Design tips for removable shade structures that bring value to clients and profit to fabricators.
by Sigrid Tornquist
Boat enthusiasts have always sought shade solutions. It’s a matter of survival and comfort. And it’s also a matter of aesthetics. It’s been 30 years since Mike Erickson, CEO and owner of Canvas Designers® Inc. in Riviera Beach, Fla., designed his first versions of what are now known as “sunflys.” Many of his early versions emerged from experiences with building cruising awnings for sailboaters who would stop in Palm Beach, Fla., before setting sail for the Bahamas. “We would make large spans of fabric tied overhead in their rigging to shade the boat from the extreme tropical heat,” he says. “One day a customer with a small sailboat came in and wanted a shade to string up from his bimini to protect over the companionway. This was probably the earliest version of a sunshade similar to today’s shade designs.”
That first sunshade zipped from the front edge of the bimini and was supported by a lift and ties in the corners. “It was probably another 10 years of playing around with designs in this arena before a real design product emerged,” Erickson says.
Now, sunfly designs are stronger and lighter, can be set up in minutes and are no less than works of art that add value to a vessel’s form and function. “Sunflys have been growing in popularity for several reasons in the Midwest,” says Allan Pfromm, canvas fabricator for Bayport Marina Association (BMA) Canvas, Bayport, Minn. “First, they are freestanding, self-tensioning structures and can be set up and taken down in less than five minutes. Second, they stow easily relative to their size. And third, we can use materials that either match the boat’s current canvas or contrast and complement the overall aesthetic.”
The first step in marine canvas design always involves unearthing the clients’ needs, and designing shade is no different. “When choosing the right type of shade, I communicate with my customer on how much shade they are looking for,” says Mike Charlton, owner of Charlton’s Marine Canvas, Yorktown, Va. “I then make my decision based on three things: shade coverage, functionality and aesthetics.”
Charlton steers his customers toward temporary shade when they explain to him that they don’t want shade all the time. “Even collapsible shade options will still leave some sort of structure in the way for fishing and other activities,” he says. “One of the trickiest parts about creating a sunfly is knowing how much scallop or curve to put in the sides. If you have too much scallop, then you are taking away from potential shade; and if you don’t have enough scallop, then the shade will be floppy and will not be flat and tight.”
Curves in the fabric aren’t the only potential obstacle. Curves in the boats themselves also present a challenge when designing shade. “Today’s boats have more curves and softer edges,” Pfromm says. “We have developed a system to crown or bend the poles to give a less rigid feel to the overall look. Understanding where the finished product will end up and shade the boat is a challenging use of the mind’s eye.”
Points of attachment
Among the greatest challenges is choosing attachment points that secure the sunfly but don’t interfere with users’ activities and views. “Most of my shade systems don’t require additional hardware. I work with existing points of attachment, like fishing rod holders and other creative leverage,” says Whitney Carman, owner of Even Keel Canvas LLC, Lomita, Calif. “I prefer to start with no attachments and if I decide it needs something, we’ll add it later.”
Carman’s go-to carbon fiber pole for temporary shade projects is Blackstick®, a customizable carbon fiber pole designed to fit into the fishing rod holders in the back and fold in half for storage. “I think one of the reasons those work so well is that they have the perfect balance of strength and flex,” Carman says. “Having that flex secures the pole into the fishing rod holder. If there is a huge gust from underneath, the rod has locked itself in.”
While using fishing rod holders for attachment points works well in many cases, it isn’t always the best solution. “The drawback to these is that the position and angle is locked in,” Pfromm says. “For those who prefer the curved style poles, we use the surface mount bases and have a broader option for placement and rotation. We finally got the opportunity to use a collapsible carbon fiber pole where the final product blended nicely with the boat. That pole was designed for a center console fishing boat, and we needed to modify the pole to fit our client’s application.”
Erickson says Canvas Designers’ 1½-inch carbon fiber poles are the popular choice for most applications but for larger shades, the company has used up to 4-inch stainless steel. And for smaller shades it at times still uses 1¼-inch stainless tubing.
The right fabric
Choosing the right fabric depends, of course, on the clients’ priorities and the region in which they use their vessel. “We use everything from Sunbrella® to WeatherMAX® on small boats where the customers want color to Stamoid® Light, Stamoid Top and even Stamoid Précontraint® for larger, more permanent shade with rigging and turnbuckles,” Erickson says.
Pfromm says BMA Canvas primarily uses Sunbrella but a small percentage of clients want PVC-coated polyester (Stamoid) or mesh (Phifertex®). “A mesh fabric is a necessary option if the user will leave it up unattended during periods of overnight dew or a spotty rain shower,” he says.
In California, where they don’t have a bug problem and precipitation isn’t as frequent, “it’s always about having shade,” Carman says. In 2019, clients asked Carman to create a temporary shade structure for their Viking 80, which they take to Mexico for extended fishing trips each year. They expected to put it up and take it down frequently, so it needed to be lightweight and easy to handle. Carman chose WeatherMAX® 3D for the 15-by-15-foot shade structure. “I used a scale ruler and sketched the area, right down to the attachment points and the space between,” she says.
She sketched a seam pattern that would land each seam perfectly between tension points, knowing she would have more stretch on the bias and more strength folding each edge twice. She stretched the seams as she sewed them to prevent the polytetra fluoroethylene (PTFE) thread from breaking. “I put the shade up and was surprised to see the seams and tension points created a beautiful framework,” she says. “Starting at 20 feet high, the shade came down to 7 feet at the bottom, and the seams started narrow and flared out to create the exact aesthetic appeal I had hoped for.”
For some fabricators, the question of whether to use design software depends largely on how unusual the project is. Canvas Designers’ fabricators use traditional plastic pattern materials and then draw the curvatures on the edges using a rule of ½ inch in at center per foot of edge. “For larger, more complex shades, we use the Prodim Proliner or laser to get the shape and then we run the shade through MPanel to get our final panel patterns,” Erickson says.
Carman, Charlton and Pfromm all prefer to design by hand for every shade project. “Software can be helpful, but when someone is first learning it’s important to do it by hand to understand fundamentals. Then you can rely on your design and use software as a creative tool,” Carman says.
The marine shade market is a segment that continues to grow and evolve as fabricators find new and innovative ways to make shade structures that are both beautiful and functional.
Sigrid Tornquist is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Advice on shade solutions
Four experienced fabricators comment on marine shade options.
“We have evolved our edge hem to concave slightly to promote positive tensioning as the fabric acclimates to the application.”
—Allan Pfromm, Bayport Marina Association (BMA) Canvas.
“Sunflys are the most common temporary shade option in my area of
the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. These sunflys are mostly used once the
boat has arrived at its destination location, then easily and quickly set
up and broken down as needed.”
—Mike Charlton, Charlton’s Marine Canvas
“The trickiest, most difficult thing about fabricating temporary shade
solutions is making sure you have the proper engineering to structurally support the shade fabric.”
—Mike Erickson, Canvas Designers® Inc.
“My main considerations for designing shade solutions are deciding the
best attachments, how often the client plans on using/removing it, and
who will be using it. Clients never want extra holes in their boat, and they
won’t be happy if it’s too cumbersome. You have to think in 3D.”
—Whitney Carman, Even Keel Canvas LLC.