Aft cockpit or centre cockpit – which is best for cruising?

When buying a sailing boat, the cockpit is one of the most important considerations because that’s where you are going to spend so much of your time on board, and your choice of cockpit affects not just the deck layout but the interior layout, too.

A cockpit design that doesn’t work for you, or suit your style of sailing, can wreck your enjoyment of the boat. Two basic types are available, aft cockpits and centre cockpits.

It’s useful to talk about cockpit designs in general terms but there are always exceptions – like us. We don’t conform to the normal way of doing things; we prefer to go our own way, the Sirius way. In this article we look at the pros and cons of both cockpit types, and then explain how our own modified aft cockpit design combines their key benefits.

Advantages of centre cockpits

When we talk about centre cockpit yachts in this article, we are referring to the modern type with cockpits raised above deck height, not the traditional version that simply moved an aft cockpit forward and put a cabin behind it.

Private owner’s suite

A centre cockpit gives you a large owner’s cabin in the back that is separate from the rest of the yacht, and thus more privacy when you have guests or crew on board. It may also provide the option of a deep cockpit locker or en suite bathroom.

Full-beam aft cabin
The full-beam aft cabin is one of the main reasons for choosing a centre cockpit yacht

Big engine room

Centre cockpit boats tend to have a large engine compartment under the cockpit sole. There’s often space for extra machinery such as a generator and also more room to work on the engine.

Secure galley

You also get a linear galley in the narrow passageway under the cockpit coaming, which offers good bracing and minimal motion in rough seas. However, it often suffers from poor ventilation and can feel claustrophobic.

Low narrow galley
The low narrow galley makes it secure at sea

Lighter mainsheet loads

A centre cockpit deck plan allows the mainsheet to run directly from the end of the boom to the aft deck, with maximum mechanical advantage. The sheet is led from there to the aft end of the cockpit, behind the helm. That’s ideal for shorthanded sailors, as it’s easy for the helmsman to operate, but it is more awkward for another member of the crew to trim the mainsail and the helmsman has to be cautious not to be hit by the sheet.

Disadvantages of centre cockpits

Centre cockpit layouts don’t work well on boats smaller than 12m (40ft). With the cockpit high enough to have standing headroom under its seats, the yacht will look ugly. On a small yacht, it significantly raises the centre of gravity and the centre of effort of the sails, working against the righting moment of the keel. The boom is inevitably higher and the mainsail smaller. If you choose a centre cockpit, you usually sacrifice sailing performance.

Uncomfortable rolling motion

Regardless of the yacht’s size, the height of a centre cockpit above the vertical centre of buoyancy exaggerates the rolling motion experienced by the crew. It can feel exposed and precarious. It’s also true, however, that in a centre cockpit the yacht’s fore-and-aft pitching motion is reduced.

Shallow cockpit, low coamings

To limit the overall height of the hull and avoid exacerbating the rolling effect, centre cockpits tend to be shallower than aft cockpits, with lower coamings and less legroom. That makes them less secure and provides less back support for the crew. It can also be awkward to step over the broad coaming of a centre cockpit yacht and onto the deck, which is often a lot lower than the cockpit seating.

Low cockpit coamings
Low cockpit coamings don’t offer the comfort of back support

Blind spot at the helm

You can see a bit further from a centre cockpit, but being high up also makes it harder to see under the headsail. That’s one of the reasons why many centre cockpit boats have a high-cut Yankee rather than a more powerful and efficient genoa.

More spray in your face

You might think that the extra height of a centre cockpit makes it drier than an aft cockpit. While that is true to a certain extent, it’s also closer to the bow – the wettest end of the boat.

Small and narrow

Centre cockpits are smaller and much narrower than aft cockpits. That’s fine for a couple who mostly sail by themselves, but it’s less comfortable with four in the cockpit and cramped for a crew of six.

Getting in and out of the harbour

It is right that a center cockpit gives you a better overall view of the boat when berthing, but how do you moor your boat or get off safely from the harbour on your own or with just the two of you?

Being far away from both ends of the yacht, with the midships spring cleats too far from the wheel position you are relying on your crew to do all the ropework. If it is just the two of you, your partner needs to be everywhere at once, running back and forth from bow to stern to tend lines. On a yacht with an aft cockpit your partner can concentrate on the bow lines, while you are handling the stern lines from the helm position. Likewise you can take off the aft lines yourself when casting off.

