Boat Canvas Options and Considerations

Our SDA 270 had her canvas replaced along with a new cockpit cover not long before we purchased her, but there were a few problems

  • The boat was originally equipped with a full camper setup, but now only had the bimini top and the camper top - no sides, front visor, or rear canvas.  We wanted a full camper/enclosure so we can hang out at the slip and overnight in both humid and cooler environments, so we really wanted a full enclosure.

  • It was definitely not my choice of colors

Canvas Aqua-med.JPG

It doesn’t look awful, but my wife and I are both kind of neutral, earth-tone kind of people. I repainted most of our prior house in natural colors, and while yes, some amount of ‘sunlight’ light yellow kind of paint was involved, it was also offset with the bottom of the walls below the chair rails being the equivalent of some kind of coffee, basically neutral colors throughout the house.

My choice of colors in cars is typically a dark metallic silver as it looks nice without screaming ‘LOOK AT ME!’ Ok, I have also had a very metallic blue somewhat flashy car, but it’s not aqua

What I did not know, is while I’ve installed many convertible car tops myself, always with sunfast-type cloth fabrics that were not inexpensive, boat canvas puts those ‘cheap’ prices to shame! Ok, I suppose that may not be entirely true, as the size of materials needed for a full boat camper are a fair amount more than a convertible top for a 2 seat car, but - certainly not inexpensive.

More, it’s confusing as heck trying to sort what the heck the pieces even are, and what constitutes ‘all pieces.’  

What are all the parts and pieces?


I was finally able to find the following great diagram at RNR Marine showing some of the pieces, as well as scouring elsewhere to put it all together mentally.

There are actually two options for enclosures

The full enclosure most think of - two tops on two frames - the bimini and camper top, front, sides and rear canvas attaching to the rear of the camper canvas and a simpler option - bimini top and frame, no camper/second frame and top, with front, sides and a bimini aft curtain.

This threw a bit of a moneky wrench into the works. The obvious ‘full camper’ option was re-thought a handful of time, as was ‘do I add onto the existing pieces (which cost the PO > $1K already) and keep aqua, or go for it and replace it all?

The non-camper full enclosure actually doesn’t look bad, although of course, there’s less standing room available at the rear of the boat..

Sea Ray_270-Sundancer_1998_1_parts-manual-canvas-drawing_Bimini-Top_Bimini-Aft-Curtain-med
SDA270 AftCurtainNoFullCamper-med

At first, I thought perhaps it was a bit goofy-looking, but then I looked at it again, and again. I can see this being a nice solution for someone, and not looking bad at all. As I was still waffling on extend the existing aqua-ish canvas, or full replacement…while my boat has both frames and bimini and camper top canvas, all options were open still.

Here’s a diagram and a pic of the full camper setup with both frames and tops on a 270 SDA.

Sea Ray_270-Sundancer_1998_2_parts-manual-canvas-drawing_Bimini-Top_Bimini-Visor_Camper-Top_Camper-Aft-Curtain-med
SDA270 FullCamperPic-tan-med

Now, I will say that in the second pic, the color may just be a bit too light for my liking, and it may have been one of the reasons I kept going back to the bimini + aft curtain combo, but the difference in usable space inside the boat is fairly significant. If you position yourself at the helm with the bimini + aft curtain, you do have a little bit of room behind the helm/captain’s seat, but not much. If it’s only 2-3 of you and/or you don’t hang out in the boat at the slip much, it could be a great option.

For us, expecting to be doing numerous dinners and overnights at the slip, then heading out the next day, it felt like we wanted the extra room from the full camper. This writing in no way indicates the number of times I alternated between the two options, but yeah - we finally decided on the full camper, which of course - is also more expensive.

A complication - Arizona boats...

A funny thing was discovered along the way...

