If I don’t sleep well, I’m not having a good time. It’s as simple as that. So sleeping well on our boat is a priority.
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 decidedly 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.
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):
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.
- Waterproof Hypoallergenic Mattress Pad on Amazon (various sizes available)
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.
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.
- Aller-Ease 100-Cotton Dust Mite & Allergy Control Standard Pillow Encasement on Amazon (standard, queen and king sizes available)
NOTE: If you get a different brand, be sure it has nylon or plastic zippers so they don’t rust in the marine environment.
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 Quahog Bay Bedding:
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!
They no longer seem to carry the same quilt. but they do offer a duvet and several covers with pillow shams.
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! (Update – Sadly this organizer no longer appears to be available.)
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 way to making our boat our home.