Less stowage

In a centre cockpit layout the space under the cockpit seats and inside the coamings can’t be used for lockers, as it’s needed for headroom down below. You do get two lazarette lockers instead, but they aren’t as big and they’re usually next to the head of the berth in the aft cabin. On an overnight passage you’ll hear loose gear shifting around in there while you try to sleep.

Stern slap noise

Most modern yachts have flattish aft sections just above the waterline. In harbour they suffer from wave slap, which is the noise caused by wavelets or wash running under the hull. With nowhere to dissipate the energy it slaps the hull with a thud even in calm conditions. A centre cockpit layout with the owner’s cabin aft puts your head directly above to the source of that noise. For many this renders an aft cabin entirely unsuited to sleep.

Waves hitting the stern can disturb sleep
Noise from waves hitting the stern can disturb sleep in aft cabins

A long way down… and up

The tall topsides of a centre cockpit boat are a disadvantage in a typical yacht harbour or marina with floating jetties. You’re further away from the mooring cleats and will probably need to rig up a step to get down onto the pontoon, rather than just stepping down holding a shroud (or the solid guard rail). The same goes for mooring buoys. When there isn’t a pick-up line, a very long reach is required. There are ways to overcome these difficulties, but they can be daunting for less athletic or inexperienced members of the crew.

High topsides
High topsides mean everything going into the yacht has to go up to the cockpit and then down to the saloon

Getting your kit on board and relaying bags of shopping from pontoon to galley requires more effort as everything has to be lifted further up – and then further down. The companionway of a centre cockpit yacht needs to be longer and is usually steeper than yachts with aft cockpits.

A less responsive helm

The wheel of a centre cockpit yacht is far from the rudder quadrant, so some manufacturers use hydraulic steering to avoid using a long and complex mechanical linkage. This robs the helm of feedback from the rudder. Other builders use chain and cable or direct drive via universal joints to give a better feel to the helm, but more joints account for more play in the system.

Emergency steering issues

What happens in the event of a steering system failure? On some centre cockpit yachts the emergency tiller is used on the aft deck; on others you operate it from down below in the aft cabin. The aft deck solution leaves the helmsman exposed, with little sight ahead and far from the yacht’s instruments, sail and engine controls. In the aft cabin you’re fully sheltered but with no instruments and you can’t see where you are going. In such cases, it’s good that modern autopilot systems are usually directly linked to the quadrant – if you still have power.

Advantages of aft cockpits

The aft cockpit is by far the most common configuration on yachts below 40 feet and there are many good reasons for this.

Aft cockpit yacht
Aft cockpit yachts are the most popular cockpit arrangement, for good reasons

More cabins

On many cruisers, aft cockpits are raised up high enough to allow an internal layout with twin aft cabins, which is great for large families and a boon for charterers, who can bring more friends and reduce the cost each has to pay. The trade-off is that cockpit stowage is often reduced to just a couple of sole-depth lockers and a liferaft locker under the helmsman’s feet.

Larger saloon

By using fold-down transoms, many manufacturers have moved the cockpit as far aft as possible to give more space to the interior, making the saloon longer and allowing the galley to be put in a more sociable place. This is often seen as an advantage and for many people it probably is – but a cynic would say that from the boatbuilder’s perspective, the benefit of having a large empty space is that it doesn’t cost them a penny to build.

Spacious saloon
With the cabins and cockpit well aft the saloon can be made spacious and open

Easy access

The typically lower topsides of an aft cockpit yacht make it easier for crew to get on and off, and to load and unload heavy items. There are also fewer steps between the cockpit and saloon. A fold-down transom offers excellent access to the boat in marinas, and twin wheels also provide a convenient walk-through via the stern. There are, however, significant disadvantages to fold-down transoms and twin wheels, as we explain below.

Low open transoms
Low open transoms can make access to the cockpit easy from dinghies and pontoons

Ideal for daysailing

On many aft cockpit yachts, the owner’s cabin is in the bow. This is ideal when you’re anchored for the night or in harbour. The berth can be more like a proper bed, facing aft with space to get in and out on both sides, and you’re much less likely to be disturbed by things like stern slap, noise from a generator, heater or water pump, or the heads being flushed in the night. For ocean sailing, however, it’s far from ideal. It’s a very uncomfortable place to sleep with your head pitching up and down in the bow, and without leecloths the berth is nearly unusable at sea.

