"Where are we going?" my three-year-old niece Kendall asked.
"Just around," her father replied.
Since this was Kendall's first daysail, the questions came fast and furious. With four adults to provide the answers, she continued to fire away.
"When's lunch?" Kendall inquired.
"Soon," her mother said.
My husband stood on the dock with the bow line in his hand and helped us cast off for a day of sailing on San Diego Bay. I sat in the cockpit of my brother and sister-in-law's boat with their daughter on my lap. As we sailed out of the bay, Kendall held my hands a little tighter.
"Where have all the boats gone?" she queried a little timidly.
"Oh, there are still some boats around, Kendall. See, they're just a little farther away," I assured her.
Only a few minutes passed before Kendall asked, "Are we there yet?"
"Not yet, honey, but we can go down to the cabin and eat lunch now," her mother said.
After a quick lunch, Kendall looked up at her mother and asked the inevitable. "When are we going home?"
"Soon," her mother smiled. "We're going to head back soon."
As a group of adults with a young child on her first daysail, we were lucky that Kendall is a happy, good-natured three-year-old. She had explored the boat at the dock many times and she was comfortable wearing her life jacket. Even though she knew sailing was a fun activity that her parents enjoyed, she still had some concerns. After sailing with Kendall, I made a list of guidelines for other adults facing their first daysail with children.
Direction First, keep a destination in mind. Plan to picnic on an island or go to lunch at a nearby harbor. Having a tangible "getting off" point is better than vaguely pointing off into the distance and saying, "We're going to buoy #7." Not even many adults comprehend what that means. Sailing from one point of land to another is reassuring for those new to the sport. Besides, it's nice to have a place where adults and children can both stretch their legs and take a break from sailing.
Expectations Give children a clear idea of what to expect. If you anticipate encountering fewer boats, or a change in the weather, let children know that these things might happen. Telling them what to expect in advance will give them fewer reasons to worry about things they cannot possibly know beforehand. Let them know that the land will get farther away and that it is normal for the boat to heel.
Stay Flexible Keep your options open. Know that you can always cut the sail short or return to the dock if the need arises. If the weather turns windy, foggy, chilly, or it starts to rain, there's no reason to stick it out. Clenching the wheel and duking it out with the elements is a game for adults that may make children ill at ease.
Stick to Routines It is amazing how routines can turn whiners into gigglers and make cranky children fall asleep. The body has a memory for every time of the day and children's bodies know exactly when it's time to eat, sleep, and play. A cranky child who is kept warm and encouraged to sleep will usually do so. A child who is visibly upset or whining may be hungry, thirsty, or need to use the head. If your child always takes a nap at 3:00 p.m., it's not unreasonable to plan a day sail to end at 2:30 p.m. Neglecting the child's routine invites a cranky kid on board.
Be Tricky Keep a trick or two up your sleeve. Most parents know that a fun little surprise can go a long way. If you are familiar with a place where marine animals like sea lions or porpoises often congregate, go there. If a local dockside restaurant serves your child's favorite lunch, go there. If another couple with children is on the same sailing schedule, arrange to meet them at a special rendezvous as a surprise to both sets of kids. Best of all, keep a new book, toy, or extra little "treat" tucked away to give your child as a reward for good behavior on the boat. Shameless, that's true. But that special little bonus may just make the day perfect for a child, thus making the day of sailing more rewarding for the adults as well.