Fabricators bring together innovative and classic elements to protect their boating customers from the sun’s harmful rays.
Whether permanent or removable, shading on boats has a big job to fulfill: protecting the crew and passengers from the sun while creating a comfortable environment. And boat owners are becoming more knowledgeable about the health dangers that prolonged UV exposure presents.
“It is most unusual to go aboard any boat in our area and not see basketfuls of various types of sunscreens,” says Sandy Sturner, owner of Marine Tech LLC in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. “You also quite often see ‘live aboards’ wearing long sleeves, hats, sunglasses and long pants.”
This increased awareness of damaging UV rays is driving demand for shade structures on boats. “Sometimes you’ve got a client who has spent a lot of time dreaming up the perfect shade solution, whereas other times, the client knows where they want the shade but they have no idea as to the details, design, fabric or attachments,” Sturner says.
When working with a customer who falls into the latter category, Sturner will ask as many questions as possible “and suggest various types of attachments and shade designs, depending both upon the boat and how the client wants to use the shade,” she says.
Customers’ biggest concerns about shading are color, quality and warranty, according to Stephan Kåmark, owner of Advanced Canvas and Upholstery Services, Oxnard, Calif. Boat owners also appreciate that a fixed shade can help protect a number of items from fading and degradation, among them wood, gel coat, hardware, electronics and cushions.
Dealing with a more educated clientele requires that canvas shop owners stay one step ahead of trends and best practices in boat shade materials, design and fabrication.
Fabric and component know-how
Marine fabricators have access to a number of shade fabrics and components to help meet customer demand. By numerous accounts, Sunbrella® fabrics remain the industry standard for bimini tops. “They tend to hold their color and stand up to every kind of weather,” says Dan Bramble, owner of Bramble’s Canvas & Upholstery, Pottsboro, Texas.
In Southern California, Sunbrella is used “almost exclusively” on sailboats and power boats, says Dan Loggans, owner of Harbor Custom Canvas in Long Beach, Calif. If the application calls for vinyl, however, Loggans relies on Herculite Riviera Marine Fabric® and Weblon Regatta®, both in white.
In addition to Sunbrella and Herculite, Kåmark has created quality shades using Serge Ferrari, Enviratex™ and Marlen fabrics.
For removable shades, lighter materials are ideal. “We use Stamoid Lightweight because you can stow it away easily,” says Todd Freund, owner of Artful Canvas Design in St. Petersburg, Fla.
On a pole that he fabricates for removable shades, Freund recently began using carbon fiber as a lighter-weight alternative to stainless steel. The carbon fiber poles “come apart easily and fold up in a smaller storage bag,” he says.
The life span of a marine shade depends on its use, upkeep and environment. Mark Merritt, owner of Central Florida Canvas, Fruitland Park, Fla., estimates that a bimini top made with Sunbrella fabric with frequent sun exposure can last eight to 10 years, and about twice that timeframe when regularly kept out of the elements.
Loggans has found that temporary shading “is typically a lifetime purchase because the amount of time they are being used is very low.”
As with fabric, selection of components depends on their use. For example, Loggans will employ Lift-the-DOT® studs and plates, twist fasteners and little glove button snaps. “They all have a reason for use in different places on the boat,” he says. “Sometimes you need a low-profile fastener so people don’t catch their lines on it.”
Fabricators vote for threads that resist regular UV exposure and withstand bleach and other harsh chemicals. Popular brands include Gore® Tenara® Sewing Thread and SolarFix® PTFE thread. “Being able to eliminate future re-stitching is a great selling point,” Sturner notes.
Regardless of the shade type, Bramble prefers to source fabric and components from established suppliers. “You want to stick with a product and a company that has been in business for a long time, because if you have to repair or replace something from over a decade ago, you can use the same product,” he says.
Consistency in fabric selection contributes to the boat’s aesthetics. “New canvases that have come out are made similar, but not exactly the same,” Bramble says. “Even the color black can be different if you change and mix manufacturers. They also age differently.”
Hardy fabrics and components are especially critical in places like Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, where boats are in the water year-round and must withstand UV rays, storms, wind, rain and hail.
Above all, Bramble tries to educate customers on the value of a tried-and-true product. “People want to buy the newer and lower-priced products, but they typically cost more in the long run,” he says.