A funny thing was discovered along the way. While Great Lakes Boat Tops did not only Sea Ray OEM tops along with others, they even had other branches they opened in Arizona and elsewhere - near Sea Ray plants. I won’t even begin to pretend I've managed to keep it all straight in my head, but apparently at some point the AZ office and Sea Ray plants were closed, and even though it was the same company - Great Lakes today claims they do not have the ‘patterns’ for the AZ boats and possibly some other locations where Sea Rays were built. So, while for a TN plant-built SeaRay and possibly others, they will guarantee the fit; but they won’t do so for AZ boats. And of course - mine is indeed an AZ built boat. Joy.

The short version of the ‘magic serial number decoding’ is that if your Hull ID starts with SERT, SERV or SERR for a 1998 SDA (and likely others), it’s a TN boat. If it starts with SERA - it’s an AZ boat and no one will guarantee a fit.

Now, without having 100% records on the boat, but knowing the PO did have older camper full sides on the boat, I’m quite sure the boat came with full camper and canvas from Sea Ray versus some custom add-on frames. But - no one would guarantee they’d actually fit even so.

What to do?

The Options

So, I could always find a local ‘canvas guy’ or shop. Reading online did not make me warm and fuzzy inside about people missing appointments, running late, or needing to book so far out it might well become next winter before we could close the boat up and actually have a nice night overnighting with dinner and drinks before retiring to the cabin. This would allow several nice options to be introduced, such as custom vents or mesh, different Eisenglass/window material options, and possibly more color and fabric selections, but I decided early on we need to get use out of it THIS season, so I was OK with going with ‘factory replacement’ overall.

I found a few recommendations as well as via Internet searches, and started calling and emailing around. The good news is most contacts responded fairly promptly. The not-so-good news was this isn’t cheap - assume closing in on $3K for full camper canvas without frames but including the top ‘boots’ that zip around the folded up bimini and camper tops on the frames. The frames, of course, are extra.

Where to buy from

I had found a small handful of companies worth noting when shopping for canvas tops for my 1998 SDA 270.

While I was trying to sort if it was really going to cost me $3K or more to go to an alternate color, vs more if needed new frames, or keeping the aqua, or not doing a full-length camper, I had thought when browsing through the American Boat Canvas site and videos, that maybe a ‘kit’ would be cheaper, but I was in for..

One more surprise

Come to find out, not unsurprisingly when you think about it, that ALL replacement canvas does not actually have the bottom snaps installed. Why? Well, because the snaps aren’t really factory-precision-laser-or-CNC-directed installs, but done at the plant, or dealers, and they’re beyond unlikely to be in identical positions, unlike, for example, allowing for some tolerance, car latches and top mounting points. So in effect, every side and aft canvas kit is already a ‘kit’ to be completed by the installer, or owner as the case may be.  So - what does this mean?

To do the install, assuming your boat already has the male portion of the snaps on her hull, you need a tool in order to install the female snap side into the canvas. It seems the universally accepted ‘not crap’ version runs around $150, or may be loaned out for free by some vendors - usually with a time limit, as others are waiting on them.

There are some cheaper options out there, although I can’t speak to them.  

Ok, so yeah - it’s pretty much the offspring of a hand press, a C-clamp and a pair of ViseGrips. Plus snaps, of course. :)

KevinC wound up being a super-helpful guy, not to mention giving a solid discount to ClubSeaRay members, and as I like tools, I finally decided to both buy the tool and the full camper top, to replace the aqua. I figure once I do mine at the slip, chances are someone else at the marina will wind up needing ‘help’ or at the least, wanting to borrow it, or you know - for the next time, right? :)

I did spent quite some time examining pics I could find of 1998/99 SDA 270s with canvas to examine their frames, compared sadly to pics of mine with the boat hours away, and came out feeling ‘fairly confident’ the frames look to be OEM/the same, but - I guess we’ll see - or I wind up buying frames in the future. :(

One thing to note on front visors - some of them may have snaps in place on the front of the windshield - if so, this is needed to know when ordering (and you’ll need to install the snaps in the canvas yourself).

Time to solidify on what the heck I need to order. Decision made, but not quite there yet..

Sunbrella, SeaMark and colors

You have options if going with a factory OEM type replacement top. Not as many as I’d like, such as vented replacement sections for the front visor, or window material options, but well, two options of note.

