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Juggling Offspring and Boats

With kids on board, safety is the first consideration.
I recently received a letter from a mother in Singapore who wondered how she might best balance a love of sailing, which she and her husband both enjoy, with the need to supervise their one-year-old child. As her sailing experience is limited, she is concerned about her ability to cope with her child in the event of a sailing emergency. Should she bring along an extra person, improve her sailing skills first, or leave the child on shore for day trips? To me, none of these options seem ideal, yet she is understandably concerned about her levels of responsibility.

Sailing with your family, be it for an hour, a day, a week, or an extended cruise, can be a wonderful, exciting, and meaningful experience. All ages of children readily enjoy it, from crawling infants to enthralled teenagers. The key to successful sailing with very young children is a good level of preparation, a realistic itinerary, and a relaxed outlook on parenting. The children themselves will have no trouble adapting to life on the water, even for short periods of time, because young children inherently love the outdoors. Still, in the interest of assisting would-be sailing parents like our friend in Singapore, I offer the following tips for introducing your toddler and yourself to the pleasures of family sailing. Believe, me, we know all about this stage of family cruising, as we began our sailing career with one-year-old twin sons in tow.

The author's twins had room to roam on the catamaran, but were always well-tethered.
Boat Choice    It's imperative to choose your sailboat wisely, as this can make all the difference in the success of your venture. With twin babies to supervise, we opted for a catamaran. Its broad beam, level sailing, minimal motion, and easy sail handling all make this the ideal craft for families with very young children. One toddler, however, can easily be accommodated aboard the right monohull as well, particularly a boat that is designed more for comfort and safety than speed and performance.

We recommend installing some good strong safety netting around the lifelines, especially on a monohull where heeling is a very real factor when underway. Dispense with the life jacket—except when your young one is in a dinghy—and utilize a harness for your child instead. This is equally safe, allows your child plenty of movement without fear of falling overboard, and is much more comfortable for the child to wear. Chose a good, sturdy harness, or make your own, then clip your child to an easily accessed spot in the cockpit. On our catamaran, the twins could be clipped to the base of the mast, just forward of the companionway and still have free run of the boat, both above and belowdecks, thus allowing the two of us to stop worrying about whether both children were still on board during a strenuous sail.

"In most situations you can attend to the boat first and then soothe the children's worries."

Emergencies on Board    It's unfortunate, but emergencies do occur in sailing, no matter how well prepared you might be. As long as you, the parent, stays calm, your children will too. Emergencies rarely last long, however, so even if you have to ignore a howling child for a few moments, it's not going to matter. In most situations you'll find it's best to attend to the sailing needs first and then soothe your child or children, who will soon forget the whole incident anyway.

Some children are fearful of certain situations, be it a wildly flapping sail or the sound of the engine. We spent an entire afternoon once with our one-year-olds having them ‘make friends' with the engine so they wouldn't scream their heads off every time we started it up. They were soon calling it "nice engine" and looking forward to those moments when we did start it up.

Sharing is a good way of keeping kids engaged, so let them participate in the chores as well as the fun.

Participation    Toddlers love to emulate their parents and participate in as many activities as possible. As long as it's not dangerous, you should allow them to feel useful, even if they are getting in the way a bit. A contented child is always easier to cope with than a frustrated one, so take the time to involve them as much as possible if they show an interest.

Some parents take protection of their children to the extreme, and we steadfastly recommend that you try to avoid this modern pitfall. It's easy to worry too much about the safety of your children. Life is a risky business, so you might as well just relax and let your children enjoy it—given a few intelligent precautions. With a good safety harness, some netting, and a handful of well-grounded rules (like no climbing in the dinghy alone), you should be able to let your toddler explore the world of a sailboat at will and pursue his or her own limits of capability. No child is going to enjoy sailing if he or she has to spend the whole time stuffed into a lifejacket and immobilized in the cockpit.

Of course toddlers are famous for wanting something every few minutes; something to eat, a drink, to go to the bathroom, or a toy. Prepare as much as possible before the sail, then allow the child (as well as yourself) easy access to whatever it is you need while underway. Remember that an occupied child is less likely to be demanding than a busy, enterprising one.

The author walks the walk with his twins, enjoying a familial moment in the cockpit.
With young children, it's always best to choose a modest itinerary. Flexibility of schedule is always best when sailing anyway. If you don't cover as much territory as you'd wanted, or reach your chosen destination, who cares. There's time enough for that later when your child is older and more capable. We spent our entire first summer of sailing exploring the exact same bay and going to the exact same beach every sail. Yet by the next year we felt ready to embark on a three-month cruise.

If you feel inexperienced in the art of sailing, don't worry. Sailing requires a very basic learning process, all of which can be acquired comfortably while underway. Neither of the two of us knew much about sailing when we went cruising with twin toddlers, yet we learned quickly from our mistakes. We recommend that you leave behind the extra hands and trust that your small, intimate, and tight family unit, can deal with whatever comes your way. Before long you will feel confident and capable, and find yourselves planning longer, more adventurous outings. This is one of the greatest joys of sailing; discovering what you as a family can do without anything except your boat, the wind, the water, and your own resources to rely on.

Suggested Reading:

Cruising With Kids by Liza Copeland

Schooling the Sailing Child by Kevin Jeffrey

Sailing With Children—The First Day by Michelle Potter


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