If you’re approaching middle age, or are already there, you probably remember those big old station wagons with a third-row seat that folded out of the floor in the cargo bay and faced backwards. Riding in it made your little brother, or you, carsick. Remember?
A lot of boats come with seating that faces backwards, in the form of back-to-back seats that fold down into a lounger. They’re an efficient use of space but have some drawbacks. In the boats we’ve owned over the years, we hardly ever folded those seats down. I like my guests to be seated looking forward. On my Starcraft, I discovered I wanted more seating behind the windshield than the back-to-back seats offer, and I wanted more storage than I had. I figured there had to be a better way, so in true Tim Taylor fashion, I tore ’em out and made ’em better.
What I replaced them with are two fixed forward seats (helm and companion) and a bench seat in front of the splashwell. I need to be able to get under the splashwell, so the seat base is actually a removable chest made out of ½-inch plywood. After assembling it, I coated the inside and outside with epoxy resin, to make it water resistant; cut handles in the ends and the middle partition, for easy lifting; and glued indoor-outdoor carpet that compliments the carpet in my boat to the front and sides. The lid/seat is made from foam rubber over 5/8-inch plywood, coated in resin and upholstered with marine vinyl that my wife sewed on her sewing machine. (If you didn’t marry as well as I did, you may have to have that done professionally.)
I wanted the lid/seat to be completely removable, to make removing the chest easier, so the lid is held down to the chest with four ball bungees, with the back two inside the chest and the front two outside of it. If you’re installing the seat where it won’t need to be removed, you can use chest hinges to attach the lid to the chest. They let the seat lift up and forward from the chest for good access to it. Whether you use hinges or bungees, fasten the seat to the base in a way that it won’t lift off and fly out of the boat while you’re blowing down the highway — don’t ask me how I know that will happen. I installed a padded back bolster on the front of the splashwell, made like the seat, using carriage bolts to fasten the bolster to the boat. All the hardware, including the staples, is stainless, for longevity and to avoid rust streaks later in life.
Nearer the windshield, I took the folding seats apart and made new plywood pieces for them (the old ones were a bit punky). I coated the plywood with resin and made two fixed forward-facing seats for the helmsman and a passenger, upholstered with the same vinyl as the aft seat (again expertly sewed by my wife). Depending on how you fasten the pieces, you may need T nuts, which are cool, flanged nuts with barbs in them that you pound in place, and they receive machine screws or bolts. I prefer stainless ones for marine work. (They’re expensive, but character is how you behave when no one’s looking…) You can get them at a good hardware store or online. I made plywood bases for the seats and carpeted the sides with the same carpet I used on the chest (the base of the aft seat).
My seatbacks are hinged — I used some aluminum seat hinges from two pedestal boat seats my neighbor was throwing away — and they fold down to make good footrests for people sitting on the bench. You can make the seatbacks fixed, if you want, whatever works best for you. I often kneel on the helmsman’s seat when I’m driving, so I added 1 inch of dense, closed-cell foam to the seat cushioning, so my knee doesn’t bottom out on the wooden seat base. You can buy it at a fabric store, or you can save a ton of money and use the foam that kids’ floaty beach mats are made of, which are available everywhere during the summer. If you cut access holes in the seat bases, you can gain a little storage, which you can never have too much of on a small boat.
The result is front-facing seating for five behind the windshield, a lot more storage than I had, and a large, comfortable aft seat for three that’s easily removable if I want more floor space, maybe for fishing. While it’s geometrically impossible, it feels like there’s more usable floor space in the cockpit than there used to be. I don’t know how or why, but it’s true. The seating is also more social than the back-to-back seats, without people facing backwards. For extra style points, we reupholstered the bow seats and back bolsters with the same vinyl, and the seating looks like a million bucks.
From the “Learn From My Mistakes” file: If I were to do it again, I wouldn’t use white upholstery. It’s just too hard to keep clean. A light color that complements the color scheme of your boat is the way to go. Avoid dark colors, because they get too darn hot.
Along with necessity, desire is one of the mothers of invention, and for not much money, we ended up with much better seating than we started with, and you can, too.