With a distinctive “Pfffft,” the Killer Whale surfaced ten feet off our port bow. My 5 year old niece squealed in excitement as her 3 year old brother rushed over for a closer look. Three more whales surfaced around our boat in the next few minutes, leaving an indelible mark on their young audience.
This was day 1 of a 3 day cruise with 4 adults and 3 very young kids on our 35′ sailboat in the Canadian Gulf Islands. It was a tight fit, but it was so worth it to see the absolute delight on the faces of the 3 visiting “city kids” as they discovered watching whales, hiking on the islands, and especially the endless excitement of turning over rocks to find crabs underneath (that one never gets old).
Years later, we took our two and a half month old son on a 9 day trip up to the enchanting Princess Louisa Inlet. Everybody seemed to be amazed that we had such a young baby along, but it was easy at that age. He hiked with us and sailed comfortably in a carrier on mom or dad’s chest.
We sail with a 13 month old toddler now and it is certainly a bit more challenging. But we’ve put netting on the lifelines and he loves playing on the beach. We’ve just had to adjust our expectations a bit when it comes to beating to weather all day!
We are very avid outdoors-people and did a lot of mountaineering, backpacking, kayaking and ski touring before we had our son. Most of those sports are difficult or impossible with a baby or toddler in tow, but sailing gives us outdoor adventure on the outside and a safe, portable cocoon on the inside. It’s the best way we know to escape to the wilderness with young kids.
As our kids get older, we are also really looking forward to giving them the responsibility that comes from being trusted to work as part of a sailing team (also known as the family). There’s something really amazing about watching a 10 year old trim a sail or steer a boat with confidence.
Here’s a great blog post from a family in Vancouver with a 3.5 year old and a 6 year old. They bought a Catalina 27 a few years ago (an ideal first boat) and are doing some amazing cruising with their kids.
Check out the arts and crafts underway, fishing, playing on the beach, hiking, and even a bus trip to the Hummingbird for dessert complete with tambourines (you’ll have to visit the PNW for that last one!). And that was all in one trip!
Safety When Sailing With Kids
Safety is the first thing on many parents’ minds when they think about taking their kids sailing. With a few easy precautions, the benefits of spending the day on the boat far outweigh the risks:
OK, this is the obvious one. You can get comfortable life jackets that fit newborns on up. The newborn ones should have all of the flotation on the front, a large handle for passing baby into the dinghy, and an easy way to adjust for a quickly growing baby. This one from Stearns fits all of the criteria.
Toddler and child life jackets need to adjust to keep them snug, have a comfortable crotch strap, and have a large, easy to grasp handle like this one from Stohlquist.
Keeping kids on the boat is job number one (well, until you get to the anchorage, then throwing them overboard is allowed and sometimes encouraged). Lifeline netting not only keeps kids, toys, and small animals aboard, it also announces to the world, “Hey we’re a kid boat! Bring your kids over.”
You can find lifeline netting at West Marine or you can re-purpose some fishing nets if you’re feeling crafty. It takes about 4 hours to install. I found it easiest to just undo the lifelines and then weave them through the netting as I reinstalled it. A small line running around the bottom of the stanchions fixed the bottom down, and I used some twine to lash the ends. A hot-knife or a large soldering iron with a blade attachment will make your job much easier and neater!
As an option to life jackets, you can tether your smaller crew members to the boat with a harness. The tether needs to be short enough that they can’t go overboard and end up being dragged along. This is an especially good option in hot climates and for long trips.
Don’t worry about the whole “kids on a leash’ stigma. Adults wear harnesses too when it gets really rough or when alone on watch.
A Safe Place
Sometimes things go a bit wrong and you need a safe place to put junior. We used an infant car seat, tied in place when he was smaller and now he has a booster seat with a harness that we tie to a hard point. It’s also where he eats lunch.
You’ll have to think about your personal boat rules depending on your boat and your kids. Common ones are:
- No kids on deck without an adult.
- No kids out of the cockpit while underway without a life jacket and an adult.
- All kids to their “safe zones” during tacks and jibes.
- No spraying daddy in the face with your water pistol during docking maneuvers.
You’ll also have different rules for at sea or at anchor.
For us, we adjust based on the conditions. We have tall lifeline nets and a deep cockpit, so if the conditions are benign we don’t necessarily have a harness or life jacket on him. As soon as we start beating upwind or the conditions pick up, though, the life jacket comes out. I’m sure this will change when he’s a bit older and can actually climb up on the benches. Then it’ll be all life jacket all the time when he’s up top.
Long Distance Cruising With Kids
There are plenty of families cruising the world for years at a time with their kids of all ages. This can seem horrifying to friends and family back home who have images of typhoons and pirates, but cruising by sailboat is actually very safe when done in the right seasons and with the right training and equipment.
