Cockpit Well Rebuild
Murre, Mariner 31
Hull 150, 1972

Work done: Winter 2006

Article written: Winter 2009

The possibilities for starting something you couldn’t finish were endless.
-Tom Cunliffe, Topsails & Battleaxe

If you have a hammer and a saw, you can to this.
-Bill Kranidis


The Approach

I wasn’t born chewing on ring nails and blowing sawdust out my ears. In fact, if you’d asked me on the day after I bought Murre what the surveyor from the day before had meant when he said “this is beginning to look like a project”, I would have struggled to provide an informed answer. I wasn’t a shop guy in high school. I had no idea.

But early on Murre had a strange affect. When Jo asked if maybe Murre was more than we could handle and should we sell, my reason for declining was, “We wouldn’t get near what we paid.” But that was a cover for something deeper. Murre’s deck and cabin side job of 2003 had begun to provide some context for the word “project”, how it might be approached, pursued, and completed. It also hinted at the great satisfaction gotten from doing one’s own work. And then Jo’s Christmas present of power tools sealed the deal.

The cockpit sole needed attention. It was a simple rectangle whose clean right angles I was sure implied only a few weekends of work. So in January of 2006 I put Murre into a shed at the San Rafael Yacht Harbor, and without quite knowing it, I began the cockpit job.

“How long you gonna be here?” asked Matt the Harbor Master as I laid the rent on his desk. “I’m just doing the cockpit, so a couple months seems plenty,” I replied. “OK then,” he said, flipping his calendar to a summer month before making a mark, “I’ll check on you in June. These things have a way of going on, don’t they?”


First Pass

As it is with many problems, this one could only be found if looked for.


In this case a top down shot of the cockpit was flattering enough, but if the floor boards were pulled up, one would see that the sole had separated along all four sides and had been unsuccessfully sealed (by me) with a heavy smear of silicon. It leaked onto the fuel tank and engine in any wet weather. Additionally, there was a soft spot the size of a vegetable platter near the starboard drain.


Initially I thought the job would entail replacing only the cockpit sole. I knew, for example, that the cockpit decking was in fine shape, and the cockpit well sides and aft bulkhead seemed to ring nicely. But even before I got the camera warmed up, the hammer had knocked out both the sole and the well’s starboard side, the excavation of which revealed a large chunk of dark wood above the drain.


It is difficult to see in this stern-facing photograph, but note that the aft bulkhead did not seat into the hull but rather floated some six or eight inches above it. The same was true for the already removed starboard side of the cockpit well. What can’t be seen because it’s just out of the frame of this shot is that the port side did seat into and was glassed into the hull along about a third of its length.

The starboard cockpit well side was made of ¾ inch ply, but the port side and aft bulkhead were only ½ inch.


Well, one thing led to another, and before you could say “lunch break!” I was left staring into a big hole with irregular dimensions, some plumbing, and lots of wood chips.

The fuel tank had seen better days, and if I was ever going to replace it, now seemed the time, so it came out too. But that’s another story.

With the fuel tank removed, the volume of this area was impressive.

Give a man a hammer and Pandora’s Box goes to pieces like a hand grenade.


Removing the cockpit well piece that held the instrument panel revealed the deck and mizzen supporting frames. The white vertical frame to starboard and its twin to port (and I think the cross frames as well) were added soon after Jo and I bought the boat. Prior to this, the mizzen was supported only by one athwartships frame below the forward edge of the cockpit decking where it met the aft cabin bulkhead.* This was insufficient support, and as a result the cockpit had begun to sag under the mizzen’s pressure. The additions seen here thoroughly solved that problem.

*For a view of this support structure from inside the cabin, refer to the Aft Cabin Bulkhead Replacement article, Report #3 and #4.


With all the old wood out of the way, I began to build.


I used the old, rotten but still shapely cockpit pieces as rough patterns for cutting out more patterns in cheap, quarter inch Luan ply. At the time it felt a little silly since the old pieces had held most of their shape, but it turned out to be a good idea. The amount of fitting involved was ample, and practicing on a $9 sheet of Luan beat practicing on a $120 sheet of Okoume, of which I was trying to use just one.

