’ fiberglass, single masted, sprit-rigged Crawford Swampscott Dory which I have named “Occam’s Razor” (because the best solution to a problem is likely to be the simplest; call it ‘one string sailing’, one sheet & the tiller). As designed there are perimeter seats in the ‘cockpit’ area aft and a single thwart because the builder, Roger Crawford, says he hates to do the high hurdles to get to the mast. Granted & agreed; still, I added provision for a second thwart, easily removable, for inviting guests or as detailed below.
    My tenting system based on having a deck – really more of a platform – rudely cut from plywood, laid over the thwarts & bolted down to threaded brass inserts in the thwarts and not fitted to the sides in any watertight manner. The finish is an inexpensive brown paint, leaving the surface rough and this has proven to be an excellent anti-skid surface, perfect for cruising. Varnish may be beautiful but it is slippery! This deck & second thwart are easily removable for ordinary day sailing (10 SS roundhead ¼-20 bolts).
    Gear not needed when sailing goes under the deck so that when fully loaded for camping, I have a clear deck forward to the mast. I can’t overstate this advantage; when you need to hurriedly lower a sail or to drop the anchor, thwarts, buckets, bags and boxes are a major hazard. Not a lot of fun for routine movements either! Water sensitive gear, (sleeping bag, clothing, food, etc.) are packed in waterproof bags; water insensitive materials in plastic boxes & milk crates.
    With the sprits’l rolled to the mast, I swing the sprit pole horizontally from a utility halyard and the snotter, drape a simple tent over it, and secure the tent at the bottom using a bungee cord, run through grommets in the hem, and under hooks on the outboard underside of the gunn’l rubbing strake. This tent is cut a single piece which folds flat. No fancy curves, spreaders, zippers or extraneous gear. Material is sort of tan awning material made by a boat canvas shop based on a prototype I made from a reinforced plastic tarp. The only addition to boat gear is the tent itself.
    The sprit pole reaches from the bow to the after end of the ‘cockpit’. In foul weather the tent is extended to the after end of the sprit pole; for fair it can be rolled forward for rowing or star gazing at night. Although the aft flotation chamber area is unprotected from the weather and any rain ends up in the bilges, there is no problem because everything below the deck is already ‘waterproofed’ and I am not disturbed because my sleeping platform is nearly a foot above the bottom. As it turns out, if necessary, I can even bail without getting out of my sleeping bag.
    This tent is wide open at the back, but since I much prefer to anchor at night, the closed-in bow points into the wind and even a driving rain is not a problem. If I ground out, deliberately or otherwise, the rules change. Anchoring is preferable. Lots of fresh air with no condensation.
    As to width, I suppose that there is not a lot of shoulder room, but who needs it, there is plenty of headroom. 1) I sail alone, hence sit on the center line. Addition of a folding stadium seat gives the backrest that sometimes you would sell your soul for in a small boat. Lying down to one side requires no headroom. 2) It did not occur when planning, but in practice I found out quickly that I could swing the sprit off to one side and have walking around room in the ‘cockpit’. But I could stand, stretch and even play the bagpipes with the tent still in place. OK, ‘walking around’ may be a bit excessive in a dory.
    The whole experience is much like camping in a pup tent with a sunken patio where the wind is always at your back. At anchor wind makes her ‘hunt’, so the scenery outside is always changing, but at night, with the tent rolled back, it is a glorious thing to lie there and look at the stars. In the rain, things tend get a bit ‘saggy’; so with my head towards the mast, I lie on my back, push up on the sprit pole with my feet, harden up the halyard, cleat it (halyards on a sprit rig are on the mast) and all is taut again.
    There is no bug protection. I have always wondered why life hasn’t been made miserable by bugs, but somehow it hasn’t been the case. Bugs might be worse in fresh water sailing, docking & camping close to land. My boat camping has mostly been on the Maine Island Trail at anchor, so perhaps with more ocean breezes and being 10-20 yards offshore, bugs have a harder time finding me at night.
    There are many ways to boat tent, but this has worked well for me.
    How do I add some pictures?
    Malcolm Forbes

  13. Osbert Lancaster

    Hi Michael, thanks for that. You can’t add photos the comments.



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