Sleeping Well Means Better Cruising

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2016 • all rights reserved

If I don't sleep well, nothing goes well. A comfy bed is a BIG priority on our boat! Tips to make your existing bad much more comfortable.

If I don’t sleep well, I’m not having a good time. It’s as simple as that.

Twenty-some years ago, Dave was appalled at my spending $180 for a thick double Thermarest roll-up camping mattress before we did a 9-week tent camping trip in Africa. But we – the geezers of the bunch – slept well with no aching backs . . . something that many of the much younger travelers couldn’t say after spending the night on their much cheaper thin sleeping mats. In the overall cost of the trip, the Thermarest was a tiny fraction. But it made the rest of it so much better.

And that experience taught us that a comfortable bed is right up there with staying warm, dry and well-fed on the boat.

Unfortunately, most boat beds are made as though you’re never going to sleep on them. The bed in Barefoot Gal was sadly lacking when we bought her.  Just 2” cushions that had long since lost any cushioning or support that they ever had, and one pillow that was pretty flat with a few lumps. The sheets were those scratchy 100-count cotton/polyester ones . . . and all the elastic was gone from the “fitted” one. The comforter was decided mildewed.

Here’s what we did to turn that pathetic excuse for a bed into an inviting place that gives us the rejuvenating sleep we need.

MATTRESS

Rather than get a whole new mattress (we loved the custom Handcraft Mattress on our previous boat but hoped to find a less expensive solution), we opted to add a 3” memory foam topper to the existing cushions based on the recommendation of other cruisers. Some people have complained about memory foam being hot, but we haven’t had that experience at all. This has worked perfectly for us.

We’re lucky in that our bed is a true queen size, but if yours is a little narrow or a v-berth, you can cut down a mattress topper with either a serrated knife (harder) or an electric knife (much easier and you can usually find one inexpensively at a resale shop, then donate it back).

You can choose both the thickness of the topper (typically 2 to 4 inches) and the foam density  (3 to 6 pounds per cubic foot).

  • Most people find 3” or 4” to be much more comfortable than the 2” – we chose 3” as being a good compromise on weight and easy of handling to get it on the boat.
  • The denser the foam, the firmer it will be. Online research I did said side sleepers usually prefer 3 to 4 pounds density while back sleepers want 4-1/2 to 6 pounds. We’re both side sleepers and went with 4 pounds.
  • Newer ones with gel sleep cooler but are generally more expensive; we use a waterproof mattress cover (see below) and heat is not a problem without the gel.

A few things to know about memory foam toppers:

  • They are really compressed in their packaging. You’ll never get it back in the bag and box it came in. It typically takes 2 to 4 days for it to fully expand.
  • They are soft to pick up – very little firmness or stiffness. It takes two people to go up or down stairs and through tight doorways.
  • It’s “sticky” – unless it has a cover, it’s impossible to slide it onto a bed. You have to start at one end, putting it exactly where you want it, and then unroll it.
  • When you first unpackage it, it’s likely to have a smell. It’s not harmful and will go away in anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks depending on the airflow.

Because of the smell, you may want to unpackage the topper off the boat and let it expand for a week or so before bringing it aboard. That’s what we did – just beware that it’ll be harder to handle to get aboard once it’s out of its package and expanded.

Here’s the one we got from Amazon (there are other sizes on that same page):

If I don't sleep well, nothing goes well. A comfy bed is a BIG priority on our boat! Tips to make your existing bad much more comfortable.

MATTRESS COVER/PAD

Let’s face it, boats can have leaks. With the mast coming down at the head of the bed and a large window and hatch over the bed, I was worried about about rain or breaking waves putting water onto the bed. Sheets and bedding I can dry out; it’s a lot harder to dry out a mattress. So instead of a conventional mattress pad, we opted for a waterproof one (waterproof also blocks allergens, mold and mildew from bothering you) which is machine washable. It looks and feels like terry cloth, not like plastic.