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Arizona-desert pink, aromatic and pliable, I found Okoume to be strangely attractive stuff. You could boil it all day long and the glue wouldn’t come undone. At least that was what the purple Lloyds of London stamp on the lower corner of every sheet implied.

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I cut the sides to extend fully forward and anchor in the forward vertical frames. The instrument panel piece went in next, and its ends fit flush up against the sides.

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Same view as above, but aft. Earlier I mentioned my surprise at finding that the cockpit sides “floated” above the hull except on the starboard side. After some thought, I decided to anchor the sides to the hull via the aft bulkhead only, cutting out a half moon for the passage of the blower hose and throttle cables, etc.

For added strength on the top end, the new bulkhead was cut to run up behind the original bulkhead and fasten to the upper athwartships deck beam (more on that later).

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The small oak frame that originally backed the top of the cockpit sides failed to survive demolition, but the loss was remedied by adding a beefier 1 by 1 ¾ inch frame.

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All the framing was of Santa Maria, similar in look and feel to Honduran Mahogany but stronger, ripped from a 1 ¾ inch by 2 foot by 20 foot piece of timber.


I fabricated the aft bulkhead support such that the 1 by 1 ¾ inch fore-and-aft frame backing the cockpit sides (starboard shown here at very top of photo) fitted into a 1 ¾ by 1 ¾ inch stud running directly into the hull. In the photo the pieces are just being dry fitted, and the gap at the top of the joint implies the stud won’t actually touch the hull when it’s pulled up into place, on which more later. The little piece of wood behind the bulkhead is a spacer that was used to fill the lower gap between the bulkhead and the stud.

Completing the frame-out ended the first phase of this project.


1. The benefit of photographing one’s work is that it serves as a reminder that work is progressing, all feelings to the contrary.

2. I’ve discovered a rule of construction work: to the novice, the number of tasks needed to complete a project, even on small jobs like this one, is not fixed. Rather, and against all intuition, it grows in proportion to the number of tasks already completed.

3. And similarly: any task you plan to do today will require several preparatory steps you should have done last week but didn’t because you didn’t know they were needed until you attempted today’s task.

4. And finally: it is impossible to follow the manufacturer’s usage instructions. All instructions on the back of any can or tube of goo intend to communicate that one should “Never use this product after purchase.”

Pre-installation Prep

The next step was the glassing of the cockpit sides, but first I painted the aft compartment and bilge.


Over the years, this entire area had become coated with grime; the insulation that covers the inside of the hull on the starboard side especially had been punctured and filled with a rich mixture dirt and engine gunk. So I cleaned and sanded the cavern in preparation for the installation of water bed, pool table, and wet bar—with nothing there the space felt big enough for at least these additions.

Sanding the fuel tank supports revealed good, yellow wood underneath except where stained with diesel.


Two coats of “quick-dry” bilge enamel improved the prospect markedly. Given the cold, it took a week to dry. At the top of the photo, the two dark rectangles to the left and right of the white rudder post are where the bulkhead will seat into the hull. There the insulation has been removed and the hull left bare.


With the aft compartment looking good as new, I took the four fabricated cockpit pieces home for glassing. As seen here, I have a humble epoxy station—a table that drops into our car’s stall in the garage. It fits nicely as long as the car is moved back. A bonus in this arrangement is that if the car has been driven recently, the heat it radiates will serve to warm one’s posterior while one’s front side works away in the cold. However, it will be prudent to avoid getting epoxy mixings on Joanna’s car if one values his life. Note Murre’s sails and booms hanging from the rafters.


Each piece received two layers of 1 ½ ounce mat on its back (interior to the boat) side. In addition, those sides facing the inside of the well, sides that needed to be faired smooth for paint, received one layer of ½ ounce roving. In the above photo, the ½ inch Okoume “flashing” is being glued, screwed, and clamped in place on the bulkhead piece, and the sides have been draped in their roving and smothered in resin.


Back at the boat, the excess glass was trimmed from the edge of the sides.

