So, You’re Thinking of Taking the Kids on a Sailing Adventure…

October 8th, 2020 by inavx

by B.J. Porter (Contributing Editor) 

We loved sailing with our kids. I enjoyed my time racing, but the most special memories I have on our boats through the years are the places – even the more ordinary ones – that we went as a family. But not every kid takes too sailing, so I’ve got a few ideas to share on how to make the most of your family time on the boat.

The age of your kids will impact much of what you can do with them. Sailing with toddlers is a very different equation than sailing with teens, even if the primary challenge is “keeping them interested” at both age levels: the solutions are very different! And only you know your kids and what they will like and not, so you need to adjust to their needs to make it fun for everyone.

Get Kids Sailing

One of the best ways to get our kids interested in sailing with us was sending them to junior sailing lessons. Both of them loved the classes, and they learned how to sail without the pressure of their parents trying to teach them something. Time on the boat became an extension of what they’d learned, but it was fun time, not more school and instruction.

Not every kid is going to want to go the full junior Olympic racing route, but even a couple of weeks in basic, kid-oriented sailing camp makes a world of difference to your weekends and vacations.

Make the Boat Sort of Like Home … but Different

When our kids were young, we had them pick out some “boat toys” that they could bring to leave on the boat. Some of these were things we picked up on our travels, others were favorites they had on the boat. This extended to some books, art supplies, and videos.

It was helpful for the kids to know they could just…have something to do…when the parents were otherwise engaged. If your kids feel comfortable making the boat their own space, they can settle in and engage themselves.

“Harbor Rules”

We established a few – very few – sets of special rules with them. The most important was “Harbor Rules” which meant “Mom and Dad are anchoring/docking/picking up a mooring/navigating a tight channel/etc.” It was a limited time where the kids were supposed to be seen but not heard – don’t ask a million unrelated questions, don’t fight with each other, and help out if asked.

They understand this was critical for safety, and we assured them as soon as “Harbor Rules” were over the kids knew they could explode all those unasked questions at us and get our attention again. But when we the words “Harbor Rules, kids” came from us, they knew the drill. It did wonders for peace on the boat, and no one arrived annoyed or in trouble.

We set a few other hard and fast rules over the years, like no one comes up the companionway without a PFD. You don’t want an onerous set, but clear communication of a few different ways we should act really helps.

Encourage but Don’t Force Participation

My children were very different sailors. My oldest is an enthusiastic sailor, and he always relished the chance to take a line, grab the wheel, or do anything you’d let him under sail. His little sister tended to disappear below with a book the second we cleared the harbor and only come up for wildlife spotting or snacks until we reached our destination.

Both kids enjoyed the trips, but in very different ways. Forcing an uninterested child to do something they don’t want to do is almost guaranteed to be turn-off to it. My daughter did, from time to time, come join in the sailing. But at her terms. And when we needed her, she was there.

Find Special Things to Do

What defines “special” will vary with the ages of your kids. But you’ve gone some place in the boat, so it doesn’t make sense not to do anything cool while you’re there. If you’re going to an island there’s always a beach, but that’s just one thing. Many locations have bike rentals, small boat rentals, nature trails, and of course restaurants and ice cream.

I can’t say our kids would have liked sailing less if we didn’t do these things, but arriving at Block Island, the kids got excited when we said “Hey, let’s go to The Oar for lunch.” (So did Mom & Dad, they have fantastic mudslides.)

We also had a few other special things specific to the boat, like the choices for snacks and drinks we only did on the boat. Things as simple as favorite appetizers and drinks in the cockpit at sunset gave something special to the routines on board.

Meet up With Friends

No matter the age of your kids, hooking up with other friends with kids is always a win. Some of our kid’s best times were when we met friend boats on islands or took vacations with family boats. If you’re friendly enough with the other boat, rafting up to another kid boat is especially fun for the kids since they’re all in one place.

Taking a friend out for the weekend is also fun. It’s something different and new; if you have more than one child, you can either take turns or bring extra kids. You don’t want anyone feeling left out, that can spoil the experience for one child.

Consider a Kid’s Dinghy

One of the best purchase I made early on was a used sailing dink at a charity auction. For $100, we got a little boat that the kids could take out by themselves. By then, they’d had enough junior sailing lessons that they were comfortable with this, and it gave them freedom they wouldn’t otherwise have.

A dinghy for the kids lets them meet up with friends on their own, or take trips to special places and explore. Later, we got a sturdier dinghy than that little dink, and our kids used the second dinghy to meet up with friends and move from boat to boat and go off on their own.

If you don’t have the space or budget to bring a little dinghy, think about getting your kids their operator’s permits to drive your dinghy. They love driving in an anchorage, and as they get more confident and responsible, they can take off on their own for a few hours of independence.

Space and Freedom

Young kids will want to hang around with mom and dad, but tweens and teens…not so much. Avoid Draconian rules like “no cell phones” or “no screens.” Instead, have enough going on to keep them involved. But limiting them too much, trying to force a natural experience without technology and entanglements, will only cause resentment in older kids.

They will want to be around you for some of the times, other times they need space. We had routines like our Cocktail Hour, where we’d have good snacks and drinks – every one came for that. But if someone wanted to read a book or watch a movie instead of fishing off the boat or going for a hike or to the beach, we didn’t force it.

It’s Worth It

Taking time to engage your kids on your boat makes for fantastic memories growing up. We won’t forget it, and our kids won’t. Even our daughter, the reluctant sailor, remembers the best of the cool things we did.

But remember – they are your kids. As much as we adore them, on the boat they will be just as likely to squabble or be grouchy as they are at home. But if you’ve made the boat a second, special home you’ve at least set the stage for them being comfortable enough to make some memories with you.

Your own boat isn’t quite like taking them on their first charter, but that may be a good topic for a later post.

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