Kids are at least as safe on a well found boat with competent parents as they are in a minivan on the freeway on the way to soccer practice (probably much safer, actually).
The resulting educational experiences, family bonding, and just generally amazing character building that comes from a life travelling from country to country by sailboat can’t be overstated.
Here are some of the most common questions about long distance cruising with kids:
What About Typhoons and Pirates?
Both of those things exist in the world, but only in very specific and well known places and times. Don’t go there and you’ll be fine!
OK, Fine, But What About Big Storms?
You’ll probably find some heavy weather at some point in your journey, but you’ll spend a lot more time in light winds wishing for more. If you pick you seasons, you won’t find anything that you and your boat can’t handle if you’re prepared.
What About Health Care?
Everybody needs health clinics and doctors and they’re generally competent and even affordable anywhere you go (except the US where they’re competent but far from affordable). The cruising lifestyle is a very healthy one and people seldom find the need for medical attention, but it’s there if you need it.
What About Schooling?
This is often the biggest fear of new cruising parents. Will they screw up their children’s education? Nope! Far from it.
There are many options here. Some parents do formal correspondence courses, but many end up “unschooling” and simply find great learning opportunities in the cultures, history, and ecology that surrounds them every day when cruising. You can always mix in some formal math and science to the unschooling experience. Lesson Plans Ahoy is full of great lesson ideas, for example.
Sailing kids always seem to re-integrate into “normal” school just fine when they return and usually are well ahead of their peers.
What About Friends to Play With?
It’s certainly true that there are a lot fewer “kid boats” out there than retirees. That means that when they do find each other they tend to stick together for a while. You’ll often find two families traveling together for a while until their plans take them in separate directions.
Don’t forget that there are also kids in every village. Boat kids become very socially adept and it doesn’t take long for an impromptu soccer (or football) game to start up on the beach, especially if you bring the ball.
In fact, boat kids become very skilled at interacting with kids of all ages and cultures and adults, too. They don’t spend most of their waking hours just with kids of their own age and social class, and that’s a good thing.
What Ages Are Best?
Every family and every kid is different. Many people choose to wait until their youngest is out of diapers, though there are plenty of counter-examples.
Also, many choose to come back when their oldest hits their teens so that they can begin to lead more independent lives and prep for college. On the other hand, some families actually choose to head to sea with teens specifically because they are really struggling in “normal” high school life or have fallen in with the wrong crowd. Six months to a year away from what can sometimes be a toxic society for teens can be literally life-saving.
Perhaps the real question should be:
How Can I Deprive My Family of This Amazing Experience by Not Going Cruising?
I don’t have the answer to that one. I’d be wracked by guilt if my kids headed off to college and we hadn’t given them at least a couple 6 month trips as a family and hopefully much more than that.
Role Models: Cruising Family Blogs
One great thing about cruising is that so many people keep wonderfully detailed blogs about their journeys. Many of these people are families with kids of all ages. It’s easy to listen to the nay-sayers on land who have no idea what family cruising is all about, so instead why don’t you spend some good quality time with some real families who are out there doing it and loving it!
Here are three example blogs and a podcast which span various ages and parts of the globe. There are many more to be discovered, but these will get you started.
Scott and Brittany of Windtraveler are sailing the Caribbean with three kids under three! They have a toddler (Isla) and twin babies (Haven and Mira) and spend more than half their time living on their sailboat in the British Virgin Islands.
Kim and Simon of Sailing Britican are cruising the Mediterranean with their 5 year old daughter, Sienna.
This video of Sienna’s life as a boat kid is an absolute must watch:
I’ve saved my favourite blog of all time for last. I am an absolute Sailing Totem fanboy. Behan and Jamie and their three kids Niall, Mairen, and Siobhan left the Pacific Northwest 5 years ago and have crossed the Pacific, lived in Australia, cruised Southeast Asia, and are now crossing the Indian Ocean. Their youngest was 4 when they left, and the kids are now 10, 12, and 15.
This amazing post about a kid-boat meet-up in the Maldives is an absolute must-read. How can you not want to cruise with your kids after seeing what their life is like?
Behan has recently co-authored a book about family cruising called Voyaging with Kids which is a totally amazing resource and a must-have for any sailing parents, especially if you plan to sail far.
[Edit: scroll down to see Behan’s comment about their life jacket rules on board when their kids were younger.]
Family Adventure Podcast
Erik and Rachel have sailed the Mediterranean and crossed the Atlantic with their 6 kids(!), so they know a bit about the topic of kids on boats!
Erik now produces the amazing Family Adventure Podcast, inspiring families to get out in the world and have epic adventures together.
I was recently interviewed by Erik about how to learn to sail and take adventurous sailing journeys with your family. Check out Episode 75 of Family Adventure Podcast for our conversation.
Do you sail with your family? Do you have plans or dreams to start sailing with them soon? What works? What do you struggle with? Tell us about it in the comments.
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