  • Be sure to get one that is “noiseless” so it doesn’t sound like you’re sleeping on a plastic tarp
  • Make sure it’s breathable or it’ll be hot

Here’s the one we got; unfortunately, the sides aren’t waterproof (I couldn’t find one where they were). If you have a v-berth, you will probably have to do some customizing to make one fit.

PILLOWS

I had  no idea how much a good pillow contributed to good sleep until we got good pillows. When we moved ashore after selling our first cruising boat, we had to buy a new bed. We went to a local mattress shop, where we could try lots of bedding sets. But the salesman said that the first thing we needed to do was choose a pillow so that we’d be comfortable lying on the various beds. As someone who’d always just bought inexpensive pillows at discount stores, I thought a pillow was a pillow. But as I tried several different ones, I quickly discovered that there was one that was just so much more comfortable for me while others ranged from “meh” to downright uncomfortable for my neck. And we ended up getting “good” pillows as part of the package. (Good salesman – he got a bigger sale AND a customer who was happy about spending more!)

Whenever we’d travel, Dave and I would both comment on how we missed our good pillows. I found that the pillow was equally important as the mattress to getting a good night’s sleep – something I’d never suspected. And so I bought exactly the same ones for the boat (at the time, we were planning to be part year cruisers).

The ones we bought have been discontinued but I encourage you to go to a bedding store that will let you lie down on a bed and try a variety of pillows. Or if you have one at home that you love, do as I did and buy a duplicate.  Ours are discontinued, so I can’t provide a link, but in any case this is one item where you really need to go and find what’s comfortable for you.

The ones we bought are a dense memory foam; I preferred one with gel (even firmer) and Dave without. Expect to pay $50 to $100 each for good pillows. I know, they’re expensive. I never would have spent that much on a pillow until I did have one and realized what a difference it made.

PILLOW COVERS

With all the mold, mildew and other allergens that are usually on a boat, we opted for pillow covers that go on the pillows under the pillow cases. They’re zipped and protect against dust mites and allergens actually making their way into the pillows – just take them off once or twice a year and toss them in a hot wash to remove the irritants. It’s a lot easier than trying to wash and dry pillows – and you really don’t want to wash those expensive pillows! It’s just like having an extra pillowcase on the pillow and thus unnoticeable when  you lay your head down.

NOTE: If you get a different brand, be sure it has nylon or plastic zippers so they don’t rust in the marine environment.

SHEET SET

Boat bed sheets are a pain. First, even with the mattress topper, the “mattress” isn’t nearly as thick as a home mattress (I can’t imagine a 17” mattress on our boat . . . our heads would be almost touching the ceiling!). So even if  you have a standard length and width, the bottom fitted sheet tends to pop off when you roll over since it’s never pulled tight. I woke up to find myself as the stuffing in a sheet burrito more than once! And if you have a v-berth, regular sheets just don’t fit, period.

On our old boat, the prior owner had v-berth sheets custom made. To be honest, they didn’t fit all that well. On this boat with a queen mattress, I first used standard sheets and passed an elastic strap underneath. Sheets were still loose and would tangle around my ankles, and it was a giant pain when it came time to put fresh sheets on after doing laundry. Trying to fish the strap out from under the mattress while lying on it (one side is against the wall) was a less-than-fun experience.

About that time, I connected with Beth of Sailboat Interiors. Her company makes sheets designed to fit on boat beds – whether rectangular or v-berth. The bottom sheet is oversized and has an elastic drawstring that you can draw as tightly as you need for a great fit that doesn’t pop off. And they’re made from luxurious 300 thread count Egyptian cotton (she’s also just added a  bamboo line and a 400 thread count cotton line). We’ve been using the set she sent for nearly a year now and love them (see my earlier review). They fit, we don’t struggle to make the bed and they just feel luxurious. Despite near-constant use, they aren’t showing any wear.

We don’t have a v-berth, but her v-berth sheets make a lot more sense than others I’ve seen, again being oversized with an elastic drawstring to ensure a tight fit. They’re less expensive than custom made as they come in two “universal” size ranges. And the material is wonderful and comfy.