Fastening Up

Next came permanently placing those pieces that had been fabricated to this point.

The bulkhead piece and studs and upper cockpit side frames were placed first. As the darkness of the photo indicates, this took all day and well into an evening. With all the screwing up, proper pilot-hole diameter became a major frustration. Though big enough according to two separate sources, the holes would not admit the screws at all easily. Yes, I double bored them, and yes, I used the hardwood pilot hole measurement, and yes, I used Akempucky (screw putty), and yes, I still stripped one for every one finally placed and broke a few to boot, and yes, I have the blisters to prove it.

Note: the ½ inch bulkhead “flashing” referenced above fits flush to the original, white bulkhead piece. The “flashing’s” only purpose is to bring the new bulkhead exterior flush with the old one.


The white goop at the bottom of the bulkhead in this photo is 3M 5200. As hinted above, the bulkhead and vertical framing came to rest about ¼ inch above the hull and were bound to the hull later with fiberglass tape. The purpose of this arrangement was to spread the vertical load of the bulkhead into a larger area of the hull then just the touch points and thus to avoid the development of “hard spots” or slight deformations in the hull caused by pointed pressure. I intended the 3M 5200 to act as a gasket and it got a good sanding before the tape was applied. The starboard vertical frame and aft bulkhead (pictured here) were fastened with epoxy and, from the back, by four #14 by 3 inch wood screws.


Same shot as above, but from the back side. The white column rising diagonally and left is the rudder post.


The back of the new bulkhead extended all the way up to the athwartships supporting frame at deck level. Note again the rudder post at the left of the shot.


Prior to install and for the sake of stiffness, I glassed in a single rib to the back (interior to the boat) of each cockpit side. The rib is a 1 inch x 2 inch piece of pine that was tapered on each end and then covered with several layers of 6 inch tape. This looked more aeronautical than nautical but worked extremely well and has been copied on other projects since.


For easy working, the sides were faired before being placed in the boat, but as can be seen here, a wide margin at each end was left bare to accept tape, a later step. The upper, interior supporting frame was fastened every six inches with #12 by 1 ¼ inch wood screws (seen at the top of the photo). The ends were fastened to their vertical supports with #14 by 2 ¼ inch wood screws.

Winter Work in California

Rain. Rain. Rain. I couldn’t remember when it hadn’t rained on a weekend. We’d had 57 inches of rain (130% of average for the year—and it was only April) at San Rafael Yacht Harbor, which was behind Mt. Tam and particularly wet. It was a tin roofed shed Murre was under, and lucky to be so—deliciously loud when the rain came down hard, and it was often hard—a sheeting rain that cut up the water in the marina, turned it white under a lead sky. A Mallard pair, a Goldeneye and a Horned Grebe, my frequent if unenthusiastic audience on a Saturday afternoon, paddled about in the rain, oblivious to the wet above. The drowned cat floating by seemed not to notice much either.

Back to the Sole

I’d been at it four months of weekends and was just now returning to the piece that got me started on this project, the cockpit sole.


The outside or “box” of the cockpit sole frame was fashioned out of 1 ½ inch by 1 ¾ inch Santa Maria. Joints were a simple end lap. Murre’s old cockpit framing was a mere 1 inch by 1 inch pine strip.


The “box” was being dry fitted here. I put the plastic down in a vain attempt at keeping saw dust and resin out of a bilge, a bilge that had just been vacuumed sparkly-clean for the first time 30 years.


The cockpit sole was fashioned from ¾ inch Doug Fir marine ply. Notice it had to be cut in half. Given the small overlap of the teak deck forward and the teak frame through which the wheel passed (not to mention the wheel shaft itself), the sole simply wouldn’t—try as I might—slide in as one piece. The placement of the cut corresponded to the middle of the fuel tank athwartships supports (see previous photos), and would be double-framed from underneath.


Each piece received two layers of 18 ounce roving top and bottom so that overall thickness approached 1 inch.

