Long-term cruising with children has brought fantastic family memories, although many presume sailing with kids would bring the opposite. "Cooped up in a boat with three young boys? I can't think of anything worse," was not an unusual comment both before and after our six-year circumnavigation!
When we made our decision to blue water cruise, Duncan was eight, Colin just six, and Jamie was not yet two-years old. Discussing our cruising plan (at that time a two-year sail around the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic and through the Caribbean) with the older boys, they thought it was a great idea. They had cruised on long weekends and summer holidays, and loved the life afloat. When we mentioned that it would at times be rougher than the benign waters of the Pacific Northwest that they were used to, they cheered, "Better bouncing in the forward cabin." They had never had a problem with sea sickness or living in confined quarters, so we had no qualms about their adaptability on a full-time basis, so long as we could take them ashore regularly to run off their energy.
Just as their parents may have anxieties about a new lifestyle, so can children. For those eight years old and older, taking sailing lessons with their peers offers a huge benefit in developing confidence on the water and later involvement with life on board. Our kids were proud they could take watches at a young age. In crowded waters, Andy or I would stand watch with them, though further offshore, we could often stay below, allowing the boys to feel in charge. They always wore life harnesses and were hooked on. They never went out of the cockpit, a rule that applied to all on board unless there was a job to be done forward and another crew member was watching. Later they learned to plot our position on the chart and every hour they would write in the log with our position, speed, wind strength, etc., making remarks in the comments column—often derogatory to their parents, such as 'snoring loudly again'!
The general consensus of the many boat kids and parents we have known, is that the optimum age for kids to cruise is between six and twelve. Most cruising kids are typically in this age group. At this stage kids are relatively independent, readily accept change, and enjoy doing activities with their parents. Given certain safety requirements, children under six are not a problem on board, but they do not remember very much. The isolated incidents they recall might have happened anywhere, and the special flavors of different cultures and scenery are lost to them.
Teenagers especially need to be involved. Moving from home, and being hauled away from their friends and sports is generally not appealing; and being cooped up on a small boat in the middle of the ocean with an unhappy teen isn't the preferred environment for the parents! Over 13, most kids are getting into those rather frustrating teenage years. One minute they are full of enthusiasm to rush off diving, play on the beach, or just to go ashore with their parents to visit the wondrous sights. The next moment they are much too old to build dams or look for shells and going to see yet another ruin is plain boring, particularly with their parents! I'm fascinated how often parents say that they thought they would take their teenagers sailing to avoid the teenage blues. Personally I've found nature takes its course, whether in the city or on the high seas! This isn't to say that there aren't many teenagers happily cruising, only that it's necessary to be sensitive to the social and emotional needs of everyone and plan the route accordingly. This can mean following a cruisers' route such as the 'milk-run' where kids are likely to encounter the same friends in different ports along the way.
Whatever the age, cruising must be fun. If it isn't fun for some on board it won't be fun in the long run for anyone. Being transient and always leaving new friends can be hard on children, so we modified our cruising plans for the boys and learned it was to our benefit, as their interests, activities, and friends became the highlights of much of our trip. When Colin became interested in gems and fossils, we went off to the mines in Sri Lanka. Later on in East and South Africa, we again made this subject part of our focus there. Encouraged by their knowledgeable father, the boys became intensely interested in wild life, so visits to remote places, diving, fishing, and safari tours took much of our time. Interested either in shells, fish, or coral, the boys were particularly fascinated by the underwater and never tired of the outer islands. If we met another family we would stay longer in an anchorage or make plans to cruise together. Now their memories are often better than ours because these experiences stimulated them to read the many reference books we had on board. Regardless of your children's age, if the moment to go sailing presents itself, take advantage of the opportunity as it is too wonderful an experience to be missed.
Activities on Board We received several comments like 'Won't the boys be bored out of their minds? How will you be able to entertain them all day long?' In six years our children never once said, 'I'm bored,' although they mentioned it frequently when we returned. We seldom had to entertain them, but we did provide plenty of materials for them to amuse themselves and took an active interest in any of their projects.
Reading was the number one activity and the boys never hankered after TV on board, although I have to admit they made a beeline for the closest television set when on shore. By the Indian Ocean I calculated we had about 500 books on board, a major portion which were for the children. Many were reference books or children's encyclopedias that were read and reread.
|"Just as their parents may have anxieties about a new lifestyle, so can children."|
| ||Art supplies also kept boredom at bay. Colored paper, glue, scissors, pens, crayons and paints (in harbor) were great favorites. A wide range of art supplies were used to make birthday cards. These cards could take all day and were a treasure to all who received them. |
| ||Board games likewise entertained them on the evenings when not cruising in company, but card games were played morning, noon, and night. I wonder how many thousands of games of UNO have been played in the cockpit. Backgammon and chess also became popular as they boys grew older.|
| ||Creative toys such as Lego, Playmobil, and farm animals were used separately or in combination and frequently 'set-ups' covered the entire main cabin table. With the fiddles at the edges of the table in place and with the help of non-slip mats, these creations grew in the roughest of seas and when entire battalions of horses keeled over in unison it just added to the make-believe. Later the kids put on plays and invited other cruisers to be their audience. |
| ||Music was also important aboard. The boys played the keyboard and recorder, and listened at length to tapes in the cabin or cockpit (it was great having outside speakers), or on their Walkmans. (Rechargeable batteries are indispensable.) They spent much time listening to story tapes, and, since many had accompanying books, this enhanced their reading skills! Duncan taught himself the guitar as we cruised up the Australian coast. It provided light relief from the high school curriculum and he became very proficient at beach barbecues. Fortunately he waited until he returned to school in Canada before he took up the tuba! |
| ||With the advent of cruising software, the number of yachts with a computer on board has increased dramatically, and with it the enjoyment of computer games for kids, research tools, and word processing. Developing children's computer skills is important for their future life of course, and the boat is the perfect place to practice. The increasingly common practice of sending e-mail from the boat makes it rewarding for children.|
Although computers have their place on the boat they probably won't be used as much as at home. Most cruisers without a generator do not have the electrical resources to support long hours of laptop use and much of the time the computer may be needed for other purposes such as weather information. A better option for kids' games may be battery-operated portable units such as Gameboys. In addition, the enjoyment of cruising for most kids is the challenge of a myriad of exciting hands-on new experiences, which may be compromised by spending many hours on the computer below.
When at anchor the boys spent a huge amount of time in the water—diving, swimming, snorkeling, and off in the dinghy visiting friends. They could spend hours swinging from the bosun's chair that was strung up on a halyard or climbing up the mast steps to the spreaders. Jumping off the spinnaker pole at the bow was popular and there would often be a line of kids of all ages on the deck waiting their turn!
With so many activities (including school), together with the excitements of the ocean, catching fish, preparing culinary creations for special occasions and listening to the chit-chat on the radio, we were far from being bored. Instead, our problem was finding time to fit everything in when at sea. In addition we also had to make time to read about our new destination, so we could make the most of visiting with the new cultures, tasting their food, hearing their music, learning about their crafts, and seeing the beauty of their lands.