I like all-natural fabrics – cotton or bamboo – in humid climates. They may get a little damp, but the cotton/poly blends and microfibers that I’ve tried feel much wetter to me and don’t seem to dry out nearly as quickly from body heat when I get in bed. Okay, I’ll admit it, it’s nice to have sheets that feel luxurious. I feel pampered crawling into bed.

To learn more and/or order a set from Sailboat Interiors:

QUILT

Yes, even here in the Florida Keys or when we were cruising Mexico, there are chilly days when you need a blanket or quilt. For our first year on Barefoot Gal, we used an old fleece blanket for our first winter. There was nothing really wrong with it, but nothing really wonderful, either. When Sailboat Interiors brought out their quilt/pillow sham sets, I immediately ordered one. It is the softest fabric and so, so snuggly – I can just burrow right into it!

NIGHTSTAND

I just added the last piece to our “bedroom” — a wall organizer that I’ve dubbed my nightstand. The perfect place for my book, glasses, phone and all that other stuff that you want right next to the bed. Also from Sailboat Interiors — and it matches my quilt!

If I don't sleep well, nothing goes well. A comfy bed is a BIG priority on our boat! Tips to make your existing bad much more comfortable.

Cruising, particularly if you’re doing it for more than a few days at a time, shouldn’t mean “making do.” A comfortable – luxurious, even – bed goes a long ways to making our boat our home.

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Comments

  1. Cynthia Lee Goodman-Degnan. FYI.

  2. Sounds like this will fit our needs

  3. Kelly Jennings

  4. Good Article. On Sea Change we are fans of natural latex toppers. Since they are natural, they don’t tend to “off gas” like some of the other non natural products. This can be a problem in the confined spaces of a boat bunk. The natural toppers tend to be more expensive, but IKEA sells a reasonably good product. It’s natural latex with a removable cotton cover that can be easily washed in an oversized machine.

  5. I’ve just put in an order for the cinchable bamboo sheet set. Solved 2 of my problems! We MUCH prefer bamboo sheets, and wondered how we were going to keep the sheets from slipping off our mattress.

  6. For the V-berth mattress, our main sleeping berth on Phantom, we cut down (re-purposed) a 4 inch “hide-a-bed” sofa cushion to fit the V-berth shape. The inner spring design was easy to re-arrange and re-sew. I got the idea from a local marina canvas shop doing this to a new 8″ mattress she had purchased from Sam’s to fit a client’s V-berth. Our re-built mattress sits on the V-berth cushions and gives us 8 inches of sleeping bliss. If anyone wishes to see how I cut and sewed the mattress, we can be contacted at jbshell@flash.net.

    It was a re-purposing process for us because we did not know how it was going to turn out. We have used it for about 12 years now with no rust or water problems.

  7. Great article, as always Carolyn.

    As side sleepers, we have been considering a mattress topper for the firm, queen sized custom mattress that came with our boat. Thanks for sparing us the research!

    I also thought some might be interested in how I [now we…] have been doing our bedding differently for the last few decades. [Note: We sail in cooler climates typically north of 55°, so those in warmer climes may wish to experiment with non-fleece variations…]

    I always hated the fitted sheet wrestling match, so I experimented on myself one winter 30 years ago and made a fleece bedroll the shape of the V-Berth on my boat at that time. Wonderful! I had one item to wash when dong laundry, and making the bed was as easy as standing at the head of the berth and unrolling the fleece on top. This also facilitated easy access to the stowage below the berth.

    My original bedroll had the full length matching two-way zippers that met in the middle of the bottom so the top and bottom could be separated, and one of both sides of the bottom could be unzipped for ventilation. But subsequent models eliminated the zippers [which typically failed after a few years…] and were sew together across the bottom and up to about knee/thigh level. [Not much different from regular sheets and blankets…] This is ideal for us; easy to get out of of you have to exit the foot of the berth, and no tangling or burrito effect…

    Fast forward to our current boat with a custom queen sized mattress that has a cloth hinge down the middle so the mattress folds in half lengthwise for accessing the storage and steering system underneath. [And a lee cloth can be attached to the hinge to split the bert in two- making 2 pilot berths- when transiting a seaway… We sail a monohull…]

    The bedroll also eliminates the need to remake the berth every time you fold the mattress over [which isn’t really that often, however the convenience is wonderful.]

