If you came home from the last weekend on the water with your nose burnt to a crisp, your shirt stuck to your back with sweat and your head throbbing, it was probably because you spent the day unprotected while the sun pounded down on you.

A boat top provides refreshing shade, cools off your cockpit, and doesn't hinder either your freedom of movement or your visibility. Your old top may have deteriorated and you haven't replaced it, or perhaps your boat just never had a top. In either case, there's an easy solution to making your cockpit more livable with shade.

There are two basic types of tops: navy and Bimini. The navy top attaches to the top rim of your windshield much like the convertible top on a sports car, providing protection not just from the sun, but from wind and spray as well. The Bimini top, on the other hand, is a freestanding "awning" that is usually supported on a single pivot point, which makes it easy to fold out of the way when not needed. Since it doesn't attach to the windshield, it allows a flow of cooling air through the cockpit, but it doesn't provide any protection from spray. You can, of course, add a full enclosure to a Bimini top, turning your cockpit into a weatherproof "cabin" for all-season boating.

The navy top, unfortunately, is going to require a certain amount of custom tailoring to fit each particular boat, which requires the services of a professional canvas maker. The Bimini top can also be made by a canvas shop but, if you're feeling somewhat handy, you have a choice that can also save you big bucks. Let's take a look.

Short of just handing your checkbook to a canvas shop, the easiest solution is going to be buying one of the standardized Bimini tops that come in sizes, styles and colors to suit just about any boat from a dinghy up to a flybridge cruiser. Several companies and marine distributors offer these tops (see listing) and, unless you have a very strangely shaped boat, you'll find a perfect Bimini top at a great price. There are a multitude of choices to make first, however.

The material is crucial but there's no perfect fabric, so you'll have to balance price against benefits. Vinyl is probably the most popular fabric, since it's waterproof, easy to clean, and mildew resistant. Polyester (sometimes called "sharkskin") is durable and resistant to stretch, abrasion and water, but it fades faster than acrylics. Acrylic fabric has a soft woven feel that holds up well to UV rays, is very fade resistant, but it tends to stretch, although that usually isn't a problem with Bimini tops that can be tensioned easily.

Your next decision point is going to be the frames or bows that support the Bimini top. The most common material is aluminum, which is usually anodized to resist pitting and corrosion. Aluminum is relatively inexpensive, but it's not as strong as stainless steel, nor does it resist the rigors of saltwater use nearly as well. Stainless steel bows are stronger and won't corrode, but are roughly twice as expensive as aluminum. The strength of stainless steel also allows you to run at higher speeds with the Bimini top in place without fear of bending the frames. Some manufacturers use double wall tubing in the main bow on larger tops to overcome the inherent flexibility of single-walled aluminum tubing.

Fittings are often skimmed over by the manufacturers of Bimini tops but, in my experience, most of your problems will come from inadequate fittings. Nylon fittings are certainly the most commonplace because they are inexpensive, weather resistant and relatively strong. As with top bows, stainless steel fittings are stronger, durable for saltwater use and, of course, much more expensive. One point in favor of nylon fittings is that the nylon fittings will break before the tubing bends, thus saving the most expensive part of your Bimini top. If you can afford them and don't expect any high-stress loads on your top, opt for stainless steel fittings. If price or possible damage is a concern, you can always choose nylon fittings on sturdy stainless steel bows.

Either way, let me offer a strong word of warning against the so-called "zamak" fittings that are a chrome-plated zinc. Not only does the chrome peel off almost immediately in razor-sharp pieces, but the zinc corrodes quickly in the marine atmosphere. Stay away from zamak fittings!

When choosing your fittings, you'll need to specify either horizontal or side-mount hardware. With horizontal, you'll be placing the hinge point on top of the deck or coaming, while the side-mount attaches to the vertical side of the cockpit. The horizontal is usually the easiest for the standardized tops, since it doesn't require quite so precise a top width--you can move the base slightly to keep the bows from bending.

There are several options to consider beyond the basic Bimini top, too. Substituting a track and slider for the horizontal hinge point allows you to adjust the Bimini top fore and aft for the length of the track and, when folded away, you can slide the Bimini out of the way.

Another worthwhile option is to specify support poles at the aft end to replace the usual nylon straps that tension the Bimini top. Not only does the support pole add rigidity to the entire top, but it can also serve as a solid hand grip for your guests. Best of all, however, is that it supports the Bimini top at a comfortable height when the top is folded away, allowing easy passage throughout the cockpit.

Sometimes listed as an option, a cover for storing the Bimini top is well worth a $40-$45 extra charge since it not only keeps your Bimini top clean when not in use, but prevents it from flogging while you're underway.

When it comes to installation, most Bimini packages require only a drill and screwdriver, since they are supplied with self-tapping screws to secure the hinges and eye straps. I'd recommend substituting through bolts whenever possible, since a Bimini top takes a lot of loading and you don't want a strap or a hinge tearing a screw out of the fiberglass deck at an inopportune moment. Use a small backing plate under the hinges and the forward eye straps, which are the fittings that take the most strain. Aircraft-style lock nuts will secure the back side and prevent the nuts from loosening with vibration.

Adding a Bimini top is one of the best ways to improve your time on the water. Shop carefully, measure twice, and have a great summer!

Bimini Top Sources

Boat/US (catalog and marine stores)

Defender Industries (catalog and marine stores)
(860) 701-3400

Taylor Made Products

65 Harrison St.

Gloversville, NY 12078

(518) 773-9410

Westland Industries

3601 E. LaSalle

Phoenix, AZ 85040

(602) 437-1332

West Marine/E&B Marine (catalog and marine stores)