Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sabrina's Sail Loft - Dinghy Chaps

Or that @*#% project.  Make no mistake, this is the biggest project of my canvas career to date and nothing short of a beyatch of a project.  Warning this posting is about sewing so there will be swearing involved.  It's just a hard, cold fact.  Deal with it!

Our dinghy -Nick Nack is original to s/v Honey Ryder, as in 1998.  It's a great dinghy but the years and recently the sun have really taken a toll.  I had not idea it would take such a beating.  In hindsight, I wish I would have made dinghy chaps the first year we got the boat.  Oh well.  Live and learn.

The dinghy is our car.  We use it daily to get to shore.  As such, a good dinghy costs about as much as a used car for a teenager.  Like I would know what that cost is, but you get the idea, serious $$$$.  In an attempt to get one more season out of Nick Nack, I am attempting to make dinghy chaps to protect Nick Nack better from the elements.  Just so we are clear -I am making a cover for an odd shaped, inflatable object.  WTF am I thinking!  Oh well, here goes.
Vinyl shower curtains worked well as pattern material

I split the front into 5 sections to conform easier to the shape
First we aired the dinghy up to full pressure and then let a little out of the tubes to begin making the pattern  This will allow the chaps to fit snug when fully aired up.  Then I started the pattern making process.  I used two clear vinyl shower curtains as pattern material.  This allowed me to easily shape the pattern pieces to the tubes of the dinghy.  I put darts in place where needed to help the pieces conform.  I used various colored Sharpies to mark hand holds, straps, air ports, rub rail and such. Because this is such an unusual shaped project, I opted to double check my pattern pieces.  After I had all the pieced taped together the way I wanted, I labeled them and then cut them apart.  Then I laid them out on a medium weight plastic drop cloth and cut new pattern pieces. Then I applied these back in place on the dinghy, thus checking the fit.  After a couple of minor adjustments, I was satisfied that I had good pattern pieces to use for cutting the fabric.  Sunbrella is $$ so the fewer the mistakes, the better when cutting - measure twice, cut once seems smart.

Double checking the pattern with a second set of pattern pieces
Originally I had hoped to use the various colored pieces of Sunbrella that I have onboard, making sort of patchwork quilt, hodge-podge looking dinghy chaps.  This would put those scrap pieces to use and as a bonus, who would steal a dinghy with multi-color patchwork chaps!  However all the pieces I had were too small but one.  It was big enough for a couple of pattern pieces but builder beige in color.  Oh well.  I would need to purchase some additional fabric.  A fellow cruiser had a huge batch of Pacific Blue - something like 90 meters.  When I inquired about getting 9 yards, they declined saying they wanted to sell it all in one batch.  Excuse me?  You want me to buy 90 meters or none?   Good luck with that one!  I ended up buying 6 7/8 yards of 60 inch boring beige from Lutchmans for approx $160 US dollars.  Nice!  

Now for the scary step in this process.....queue the dramic music....dum,dum,dum.....cutting the Sunbrella. Remember my pattern pieces are for an odd shaped object filled with air so each is crazy shaped.  I took it all up to the covered area by the pool and used two round tables (best I could do) to cut there.  Different dye lots of the ho-hum beige mean slightly different beige colors.  Oh well.  I picked a matching port and starboard pattern pieces for the darker dyed fabric in hopes of balancing it out.  I taped the drop cloth pattern pieces onto the fabric, and chalked around them, adding for seam allowance.  Then I removed the pattern pieces and cut out the fabric pieces with my hot knife, thus sealing the edges of the Sunbrella and eliminated fraying.  Plastic pattern pieces and a hot knife are a no go combo so that is why I chalked around and then removed the plastic prior to cutting. 
Cutting out the fabric pieces that will make up the dinghy chaps
Let the fun begin - time for sewing.  I was luckily during this time frame to have not one, but two fellow cruisers as consultants.  Graham from s/v Karma has owned his own canvas shop in a prior life and has one of the best custom, self made dinghy chaps I have ever seen.  He gave me some good suggestions and tips early on, although some of it was over my head.  Robin on s/v Just Imagine is a self taught, give it a try type guy when it comes to his canvas projects.  One of his first projects in learning to sew was dinghy chaps.  Holy shit, you have to respect that!  His dinghy chaps are more real life like I thought mine would be.... or "Good enough for us."  Don't get me wrong, I think his a pretty good for self made.  Robin was a huge help with this project, giving ideas, suggestion and most of all moral support.  Thanks Robin! 

So the sewing.  I started from the starboard back and begin connecting the pieces as I went forward.  I did not mark or cut any of the various openings yet as I knew I could do that later as I fit it more.  Fitting the front area was very tough.  I chose to do 5 panels around the front thinking this would help that process.  It did but I still found myself tweaking those seams numerous times to get excess out.  Late in the process I tweaked each side once more and I finally achieved the fit I wanted.  However it threw off a few openings I had put in by that point.  We were able to deal with it but in hindsight, I should have gotten the front completely set before cutting those out.  Oh well.  Good enough for us.  

