Once, some years ago, a woman expressed amazement that we lived aboard a sailboat with two young children. I remember a look of sheer incredulity mixed with horror coming across her face. "But what do you do without television?" she exclaimed.
She made it sound like we were trying to subsist without food and water. Those were the days before television encroached on the boating world, not to mention VCRs and video games. Parents whose children were dependent on these entertainment devices simply couldn't imagine life without them. I often wonder what these people think children did before the age of electricity. Did they sit around and get bored? Far from it. Children in those days were creative, imaginative, ingenious, and highly active, and many still are. Moving aboard a sailboat, be it for a week, a month, or an extended cruise, can develop those same creative skills in any child lucky enough to be taken cruising.
The first thing to think about when planning a family cruise is whether some necessary groundwork needs to be laid. Are your children young, pre-adolescent, or teenagers? Are they dependent on entertainment devices, extra-curricular activities, and friends, or are they creative, imaginative, and used to being on their own? Do your children interact well together or are they used to going their separate ways? These are questions to ask yourself before heading offshore in the intimate, reduced confines of a sailboat.
Young children will adjust to their new surroundings the most easily, and teenagers will adapt the most slowly unless they are already well versed in family adventuring. If your children habitually watch television and play video games, or are used to enjoying a neighborhood of friends, sailing with the family can help them develop some creative independence. Siblings must also enjoy and respect each other, and teenagers need to have a good relationship with their parents if you expect your cruise to be a success. While family cruising can offer a rewarding experience that will last you a lifetime, it can not create cohesion where it doesn't already exist. Many are the cruises that have been ruined by one disgruntled teenager. To avoid this pitfall, try a weekend hike or overnight camping trip to see how everyone interacts before taking the plunge in a sailboat, especially if you plan an extended cruise.
Young children are the easiest to incorporate into the sailing life without much preliminary preparation. If their parents are happy and content, young children usually are too. Inherently adaptable, little ones will readily accommodate themselves to new surroundings, foods, cultural habits, and experiences with little fuss provided you, as parents, maintain your enthusiasm. Don't worry too much about what they will do all day on a sailboat. Given the opportunity, children possess an inate imagination capable of keeping them occupied day after day.
During our early cruising years with twin sons on board, the children played an endless variety of make-believe games. Sailing activities, weather conditions, and changing locations went largely unnoticed as they moved in their world of childhood. Our daughter, on the other hand, took a great interest in what is going on around her right from a very early age. This is probably largely due to the fact that her siblings are older and she lives in a more adult world. While our sons at three and four years old hardly noticed that the boat was moving, Gwyneth couldn't wait to take her turn at the wheel, help change headsails, haul at the anchor line, or learn to row. This, however, didn't make her a better or easier cruiser to have along than her brothers, but simply a different one.
Don't worry if your children show no interest in sailing activities, but prefer to curl up with a book, play, or simply daydream. Provided they are happy and content, their satisfaction and sense of achievement will be as great as yours. Nothing can generate a rebellious child faster than trying to force an interest in sailing.
With older children, try to strike a balance between what they want to do and what needs to be done to help out with sailing proceedures. Most older sailing children love life out on the water with its inherent aura of excitement and natural outdoor focus. The best way to generate enthusiasm at this age (from about age eight up) is to give them a feeling of responsibily. Put the worries aside and let them row the dinghy on exciting explorations, shinny up the mast, swing off the pulpit on the spinnaker halyard, plot their own navigation course, dive under the keel, or do whatever other enterprises excite them. Older children will also respond well to sailing-related work if you keep the criticism to a minimum. Who cares if the mainsail furl looks a little sloppy, provided they tried hard to get it right.
When our children reached the age of 10, we found that having a second dinghy was an invaluable asset. Instead of being satisfied with the confines of a cozy sailboat, the children now wanted to explore and play in the expanded backyard of their watery environment. To avoid frustration on everyone's part, we recommend that you invest in a second dinghy, one that rows well and will take your children to whatever corner of the anchorage they want to explore. You might want to skip the inflatable with an outboard. Apart from the expense and the noise-polluting aspect that can cause your children to seem an irritant for fellow cruisers, these boats deprive them of the wonderful exercise of rowing. Plus exploring up a narrow creek or mangrove swamp in the throes of some make-believe adventure with an engine just isn't the same as moving along under oar power.
As with everything else about cruising, keeping things simple will greatly enhance your chances of maintaining your children's enthusiasm. Bring along some well-chosen books, a handful of toys or games for bad weather days, then leave the rest to your children's creative instincts.While imaginative skills will soon have your youngest children fully occupied, a sense of adventure, independence, and self-reliance will keep your older ones equally enthusiastic. Nor will they be socially deprived, for the sailing community is a friendly one where friendships are forged quickly and all ages mingle well together. Gone is the contrived, present-day school atmosphere where only one's peers were regarded as acceptable friends. The sailing child quickly learns the value of friendship within its own right, regardless of age, gender, language, or culture. Consequently, cruising will encourage your children to broaden their view of the world as well as their own sense of self-worth, benefits which will keep them enthusiastic long after the cruise is over.
Children on Board by Kevin Jeffrey
Sailing With Children—The First Day by Michelle Potter
Schooling the Sailing Child by Kevin Jeffrey
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