Easier sail trimming

The further aft you are, the better your view of the mainsail. In an aft cockpit you’re usually steering from further outboard, which means you see more of the headsail too, especially in a boat with twin wheels or a single canting wheel.

A bimini can shade the crew
A forward mainsheet keeps it clear of the cockpit and allows a bimini to shade the crew

In most aft cockpit cruising yachts the mainsheet winches and clutches are within easy reach of both the helmsman and the rest of the crew. If a “German-mainsheet-system” is fitted, the mainsheet is moved out of the cockpit and onto the coachroof. This makes the cockpit safer for everyone and allows a bimini to be fitted for shade. The downside is that when trimming the sheet you have less mechanical advantage so you need much more force and the boom is easier broken.

Easier emergency steering

With the emergency tiller in or near the normal helm position, it’s much easier to see the sails, instruments and your surroundings. On a boat with a single wheel, you may need to use reverse the emergency tiller to use it properly, but on a twin-wheel boat the fitting for the emergency tiller is usually between the wheels, or onto one of the stocks if she has twin rudders.

Disadvantages of aft cockpits

Many boatbuilders push the cockpit as far aft as possible to enlarge the saloon, as explained above, so the helmsman sits right on the transom. There are several downsides to this.

Uncomfortable pitching motion

If the helm position is as far aft as it can go, the helmsman will suffer the full extent of the boat’s pitching motion, which can be violent in rough seas. Wide beam and twin wheels exacerbate the situation by placing the helmsman further outboard.

Helm far from the centre of the yacht
The further the helm is from the centre of the yacht, the more motion the helm will experience

More spray in the helmsman’s face

Helming from the very back of the boat can feel rather exposed. Too far aft to get full benefit from the shelter of the sprayhood, you’ll either be ducking each sheet of spray or just getting lashed in the face. Three feet further forward, you’d be dry. Again, a wide beam further aft and twin helms also leave you more exposed.

Wide beam and aft helm position
Wide beams and aft helm positions can leave the helm feeling exposed

Boarding and berthing

Boarding an aft cockpit yacht can be more difficult at high docks because the aft deck height or the cockpit sole is lower. There is, however, a modern trend of raising the cockpit sole to give more space to the aft cabins beneath.

Fold-down transom
While fold-down transoms create a good bathing platform, boarding from a dinghy can sometimes be tricky

When you’re backing an aft cockpit yacht into a berth, one of your crew will often be standing on the fold-down transom without any handholds, just when you need to slow the boat down with a blast of forward power. What could possibly go wrong?

Too much space is less safe

Many modern yachts have very wide aft cockpits, which are great in fair weather and thus popular with charter companies. It’s also useful if you race with a full crew. For offshore cruising, however, a narrower and more enclosed cockpit is much safer and so much more comfortable. A fixed cockpit table provides handholds and bracing points – it’s is a good way to make a wide-open cockpit more secure.

More cabins than you need

Having twin aft cabins is not an advantage when the extra cabin is rarely used. If you mostly cruise as a couple, there are better ways to use that space. With a single aft cabin, you can have an enormous cockpit locker or a large technical room – or a combination of both.

Smaller cabins are used less
Twin aft cabins can sometimes mean smaller cabins that are used less

The best cockpit solution – the Sirius concept

Having read about the advantages and disadvantages of each you may wonder what the answer is. The aft cockpit is deservedly popular but it’s not perfect. For a start, it still has to be raised high enough to give the aft cabins enough room. Also, the engine is crammed into a small space behind the companionway and ideally located to disturb the occupants of both aft cabins at once. The centre cockpit gives the owners a large cabin with a big double berth, but it has wave slap to contend with and the galley is usually banished to a corridor between the saloon and the owner’s cabin.

Sirius Yachts cockpit design
We believe the cockpit design of Sirius yachts offers the best of both aft and centre cockpit designs

Cabins ideally placed

At Sirius, we can fit aft cabins but we have two excellent and much nicer cabins on board already. The spacious forward suite is perfect in harbours and for coastal daysailing, and the mid-cabin is ideal for offshore or ocean sailing with a large rectangular double berth, as low down and as close as possible to both the vertical and horizontal centres of gravity, making it the best possible sea berth.

