When’s the right time to take your kids sailing or boating? For us, the answer was (almost) right away. We sold our Melges 20 and started weekend cruising with our older son when he was 18 months old. Our younger son, born in December, was on the boat when he was five months old. It was not without it’s hiccups and stresses, though. Trying to figure out safe sleeping arrangements, keeping curious toddlers from touching things they shouldn’t and, of course, staying on the boat.
It’s gotten easier as they’ve gotten older and I’m amazed with how at home they are on any boat. Here are some of what we’ve learned, including some tips from other RCR parents.
- Lifejackets, lifejackets, lifejackets. This was always one of my biggest worries, especially after our 2.5-year-old son fell off the boat, at the dock with no lifejacket on, and me only steps behind him with his lifejacket in my hands. Thankfully, I was able to grab him and yank him out as he resurfaced from the splash. It was terrifying and brought about the rule we used on the boat until very recently—any time you go into the cockpit, the lifejacket goes on. We relaxed that rule at the dock as they became competent swimmers, but are still fairly uptight about wearing lifejackets underway, even in the cockpit of our catamaran.
- Give them a job to do. This was advice from one of our readers, Gary Beaty, and I couldn’t agree more. Making them feel like they can contribute on the boat makes them feel like one of the team. We started teaching them and including them at a young age, and we’re doing even more now. Our older son helps with anchoring, the younger one likes pushing any button you give him, and both will come sit with us during passages and learn about navigating and sailing.
- Have a box of tricks. This started early on during our trips with our kids. I had a plastic box with easy-to-use, age-appropriate activities that only came out when we were underway. It made passages or any kind of trip more special. A lot of the items were from Melissa & Doug toys—their reusable sticker pads were a huge hit, along with their color-with-water books.
- Pick your conditions wisely. We’ve always told ourselves that it’s better not to go, than to give them a bad experience that ‘s going to taint their view of sailing and boating. When they were younger, we tried to go out when it was calm and relatively mild, even if that meant motoring from time to time. On our passages toward the Thousand Islands, we went overnight so that they could sleep almost the whole way to Waupoos or Kingston.
- Make it a family activity. It’s such a great way to spend time together, whether on a cruising boat, fishing boat, day boat, or on a racing boat as kids get older. Consider making it a regular family outing, and involve children in the planning and preparation process. This will help to create a sense of shared experience and foster a love of sailing and boating that can last a lifetime. I didn’t grow up on boats and have always said I wanted boat kids who have that confidence on the water. So far, so good!