“The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.”
(Arthur Ransome's Racundra's First Cruise)
To build a boat may be the desire of youth, but to sail on a boat with young children often ends up as an exercise in exasperation. For many children, a sailboat can be a place of unending constraint. The obvious necessity of unfamiliar accessories such as lifejackets, and the need to follow orders, coupled with all that stuff they aren't allowed to touch or mess with, can blunt a child's natural inquisitiveness into sheer hours of boredom. A nice afternoon sail becomes a seemingly endless purgatory of compartmentalization, and an overnight outing becomes an impossible dream.
To some extent this is an inevitable consequence of the economy of space on a sailboat, and the need to locate instruments and controls where little hands can easily reach them. A frequent side effect is that children are forced into immobility on the boat. Instead of learning to share the pleasure of sailing they learn to dislike sailing and treat it like a long car trip to the dentist, something to be endured with dread. Complaints, fidgeting and a general air of disgust are inevitable on some days, but there are a few things you can do to help minimize their frequency and make the boat more of a playground than a prison for the kids.
We were fortunate in three notable regards. I've sailed since I was a child. We received some good advice along the way from some trusted friends regarding sailing with children. We started our brood sailing early.
One of the most important things you can do is to give each child a space of their own. On our boat, there are two quarterberths, one on either side of the cockpit. These make perfect cubbyholes for our two boys, and it is understood that they are free to keep their own “private stuff” in there. Access is by permission only for everyone else. This has given the boys a sense of refuge and a get away spot. Even though the privacy is minimal, having control over some portion of the boat gives them a sense of place aboard.
Choosing responsibility over restraint is almost always better. While it's easy peace of mind to know you child is tethered to the boat, and thus removed from the danger of falling overboard, it is a constraint your child has to deal with more than you do. Aboard Lorelei, our boys have the run of the cabin, but know that they need to wear lifejackets on deck (below deck too in heavy weather), and are not allowed out of the cockpit while underway under ANY circumstances. Just like any other issue with your children, consistency in enforcement is an important means of gaining total compliance.
Another thing we have done is to provide a locker filled with “boat toys”. This is collection of toys; games and books that are unique to the boat. These toys augment what they bring with them from the house. That way, they have new and different things to play with when they're on board. We tend to choose some of the classic board games we wouldn't otherwise play around the house. You can usually find magnetic combination sets in almost any discount store that take up virtually no space onboard, but give you four or five games you can play. The books we keep tend to take an understandably nautical turn, but we do make sure that our bookshelf has a selection of material for any age group.
Think about your boat from the perspective of your children. There are boats that are notably unsuitable for youngsters. Boats with open sterns, some raised cockpit boats, or boats that are particularly tender may not be good choices for the family boat without some serious thought to safety equipment upgrades. The location of instruments and the electrical, mechanical, and other operating systems are all considerations, as are secondary fuel items such as cabin heaters stoves and oil lamps. Decide beforehand how and when you're going to familiarize your children with the shipboard systems, and you won't find yourself reacting to as many “surprise” situations in ways you may regret later.
Be gentle. It may send shivers of excitement down your spine when you to bury the rail in eight foot seas, but until they get used to it, it's probably just going to terrify your children. Chances are good that your enthusiasm will soon be tempered by the cleanup job that is likely to instantaneously materialize below deck. Spending a couple of years just taking easy sails with them may seem like an onerous task, but there are hidden dividends. Learning to sail the boat flat and comfortably really makes life easier when you're faced with a 45 mile slog to weather in ugly seas and brisk winds.
One of the most important things you can do for your children is to involve them in the process of running the boat. Involvement leads to interest, and you can find tasks on board that are suitable for even the youngest children. Stowing and retrieving sail ties, boat cushions, and galley items teach them where things are stored, and spark an interest in how things are used aboard a boat. Children learn by doing, and you'll find it hard to teach a love of sailing to them if you don't let them participate. For us, sailing is a family activity. Encouraging the boys to sail with us instead of being human cargo has let them integrate the activity into the framework of normal family life.
This summer we spent a week on the boat. Four days of this idyllic vacation were spent hobby-horsing on the hook in small craft advisory conditions, listening to the mast pumping violently in the oscillating 30 to 40 mph gusts which just days before had been predicted at 10-15 knots at worst. We finally got a window to make the run for home and had one of the nicest sails of the year. With the boat doing her prettiest for most of the day, my 8-year-old happily played dinosaurs down on the cabin sole. As we cleared the jetty into our home harbor we were doing a bit better than hull speed with the current behind us and the boat heeled over a consistent 15 to 20 degrees under a full spread of sail. It struck me that the previous days had seen no arguments, no complaints, no whining….it doesn't get any better than that!!