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The Cutting Edge, Part I: Twisting Dodger Design
By John LeMole

It's no secret that when it comes to dodger design, the fabricator's options are limited and well known. Historically, the standard approach to dodger fabrication has been to remove the sides and leave the top in place. As any powerboat owner knows, however, windshields are vital structural features that ensure their comfort and safety. In fact, larger sailboats often have permanent windshields with dodgers built off them.

With all that in mind, I'd like to offer a new twist on the old themes of dodger design. I call it the drop-top dodger, a dodger for any sailboat — and some powerboats — that's composed of a semi-permanent windshield with a removable top.

The dodger design problem
First, let's consider some of the problems with existing dodger designs. No matter what kind of dodger you're building, be it a West Coast, or traditional-style, the design is almost always compromised by the boat owner's belief that he or she must fold the structure down periodically, despite the fact that only a minority of owners ever do so regularly. This one condition, though, limits the way dodgers are built. For example, a dodger supported by four struts — two from the cabin house up to the forward frame, and two between the frames — is a very strong piece of equipment that frees the winch area of straps and struts and enables the boat's inhabitants to move with ease around the corners of the cabin house (this is especially true with West Coast-style dodgers).

However, this type of dodger doesn't fold down easily enough for most boat owners, even with the use of quick-release pins. Once you get it down you have those struts lying around, and getting it back up is a three-handed job that requires inserting the last set of pins while tensioning the cloth. It's all enough to scare off many customers. So, in the end, only the owners of serious cruisers or big boats will take this route, and they comprise only a tiny portion of the market. It's too bad, because this is a very nice frame design.

The other problem area for the folding dodger is window vinyl Soft vinyl can't hold up to the up-and-down treatment of a folding dodger and the abuse shortens its life dramatically. What's more, the fold-down requirement limits the amount of window area you can include in a design (the vinyl can't wrap around the sides very far), which, in turn, limits the operator's visibility. Consequently, by decreasing visibility you increase the boat owner's need to fold down the dodger.

Polycarbonate windows, likewise, are seldom an option, even though they offer better visibility and an overall nicer appearance. They're not designed to be folded or rolled (not tightly anyway); so storing them can be a problem, especially on smaller boats. While windows would work on a West Coast-style dodger with a removable windshield, you'd be hard pressed to sell this type of design because its high cost isn't necessarily justified by its limited value.

dodgers
Figure 1
A conventional two-frame dodger (left) uses an aft frame mount and a strap or strut that pulls aft. This orientation can be reversed (right), using struts between the forward and aft frames to push aft, and supporting the forward-mounted frame with two struts. (Note: Dotted lines denote the fabric contours.)

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An alternative

Now let's examine an offshoot of the folding dodger, one with a removable top and a stationary windshield. Building such a dodger requires virtually the same fabrication methods and equipment used to build other kinds of dodgers, although the zippers, flaps and snaps are configured in slightly different fashion. The distinction lies in its frame construction, which features one new piece of additional hardware.

Photo 1. By equipping the aft struts with hinges, the aft frame can be folded forward without removing any pins or screws and without taking anything apart.

Photo 2. The forward mounting frame is supported by two vertical struts, and additional two struts between the forward and aft frames.

Photo 3. Leaving the windshield in place, the dodger top can be folded down, allowing free access down the companionway or to the side decks.

Photo 4. A finished drop-top dodger. Among the advantages of this design are that it eliminates the need for rollup section in the windshield, and it's easier to store in the winter because the top and the windshield can be folded flat and stored separately.

Photo 5. The drop-top design enables the user to remove the top and leave the windshield in place.

Photo 6. Building a dodger with a removable top and a stationary windshield requires one vital piece of additional hardware; a hinge. The hinge is composed of two hard-plastic plugs inserted into the ends of the adjoining tubes. He plugs are connected by a flat linking piece of plastic, which allows the two pieces of tubing to lay against each other when the strut is folded.

