Ready, get set—don't go!
That's right. Don't go.
Don't go away from the dock for your child’s first overnight on the boat. Even if you go out for a short daysail, come back to the dock to spend the first night with your child on the boat at its usual place, wherever that may be. Children are reassured spending the first unfamiliar night on the boat in its familiar place.
A child's first overnight on the boat is a good time to define space, set limits, establish routines, and ease fears about sailing. First, clearly define the space on the boat. Compare the spaces to rooms in your house. "This is the V-berth. This is where we'll be sleeping. And over here is your room!" This is a good time to let children decorate their personal space with pictures, favorite books, or stuffed animals that they have brought along.
Sean Corley peers out from the hatch on his first day aboard Moondancer>.
As you review the boat's layout, start setting limits, too. Many of these limits will be the same as they are at home. For example "We don't jump on the bed at home, do we?" is a good way to explain that you want the boat cushions treated with the same respect as the furniture at home. Other limits will depend on the new boating environment. Telling children that they should stay inside the cabin after sunset is not unreasonable. Just as sunset is a usually time to go home, have supper, and get ready for bed on land, it's a good time to do those things on a boat, too.
If you are comfortable with your children on the deck after dark, at least establish a standard of wearing PFDs and a harness. Impress on them that this rule is important regardless of whether the boat is moving.
As you set limits for behavior on the boat, you are also establishing routines. Start by imagining the typical sailing schedule that you expect to follow in the future, and help them get accustomed to the new routines. Don't make exceptions for this being the first night on board. For example, if you expect to sail from marina to marina and dine at restaurants, then a restaurant the first night is the best way to get started. If you expect to cook on board in the future, then have the first night's dinner on board, too. Other routines that you may want to consider carefully the first night include the following:
When is bedtime?
Do we get extra desserts?
Do we have to brush our teeth?
Are we going to watch a movie?
It may sound like silly details now, but the first time you hear a child cry, "On the FIRST night we got to watch a movie," when you try to explain that you are now anchored at a deserted island and don't have enough electricity . . . Well, you get the picture. Set the standards the first night and your life will be much easier in the future.
Megan and Kevin Corley play cards for evening entertainment on the boat.
After you've all had a nice dinner, the sun has set, your children won at cards, and you're getting ready for bed it is a good time to talk about unfamiliar noises and "things that go bump in the night."
Most likely, you are spending this night at a marina and they can be loud, busy places that disturb anyone's sleep for their first night on a boat. For me, the first night on a boat in a new marina is always a bit jumpy. When I hear someone walking down the dock, I wonder why it sounds like they are coming to my boat. When I hear a dog running down the dock, I want to poke my head out of the cabin. When I hear a name called out in the middle of the night, I wonder if it was mine. If your children have a fear of sea monsters, reassure them that the cabin doors are locked, no monsters could possibly fit through the portholes, and, if you are on a typical family boat, you are probably going to be VERY close by if a monster emergency should arise.
Tell children what to expect. "This is a busy place. People come and go all night here. You'll probably hear some dogs barking or a cat or a bird in the middle of the night, but I don't want you to go on deck without me. In the morning, the fishermen start their motors early and head out to look for fish. If they wake you up and you want to get dressed and look around, make sure you wake me up, too."
After a few nights on board at the dock, the novelty will have worn off and the routines will have been established. Then it will be time to take the next step in teaching the sailing life to little ones.