For most small canvas shops, each job is a custom job. Some of them are even carving out a niche. Sewlong Custom Covers in Salt Lake City, Utah, spends most of its time working on wake-style boats. “When towers were introduced to the market, we found that no one had really mastered it yet,” says Clint Halladay, production manager and lead fabricator at Sewlong.
The company heeded the call with its signature Folding Canopy Top (FCT). By mounting to the outside of the wakeboard tower, the FCT provides more length and headroom while eliminating the problems of a traditional collapsing bimini top installed on, in or under a tower. Sewlong’s custom manufactured clamps allow for installation without drilling holes in the tower or top.
Sewlong primarily uses RECacril® fabric for black versions of the FCT and Stamoid for white. “Black is by far the most common, but my favorite is white and I recommended it to a lot of people,” Halladay says. “Those who dare have always loved it.”
The FCT framework is made from stainless steel tubing. “We spend a lot of time designing and having our own parts made,” says Halladay, who expects the FCT to last 10 to 15 years. “It seems every year we are making a new piece of hardware.”
The third generation of the Folding Canopy Top—the FCTv3—features built-in surf pockets to hold wakeboards. “We have been bothering our vendors for a few new products that are designed to ‘reflect’ the heat for use on our surf pockets but have not gotten our hands on it just yet,” Halladay says.
For powerboats in the 30- to 60-foot range, Harbor Custom Canvas has created a product known as a Catalina shade, which provides temporary sun protection over the cockpit in the slip or at the island or anchor.
“We make these special custom stainless steel adjustable poles that fit in the boat’s pole holders,” Loggans explains. “Then we take a very lightweight ply off of the underside of the bridge deck, and it goes out to the poles where it has an adjustable strap, hook and double D-ring system to tension it out.”
Loggans will use a lighter fabric like the single-coat Lightweight Stamoid or similar for the Catalina shades “so there’s no proble pulling them taut on the polls,” he says. The Catalina shade also comes with a carrying bag for easy storage.
Harbor Custom Canvas creates temporary shading for sailboats as well. For smaller sailboats that don’t have room for a full bimini top, Loggans will create what he calls a simple aft top. The shade attaches to the top of the dodger, typically with twist fasteners, and then comes back to the backstay, where Loggans creates a pocket for a pole.
On pontoons, Central Florida Canvas’s Merritt creates extension tops in which he adds a top in the front of the boat that is clipped onto the main bimini top. The bimini extension, which covers the entire seating area of the boat, is installed onto a square aluminum tubing frame.
More frequently, customers want extension tops because they or a spouse have skin cancer “and just cannot tolerate the sun,” Merritt says. “It’s the only way to keep them on the water.”
Partnering with a specialist can help bring more shading options to customers. In addition to making its own aft fly shades and bimini tops, Artful Canvas Design orders and installs SureShade® retractable sunshade systems. The systems, which require no vertical supports, attach onto the fiberglass overhang or bolt onto the hardtop. Users can expand and retract the shade either manually or electronically.
SureShade makes the shade according to the type of boat or boat measurements, then sends the completed product to the dealer or fabricator, who handles installation. “The systems are easy to work with and offer nice results,” says Freund.
In addition, Artful Canvas designs and fabricates its own fixed and flip shades, either welded stainless steel or anodized or powder-coated aluminum. On the fabric side, “we use double Stamoid, or if customers want a color we use SeaMark fabric because it will not stretch and sag when it gets wet like Sunbrella does,” Freund says.
Through a combination of creativity and expertise, marine fabricators are meeting customers’ demands for shading that protects against the sun, looks good and lasts a long time. As Merritt puts it, “When people have plenty of shade on their boat, they tend to use it more.”
Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer and editor based in Joshua Tree, Calif.
While they may not be taking chances on shade color, boat owners expect access to a broad palette. “What seems to dictate the color of the fabric more than anything else is the color of the boat,” says Mark Merritt of Central Florida Canvas, Fruitland Park, Fla.
The challenge is the factory colors used on the boat don’t always match the hues available for shade fabric. With the variety of fabrics and colors on the market, however, fabricators can come very close.
Merritt ’s customers prefer the darker shades because they better control the UV rays. “Most of my bimini tops are going to be black, blue, gray, burgundy and an occasional beige,” he says. “Green has fallen out of popularity.”
While white shading may be harder to keep clean, customers still seek it out for its crisp look, says Stephan Kåmark of Advanced Canvas and Upholstery Services, Oxnard, Calif.