Messing About in Boats

Ratty’s remark to Mole—“There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats”—suggests that all boating activities, regardless of type, ooze with charm and sparkle with magic endlessly. And while I agree that deep satisfaction can be had from fastening up a well shaped joint (doubly so when it is one’s own) and that there is magic in the setting of epoxy (sometimes a little too much magic), these charms are limited, especially when they go on and on. Simply put, working on a sail boat is not the same as sailing it.

Yes, I know the boat yard is full of guys who own boats and do nothing but work on them, and that these guys are quite, it appears, content.

But as for me, I was going a bit crazy down in the yard. I knew this because Catalina’s were starting to look attractive. On the previous Saturday after successfully pushing a giant wood screw for the sail track the wrong way through the newly varnished toe rail, I said to Joanna, “How about a house boat on Lake Shasta? You could sit on an inner tube and I would tow you around, and then we could buy a jet ski.” Only a good slap in the face brought me back.

We had started this "winter project" in January, and suddenly it is June. By this time it had been nothing but sun for over a month, but none for me. I was stuck in the shed.

Even so, we were approaching an end, which in this case…

Final Assembly

… began with the arrival of the twice made and much anticipated fuel tank, the absence of which held up the project for several weekends.

Yes, I mused, the world is round, people are nice, and fabricators do fabricate … eventually.


More on the tank project here.


After covering the sole pieces in two layers of cloth, the next step was to shape the two forward cockpit drains, the access hatch, and the fuel tank’s 2 inch brass fill pipe. Cutting into what one has labored to make perfect can be nerve wracking, but as it turned out, the work was straight forward. With the cockpit sole out, I simply marked lines up the cockpit sides that indicated cut locations; then with the sole in, I moved those lines to the sole itself.

The other operation that required the cooperation of a few brain cells was figuring how to shape the “divots” for the forward drains with the tools at hand. In the end, they were easily roughed in by taking little bites with the grinder and then sanded smooth.


The “box” of the sole supporting frame was glued and bolted in place. I used West System epoxy mixed with colloidal silica to give it viscosity. The fasteners were stainless #14 machine screws with a washer on the head side and a washer and lock washer on the thread side. I opted for machine screws here rather than wood screws simply for piece of mind. The cockpit sole will get the most consistent abuse of any piece of deck and may carry the weight of several humans at once along with who knows how much water. I just don’t want to worry about the frames popping in this or that hard knock. The white goop seen on the nuts is 3M 5200, used here as screw caulk.


Before final placement, the athwartships sole frames received a few coats of penetrating epoxy, as did the frames already in place. We won’t be passing this way again.


The cockpit well was about 56 inches in length, and I filled that space with five frame locations (not counting the fore and aft of the “box”). The double frame just aft of the fuel fill indicates where the two pieces of the sole came together. Here as elsewhere, epoxy was used as adhesive, and I used #8 wood screws to hold the joints down as I had plenty of them but didn’t have enough clamps. In this photo the cockpit sole fastener holes have already been drilled-out and can be seen between the fasteners for the “box”.


Like the frames, the sole was fastened with #14 machine screws, and the same washer regime was followed. But unlike the frames, the sole was not epoxied. Instead I used 3M 101 as a sealant in an attempt to avoid a permanent installation for this particular piece. The sole may need to be removed at some future date in order to get at the engine or the tank.


Once the sole was screwed down, the top of the seam only was laid with 3M 5200.

If future removal is required, the 5200 seam can be cut out with a knife, the fasteners removed, and the floor heaved out by five swarthy men with very strong backs.

At least that’s the theory.


Each corner of the well received two layers of 6 inch fiberglass tape and a generous application of West System 410 fairing compound. The corner radius shaped nicely with a tongue depressor, and the whole thing faired out to velvet with 120 grit sand paper.


Another task that turned out to be easy was the shaping of the gap between the sole and the fuel fill top, which was raised about three inches above the sole to help keep standing water out of the fuel tank. I cut plywood rings the size of the fill to fit the space between the fill top and the sole, and then shaped in a cone of West 407 fairing compound. I applied it thick like peanut butter and without worrying about the mess. Once set it sanded down quickly to Michelangelo-smooth.


Two primer coats and two of single part polyurethane paint, rolled and tipped.


