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Sailing with Children: The First Day

Brie and Kikki Lathrop peer out the campanionway of the boat they have lived on for more than two years.

Teaching children to sail can be a dream come true. Literally handing the helm over to the next generation is the ultimate way to share your love of sailing. Here are a few tips to help children enjoy their first day on the water.

Anticipation  Building anticipation is your best course when introducing any new activity to children. Looking at pictures of boats with children, telling them funny stories about your early sailing adventures and discussing upcoming sailing trips gives children something to look forward to. This is good—who doesn't like something to anticipate? So, when you talk about sailing, build it up a little. You know that special tone of voice reserved for c-o-o-k-i-e-s? Start using it for s-a-i-l-i-n-g.

Safety should be part of any pre-sailing training. Children should know how to swim before stepping on a boat. If they are too young to swim, they should at least know how to float with their heads above water while wearing a personal flotation device with built-in collar. Find a pool where children can practice floating in their PFDs with the adults.

Susan Lathrop washes her son Colby's face as the two clean up from an afternoon spent dressing up and playing "pirates" on the boat.

This is also the time to instill a good, healthy dose of respect for the sun, wind, and water. Explain that these powerful forces can bring a great deal of harm in a short amount of time. No need to scare children, but remind them that falling into the water from a boat is not the same as falling into a pool. The water may be colder, deeper, or crowded with boats. Some children understand this instinctively while others need gentle reminders.

Children, meet the boat. Boat, meet the children. Give the kids time to explore the boat while it's at the dock and start using boat terms such as head, galley, and cockpit. Show them where the handgrips and handrails are. Have them practice moving around the boat while wearing their PFDs. Make sure they know how to use the head and feel comfortable with it.

This is a good time to set limits. If you want children to sit in one place where you can always see them, make the rules clear now. Positive examples work better than negative ones, so replace the "No's" with "Yes's". For example, "No, no sweetie! Don't stand there! The boom can hit you!" can become, "So, where are you going to sit when we start sailing?"

Kisses  Keep It Short, Sweet, and Safe:

Short  Children have the attention span of a bee. They buzz from one activity to the next looking for fun on a moment-by-moment basis. That's OK; they're kids and sailing is a slow activity to the television generation. As adults, of course, we find this excess energy incredibly annoying and forget that a three-hour cruise may be short to us but lasts forever to children. Keep the first sail short—a brief daysail in familiar waters is ideal for the initial outing.

Giving names to birds in the sky, pointing out turtles in the water, or explaining how the wind makes the little waves can captivate kids. If the boat is big enough, let the children bring their favorite books, toys, music, and snacks for entertainment when their attention wanders. Children will probably need a couple of these daysails to relax and enjoy the slower pace.

Sweet  When you are having fun on the boat, children will have fun too. Shout on a boat and children will always associate a boat with shouting. The same goes for panicking, worrying, or being grumpy. So if you stay calm, cool, collected, and enthusiastic, the mood will be contagious.

Debbie Lewandowski helps her 11-year-old son, Justin, zip up his PFD as the two prepare for a day on the water.

Safe  Children know when they are in a safe space and they will adore you for providing it. Physical safety is the top priority when children are on a sailboat. Little ones should be healthy before sailing and should never be on the water when they have a cold or an ear infection. Bring plenty of snacks and water to keep children happily fed and hydrated. Check with a pediatrician before giving children any seasickness medication, even over-the-counter brands; medicine shouldn't be necessary for an introductory daysail.

Even at the dock, children will need sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and boat shoes. Remember to bring clothes for all temperatures and to have wind/water repellent jackets and blankets available to keep the kids warm. Once out sailing, children should wear a harness and their PFDs over their top layer of clothing. For added safety, you might consider installing netting around the lifelines if the boat is big enough to have them.

Safety net installed over the lifelines can provide added protection for keping children on board the boat.

Reflection  A short trip is fun, but children can have short memories too. So make the fun of sailing linger by making a photo album together. Sharing memories of the sail as a goodnight story or talking about the trip at the dinner table will help children remember it. Using these reflections about the first sail can create a circle back into anticipation of the next adventure. Soon they will be asking the same question you always ask yourself. "When can we go sailing again?"

Michelle Potter is offline  
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