Have I mentioned what a beyatch this project is?
Alternating between hot knife to cut webbing and sewing

I took it very low in front and then angled up at the sides to just under the rub rail in an attempt to help it stay in place when underway.  I did a drawn string all the way around the outside so we could tighten it down under the rub rail.  I thought it would be a nightmare to sew the drawstring in because of the odd shape (port curved to front then sharp turn and curved back again to starboard - ugh) but it wasn't.  I simply sewed the draw sting in as I went.  I will again never feed/fish a drawstring through if possible!  Sewing it in as I go is the only way!  
Sewing the draw string in
I put in full days sewing.  8:30 to 5:30 - FULL DAYS!
Trimming out the back edge

I was completely stumped on how to finish off the inside.  The drop off from the front V storage area to the rest of the inside of the dinghy was not matching up.  It was wrinkled coming down off the sides.  I slept on it.  Tom took a good hard look as well.  Hum?  The next morning I asked Robin to take a look. "I just took mine straight back even with the V part.  You really don't need it down to the dinghy floor."  I nearly blew out the light bulb that popped on above my head.  Brilliant Robin!  He saved me SO much grief in trying to get it to fit completely to the dinghy floor when that simply wasn't needed.  Thanks Robin!  
One of what felt like 100 fittings

Are you getting the serious brain damage going on with this project?
Another fitting
By the way- s/v Honey Ryder was back in the water when I started sewing but we left Nick Nack up in the yard on the hard.  So I would do a fitting on the dinghy and then take it all back to the boat to sew.  Then go and do a fitting and then back to the boat for more sewing.  Over and over and over again and again.  My favorite was when I would do a fitting, chalk up something important and then get back to the boat only to second guess my markings.  Argh!  Up to the yard again for another fitting and better chalk marks and notes.  Additionally each fitting was slightly different.  Remember - irregular shaped, inflatable object that is susceptible to temperature fluctuations.  Daily rain showers added to the fun. 

Did I tell you that this is the toughest canvas project I have tackled to date?  Royal pain in the arse!
Tom adding the I straps to the back transom
Graham had suggested webbing loops vs grommets wherever possible.  Great advice.  Tom and I discussed many options for securing the chaps to the dinghy.  The draw strings would only do so much.  We decided I straps strategically placed in the fiberglass was the best solution for us.  One in the front of the V, one on each side just after the V, one on the transom inside on each side and the same on the outside (back) of the transom.  Our straps for securing the emergency paddles have not worked since we got Nick. Nack.  (Paddles?  We have an outboard motor as most cruisers do - row ashore?  I don't think so!  Zoom zoom.)  Anyway, Tom decided small grommets on each side of the straps would allow him to use a small piece of line to tie the paddles securely in place (finally) AND act as additional tied down points.  Two birds with one stone - Brilliant Tom.
I strap in the front of the V

Paddles can FINALLY be secured in place
I studied, read, researched and took pictures of many dinghy chaps in the past year.  Several reports mentioned an issue of water collection at the back of the dinghy chaps as you pick up speed and thus pulling the chaps off.  To solve this I decided to use Phifertex - a vinyl mesh type material.  I just happened to have a spare piece of bright orange.  I also used that to trim out the cutout where the seat goes.  We don't have a seat but use those as handholds.  I also had a small scrap of bright orange Sunbrella I got in a scrap bag from Sailrite several years ago.  I used this to trim out the long run on the top of each tube where the line is spliced in for hanging on.  Confused?  Yeah - see the pics where there is bright orange on top each tube.  I had purchased some awesome 9" wide white vinyl from North Sails in St Maarten. Thanks Molly for that tip!  It is easy to cut and sew and doesn't fray.  I only wish I had more.  I used this for the three big carrying handles, two D ring openings and two loop openings.  I sewed webbing around the hole where the oars fit.  We had previously covered that with a piece of firehouse on each side to keep from scratch s/v Honey Ryder or other boats when we come along side in Nick Nack.
Darts in the Phifertex allowed me to taper it off at the back with the tube shape
Finish for aft end of tubes
9" vinyl and seat belt material for rub rail

Are you understand all the weird shaped cutouts I had to deal with and trim out?  
Area where spliced line is used for handholds

Seat belt webbing purchased last year on Ebay was used for two other chafe areas and for the rub rail all the way around.  I had a small bit of the bright orange Phifertex left so I added this as chafe guard in the front down near where the chain and painter attach.  I have a wonderful triangle chafe piece made of that same bright orange Phifertex that I tried to sew onto the finished chaps in the front.  However it's such an odd shape with weird angles, I found I couldn't get it on correctly without it affecting the fit of the chaps thus making the fit too tight.  So for now I have left it off.  I have not given up completely on this piece.  I MAY hand stitch it on.  I know, crazy but it would totally take the look over the top and add extra chafe protection.  We'll see.  The last thing I added was two pieces of orange reflector ribbon I have had for at least 10+ years.  It's really just for the fun and the whim of it but the reflective property can't hurt.  
Chafe guard for the front - yes center is off a tad - Oh well
After final fit and securing everything into place, I gave the chaps a good spray of 303 fabric protector.  I treat all our Sunbrella annually with 303.  It is expensive but it works.  We now buy it by the gallon because we use so much.  It's expensive but even more so up island.