Most two-frame dodgers use the aft frame as the frame, with the forward frame attached to it with a jaw slide. While reversing this orientation can be helpful (e.g., to keep frame mounts away from winches) the geometry is unstable and the dodger wants to fall forward. (See Figure 1.)

However, you can stabilize the forward mounting frame by supporting it with two struts. Add two more struts between the forward and aft frames, and you have a superior dodger, but it won't fold down quickly. If, however, the aft struts (located between the frames) were equipped with hinges, you could then fold the aft frame forward against the other, without removing any pins or screws and without taking anything apart. The top would be out of the way, allowing free access down the companionway or around to the side decks.

While this arrangement alone will likely please many customers, adding a few more details will make the design more desirable yet. First, you can make a frame sleeve/pocket for the forward frame that will keep the windshield tight, even when the top is down. This addition not only gives the structure a clean look, it provides the operator with good visibility. Second, if you use a flap and zippers to make the dodger top removable and keep the wings sewn to the top (as on a traditional dodger), they can be removed as one unit. What is left on the frame is a tensioned windshield with great visibility, as well as splash pro' section for the companionway, for gear stored on the cabin house, and for the people in the cockpit not to mention continued protection from the wind. It's clean and attractive and offers a new look.

There are a number of other advantages to this design:

  • Storing the unit for the winter is a much easier task because the top and the windshield can be folded flat and stored separately.
  • The need for a roll-up section in the windshield is eliminated.
  • Using Polycarbonate for windows now becomes an option, even on smaller boats. If the windshield is built with three panes, it can be folded flat in a very small package for storage. (Of course, this design also can be made with standard soft window vinyl).

Those mysterious folding struts
While creating a prototype of this particular design, I looked briefly at other design styles that were made with stainless flat stock. However, I decided it would be best to use existing hardware and tubing for this design; I didn't want to complicate the installation process and I figured fabricators would be more apt to accept the design if it incorporated traditional materials. This meant devising a way to mount a hinge inside a piece of tubing. I considered using off the shelf brass hinges (e.g., for cabinetry), but they are expensive and galvanic corrosion was a concern. I finally settled on black Delrin, a hard plastic with built-in UV inhibitors that's available through various industrial supply catalogues. The hinge is composed of two plastic plugs, which are inserted into the ends of the adjoining tubes The plugs are connected by a flat linking piece of plastic, which is similar in style to a bicycle chain link. The link allows the two pieces of tubing to lay flat against each other when the strut is folded; it won't twist from side to side, and it locks into position when extended.

No matter what kind of dodger you're building, be it a West Coast or traditional style, the design is almost always compromised by the boat owner's belief that he or she must fold the structure down periodically, despite the fact that only a minority of owners ever do so regularly.

To stabilize these hinges, I have devised an outer stainless steel sleeve, which slides over the joint to keep the frame from accidentally folding. This 5inch sleeve locks in place using pressure halls, which are positioned inside the strut tubing on either end of the sleeve. By covering the roughly 1 1/2-inch plastic joint, which isn't as strong as the stainless steel, the sleeve gives the strut full strength. What's more, the applications for this piece of hardware are limited only to your imagination; use them to create such items as bimini frames that need to fold for storage, leg-less supports for cockpit or interior dinette tables or folding boarding ladders or swim platforms.

I'm working with a distributor, and we hope to make the hinge available to fabricators by late this summer. (If you have any questions about the hinge and its availability, call me at 855-596-7705.) Aside from the cost of this hinge, drop top dodgers feature virtually the same materials and require about the same amount of labor so they need not cost too much more than other designs. On the other hand, since they provide more features than traditional dodgers and lengthen the life span of window vinyl, a higher price is warranted. How much higher depends on whether you sell them as an upscale specialty item or as a standard design.

Note: In the next edition, LeMole explains, in detail, how to build a drop-top dodger, starting with design considerations and frame construction and continuing on through pattering and construction details.


An award-winning marine fabricator, John LeMole is owner of Gemini Marine Canvas, Rockland, Maine.

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