Sunbrella is the standard cloth-like woven canvas material I suspect is very much like the SunFast fabric I’m used to dealing with for converrtible tops. I wouldn’t be surprised if the companies were related, thinking about it.

SeaMark is effectively Sunbrella - but with a vinyl-like layer impregnated on the underside of the top. It only applies to the bimini top and camper top sections, not the front pieces or side canvas (not positive but I’m fairly certain the aft curtain also doesn’t come as a SeaMark option).

The theoretical difference is the Sunbrella needs to be periodically re-treated with 303 Fabric Guard every couple of years to keep it waterproof. Oh boy - all I wanted was to have a beer without bugs around us, but yet more decisions. Everyone has an opinion, and I did consider both options, with some saying the SeaMark will start to crack over long periods of time (ok, but within reasonable canvas life? I’m not sure), but definitively that the Sunbrella without SeaMark breathes better. Considering the humidity levels in the summer, and a strong suspicion that like Sunfast car tops, Sunbrella has likley done some minor-yet-real improvements to their material composition over time, and the fact that I am already well-familar with and love 303 products for automotive use - yeah, I went with the Sunbrella only. Decision made.

and - colors

GreatLakesSunbrellaChoices 1998-270SDA

Only one more to go - colors. Wow, Great Lakes color examples on their site are…kind of awful. They’re like a paint dot representation of what is effectively a 3-dimensional fabric. Yech.

Ok, going back not ALL of them are like that, but there’s no blow-up view. They look like this.

On the plus side, you can click or hover on each on the Great Lakes site to get the color names, and then - look elsewhere for bigger examples of the fabric. I’d love to say Sunbrella makes it easy for you, but unfortunately, they seem to only carry the latest lineup in their marine fabrics section of their site. It’s possible Great Lakes (this is where all the OEM replacement top vendors really place their orders with AFAIK) can use some of the newer fabrics, or colors, or not. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure on this one.

A site like Outdoor Fabric Central may give a better chance of finding a better sample once you know the name of the Great Lakes specific color, like these: (in my case, I’m looking specifically at the more neutral tones..)

kravet sunbrella-canvas-heather-beige-gr-5476-0000-0-soleil-collection-upholstery-fabric-pl-275094-a49
sunbrella 6054-0000-linen-tweed-60-in-awning-marine-grade-fabric-pl-34255-2b9-med
sunbrella seamark-toast-tweed-2100-0063-60-inch-awning-marine-fabric-pl-122042-5e9%202-med

A final word of caution on color selection

If at all possible, confirm by the Sunbrella part # and not by name alone, or at the very least ensure you are looking at marine grade fabric in wider widths, or you may not find the ‘right’ color of the same name you’re looking for. As always, your computer display and image from the site may not be completely accurate versus in-person. You might also notice that the color samples from Great Lakes are almost opposite across Heather Beige, Linen Tweed and Toast in light to dark…so again, search by actual fabric part # if at all possible (ask your vendor for the right ones.

We had immediately went to black, with my intiial thinking being or one of the blues. We eventually came off of those, as the wife wasn’t a fan of the blue, and the black might warm up more or fade less gracefully over time, plus our natural preference for many things, so we went back to neutral colors - where I agonized for a while, as I did not want as light as the full camper pic above, but then found out the ‘half’ camper pic (no camper top but with aft curtain) was Heather Beige and so we went for it. Fingers crossed.

Great Lakes was around 2 weeks out on shipping when I placed the order, but they’ve slipped a bit, likely due to COVID-19 possibly impacting staffing, as well as what seems to be a major rush to boats as somewhere to go when not self-isolated at home.

Either way, I’m told at this point the order should make it to me aroud mid-June, which would line up nicely with when we’re expecting the boat to make it to our slip finally.

More to come once it shows up and I go for it on the install. To help ensure it will actually fit, I’m planning on zipping the front curtains and sides to the existing canvas for an initial sanity check.  

Meanwhile, here’s a decent video covering at least some of the process. it’s on a 290 with an arch but the snap installation is pretty similar.