Both the access port cut into the sole and the instrument panel window were made from Lexan. Access through the sole was required because I’d had a cleaning hatch added to the top of the new fuel tank. I chose to make it a port in order to allow light into the bilge.

At ½ inch thick, the access port was the thicker of the two Lexan pieces; the instrument panel was 3/8 inch thick. Overlap on the port was 2 inches. Both were fastened with #8 stainless screws and sealed with 3M 101.


And that was that.

Sadly, like a lot of boat improvement projects, nothing looked to have changed to the casual observer.

When I pulled into my old slip after months away, a woman on a neighboring boat said, “I thought you were off sailing the world.”

“Why yes”, I said, “Let me tell you about it..."


SUMMARY of Materials

• Two sheets of ¾” marine ply for the cockpit sides and sole. If you are more careful in planning than I, you may get away with one sheet. After cutting the sides, I was left with a roughly one foot by eight foot piece of ply, but couldn’t make the sole of it. The second sheet was used for the sole alone, and there was lots left over.
• One small piece of ½” ply, for fairing the new aft bulkhead to the old.
• One 2” x 8” x 12’ piece of Santa Maria for the framing. Again, planning better may serve you. I bought a second, but ended up using only a little of it.

• #14 x 3” wood screws. These fasten the aft bulkhead to the vertical supports. You need 10, so buy 15.
• #14 x 2 ¼” wood screws. These fasten the cockpit sides to their vertical supports. Buy a box of 100. You only need about 30, but this is a favorite fastener size on the Mariner. You’ll find other places to use them. In fact, I’ll admit I now buy all fasteners by the box. They're actually cheaper that way, and one always finds uses for them.
• #12 x 1 ½” wood screws. These fasten the cockpit sides to their single horizontal backing frame.
• #14 x 2 ½” machine screws attach the "box" of the sole frame to the four cockpit sides. Also nuts and three washers per screw (one a lock washer).
• #14 x 3 ½” machine screws attach the cockpit sole to its frames. I couldn’t find 3 1/2”, so used 4”.
• #8 x 1 ½” oval head screws hold the Lexan pieces in place.
• Brass brads, 1 ½”. Nice to have around. If you’re doing jobs solo, they can help hold the end of a long piece you’re trying to fit.

• West System epoxy. I used this for all bonding and sheathing. Plan on about 2 gallons of resin and equivalent hardener. For fairing I used 407 Low Density (red wine color) for areas that needed to be smooth and a little strong and 410 Micro Light (chocolate ice cream color) for every thing else. Both look good enough to eat when mixed, but do resist. For bonding wood joints, I added 406 Colloidal Silica to the mix.
• Smith’s Clear Penetrating Epoxy. This was for all wood that might otherwise be left bare, for example the end grain of ply and frames that will never see the light of day and don’t need paint. I used very little on this job but usually buy it by the gallon as it gets used everywhere.
• 3M 5200. One 10.3 oz tube
• 3M 101. One tube 10.3 oz tube

(I used scrap left over from deck rebuild, so these are estimates.)
• 6" tape, about 6 yards, for the corners and the sides support
• 1.5 oz mat, about 4 yards, to sheath the backs of the cockpit sides and the back of the bulkhead
• .5 oz roving, about 4 yards, to sheath the interior surfaces (later faired and painted) of the cockpit
• 18 oz roving, about 5 yards, to sheath both sides of the sole

Time Commitment

It’s a three jean job.


That is, if each weekend you wear the same dirty, old jeans until a) they are so stiff with glue and paint that you can no longer squat down without grabbing the dock and pulling hard, or b) they smell so bad that the yard dog, Ozzie, runs from you screaming each time you approach, then you'll be finished when you've worn out three pair this way.

Actually, it took me 6 months of mostly weekends, but in that time I also replaced the fuel tank (twice, essentially), replaced the heat exchanger, cleaned and sprayed the back side of the engine, stripped the toe rail to bare wood and re-varnished, struggled for way too long replacing the jib sail track, and stripped and repainted the main mast.

And I'm slow.

So, it’ll be much faster for you.

I wish you the best.