    Since we also have a smaller front-loading clothes washing machine on our current boat, we have taken to making micro fleece sheet liners that fit inside the fleece bedroll so we can wash those on the boat. [The one piece fleece bedroll is too big for our 1.8 cu ft washer… A 2-piece bedroll with zippers may work better for us now so we could wash the fleece halves separately on board…]

    Anyway, you get the idea… In case this is useful to others.

    Thanks again!

    Bill

  8. What are the best pillows to sleep on for a boat?

  9. Great info. Thanks.

  10. Anyone in colder climes experience the underneath of mattress becoming damp (condensation) and if so, what’s the best way to solve? For now I have used two waterproof mattress protectors; one on the bottom and one on top. Any better solutions? Thought about putting slats, but they’d have to be significant enough so that the mattress doesn’t simple absorb them, which may also be uncomfortable. Thoughts?

  11. Thank you for this. Your article has motivated me to finally do something about our mattresses. Adding an overlay makes this easier than I anticipated. We’re not live-aboard but every sleep counts!

  12. Thanks Boat Galley, that’s a great article

  13. Where is the best place to buy a custom mattress. What type is best for the boat?

  14. Hi, I looked on Amazon to get the mattress protector but I’m unsure on size. Our boat bed is an Australian ‘double’ size (between single bed and queen). Amazon seem to have every size listed except double. Can anyone tell me the American equivalent? It fits a standard double bed fitted sheet so that is definitely the size for the fitted protector. Tks.

  15. Dan Woodworth says:

    Here’s another option for people who don’t care for the memory foam and density.

    Ultimate Dreams King 3″ Talalay Latex Soft Mattress Topper. Maybe a bit pricey but the added ventilation is nice.

    http://amzn.to/1RxPkVT

  16. Thanks for sharing your sleep tips.
    Carolyn and a couple others mentioned the Froli Sleep System (http://www.frolisleepsystems.com) as an option for eliminating the under-mattress-condensation, and while it does do that, what wasn’t really hinted on is that it also contributes to an AMAZING night’s rest! My wife and I’ve slept on a FSS since 2011 and I can tell you that after a 10 night maiden voyage and then waking up the first morning back home on our pillow top queen my wife asked me if we could put a Froli in our home’s bedroom… the comfort is that good! And I did. The Froli is worth every penny. Just put it under your existing mattress/pad system and instant luxury-rest.
    : ) Cheers

  17. Nancy Scappaticci says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. This is one of my winter projects. My research has been all over the place. I’m so happy you have simplified it for me.

  18. We were road warrior for over years traveling for work. My husband and I always packed our pillows. It made a huge difference when sleeping in hotels to have this small comfort from home. When we moved onto the boat the pillows came with us. I like the pillow cover idea and will definitely buy two.
    Great information on bed toppers as well. Thank you!

  19. Dan Thomas says:

    After having a Hand Crafted Mattress on our Morgan OI we were not impressed with the life span of it. It wore out after a few years use. On our Gemini catamaran we ordered a10″ memory foam mattress off e bay and bought a memory foam topper from wal mart. Life is good after sleeping on that set up. The whole thing cost us about less than $500. A small price for a good night’s sleep.

  20. My wife got a memory foam type mattress for the house. I kept sinking into it and could hardly move. I have a bad back already and that mattress made it so much worse for me. Wife liked it but I had to swap it out for a conventional Serta type. I don’t expect to ever use memory foam on my boat. The is one thing that a user will need to test out options if possible. It’s just not for everyone.
    I am in the process of looking for cushions, so it’ll take some time to find something that will be comfortable.

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