Sirius Yachts - mid cabin
The mid cabin is ideally placed for the best night’s sleep; away from any anchor noise and waves slapping the transom

On all our models, both cabins can have either a direct access to an en suite heads or one heads for each cabin. Both of these cabins are separated from the engine room and technical space, and they’re far from the stern slap noise at the aft end of the boat. Because we have these two cabins and another double possible when lowering the saloon table, we have lowered the cockpit down and increased the height of the coamings.

This makes the cockpit more comfortable and more sheltered, without the need for a windscreen or sprayhood. Without the whole concept designed around the aft cabins, we can keep the aft quarters of the hull narrow, keeping the immersed hull shape more balanced, improving her windward performance and reducing the rolling motion as well as doing away with the need for twin rudders.

Benefits of a low-level aft cockpit

With the cockpit low and the saloon raised, the companionway has no steps at all so you walk straight inside the boat. With the fixed part of the transom and the helm’s seat moved forward of the transom, we haven’t pushed the helm all the way aft, meaning you don’t fight the backstay for space and won’t endure excessive pitching while steering. And when you want minimal pitching on board a Sirius, you can enter the warm shelter of the deck saloon and still be in contact with your surroundings and anyone in the cockpit. When making tea or coffee in the long linear galley you have the windows of the deck saloon to look out of. It’s easy to brace yourself securely anywhere along the length of the galley and it’s conveniently located for both the saloon and the cockpit.

The view forward

The view forward on a centre cockpit yacht is often poor because of the head sail. On a typical aft cockpit yacht, you usually have to look through a sprayhood with curved plastic, opaque or often scratched windows.

On a Sirius it is all about sight lines: standing at the helm or sitting on the coaming everybody can see over the only 1.4m (4ft 7in) roof and sitting in the cockpit you can see straight through the security glass windows of the deck saloon and out under the jib or genoa. When keeping watch in rough weather conditions or at night, you have the enclosed shelter of the warm saloon with an entirely unobstructed 360-degree field of vision. There’s no need for twin wheels as our hulls are not excessively wide and we can fit a canting wheel to give you an even more relaxed steering position when heeled, and views outside of the coachroof. The canting wheel also gives easy walk-through access via the transom door.

Sirius Yachts - a good view forward
There is always a good view forward, either over, around or through the coachroof

Boarding steps and bathing platforms

Both our 40DS and 35DS have a transom door that leads to a bathing platform to step on, this gives easy access whatever the level of the pontoon, dock or harbour wall. In addition to this, the 40DS has a larger fold-down transom giving a much larger bathing/boarding area. The bathing platform on both yachts gives easy access, leaving more space for fenders and ensuring that you won’t damage the platform or its mechanism if you misjudge the berthing manoeuvre. With the helm low down and close to the aft mooring gear, you’re right where you need to be when mooring short-handed – you just step out of the cockpit onto the jetty with the lines the moment you are safe to leave the helm. The bathing platform has the pushpit on both sides as handrails to hold onto, so when you are moored stern-to this gives easy and secure one-step access to the cockpit from the pontoon. The fold down bathing platform enlarges and opens up the cockpit and thus the feeling from the saloon to the stern. This is nice when needed in port but a great addition when at anchor.

Sirius Yachts - transom door
Both our 40 DS and 35 DS have a transom door that leads to a bathing platform to step on

The bathing platform has the pushpit seats on both sides as handrails to hold onto; when you are moored stern-to this gives easy and secure one-step access to the cockpit from the pontoon. It also enlarges and opens up the cockpit from the saloon backwards which is nice in harbours and fantastic on an anchorage. With the deck saloon, cockpit floor and transom more or less in the same level you can walk straight in from the back and are not climbing up and down at all.

The right size for safe sailing

Our cockpits are longer and a bit wider than those of most centre cockpit yachts but not so wide as to make moving around precarious in rough weather. They have high coamings that provide good, ergonomic back support and shelter. We also put lots of handholds around the cockpit so you’re never having to hold onto sheets or your crewmates to move around safely or get to the helm. As the cockpit is positioned aft the deck not very wide you feel safely embraced by the pushpits, if chosen, cockpit arch and fixed guard rail which are nice to lean on, when sitting on the coamings and great to hold onto when standing or stepping out of the cockpit. There is plenty of seating, too – the bench seats are over 2m (6ft 7in) long on the 35DS and 2.45m (8ft) on the 40DS.

Getting the right cockpit configuration is important. Unlike engines, sails or the colour of the upholstery, it’s not something that can be changed once you’ve bought the boat.