Ready to see the finished product?  Ta Da.  How about that!
Dinghy Chaps in action

Another angle

I am pleasantly surprised at how well it turned out.  Pretty from a far but far from pretty or in other words, "Good enough for us."    I am sure we will discover some things that need to be tweaked and adjusted as we go.  But it's not half bad for a first attempt.  Most important of all is that Nick Nack now has some proper protection from the elements.

Real Summary 
The down and dirty......this was a very hard project.  Nothing short of a real beyatch!  I now completely understand why professionally made, custom dinghy chaps cost so much.  My advice?  If you get an outrageous price quote for dinghy chaps, try to negotiate it down to a moderately outrageous priced quote and then seal the deal with whoever you negotiated with.  Shake their hand, give them a hug for good measure and if you have one, promise them your first born (if they want).  All well worth it vs trying to make your own.  I am sure their are those of you reading this that have made yours and are saying  "It wasn't that bad."  Bullshit.  Your memory is bad.  Or at the very least it's faded, just like the cold misery of a storm at sea fades with time into an amusing tale at happy hour.  Others reading this might be thinking "But I am an excellent seamstress.  I have been designing and making my own clothes since I was little."  Okay, your a great seamstress.  Whatever.  But don't say I didn't warn you.  If you do decided to undertake this crazy project yourself, there are a few good online articles and how to blog posting.  You can also start by taking pictures of dinghy chaps you like and more importantly the various ways of attaching them, dealing with all the odd shaped cutouts, how to taper the aft end tube area and so on.  However, you will not be able to plan for everything on your dinghy chaps.  It is very much a fit, adjust, change, and adapt as you go sort of project.  You must be flexible and have additional resources available like extra webbing and spare pieces of this and that to pull this off.  At least that was my experience and thus my humble opinion. 

With all the safety orange we look very official, sort of Coastie if you will.  We may start our own dinghy safety checks of fellow cruisers.  Violators will have to pay a "liquid fine" to us.  Hee hee.

The Numbers
2 shower curtains
1 medium weight drop cloth 
Blue masking tape
Numerous pieces of tailors chalk
7 bobbins fills of V92 black thread and whatever amount of matching top thread
Approx 8 yards of Sumbrella - plain ole beige *I do not remember the actual name of this color of beige
45 x 24 piece of Sunbrella - bright orange 
Approx 3/4 yard Phifertex - bright orange 
50 ft line for draw strings
Approx 30 feet seat belt material
Approx 1/4 yard 9" vinyl 
Approx 5 ft 1" black webbing for loops and trim
7 I straps
Approx 30 grommets
1 1/2 bottle (regular size) of 303 fabric protector 
2 days of pattern fitting - 1/2 to 3/4 days each
1 full day procuring fabric (maxi taxi into the city, various stops, Lutchmans, 2 1/2 wait for maxi taxi back)
1 full day cutting fabric
4 1/2 FULL days sewing and numerous fits
1/2 day plus a part of the morning to do the final fitting and secure everything in place
Launch - 3 fellow cruisers to lend a hand to carry Nick Nack down to the water
A brain that is slightly off

BIG thanks to my wonderful and brilliant husband Tom.

And the loft is now seriously closed.  It will reopened after the owner gets some serious beach combing, snorkeling, and general limini time in!  


  1. Woah is all I can say. I had never even heard of dinghy chaps before this post, and now I almost feel like an expert! Almost. Having done a few very small canvas sewing projects, I can only begin to imagine the magnitude of this one. You did a great job at documenting just how very difficult and frustrating the entire process was. Hope you never have to do another set of chaps! But I must say, they turned out great, and I give you huge props for sticking with the project and getting 'er done. Shows the same spirit that it takes to be a successful cruiser!

  2. Reminds me of making ours -- especially the looking for a shady spot part :)

    Nice Job, but then what else would we expect?

  3. Scott keeps saying "and you need to make dinghy chaps" - I have managed to avoid answering his comment with yeah I sure do....and I leave it at that. I know he is right but I have been avoiding this project to the point I am willing to clean the bottom before I tackle this project.

    Great blog post and I even learned a thing or is maybe I should stall a little longer.....

    SV Kooky Dance