How to Make Family Boating Safe and Fun for Everyone

June 10th, 2024 by team

by B.J. Porter (Contributing Editor)

We started our kids on the water young, and they spent most summer weekends on the boat. They weren’t always into it every weekend, but we did our best to make it memorable and exciting. In the end, it was worth it because they still recall all those summer weekends and vacations fondly. We built nice family bonds and memories together, and they talk about returning to our old summer haunts some day.

Making family boating safe and fun for everyone – including the adults – takes a little preparation and thought. But there are a lot of ways you can do it, and it really depends on your family and how you play (and work) together. So what works for my family may not work for yours, and everyone’s family dynamics and interests are different.

A lot of what we’re covering might seem obvious to experienced parents…except for one thing. Boating.

You’ve added an extra element, with additional stresses and demands for adult attention away from the children. It’s a different environment for us adults, too, and sometimes we have to focus on safety and operating the boat over the needs of our children. And it’s easy to overlook that our children may not get that.

Fun and Safety

The first and most important note with family boating is safety. It’s tough to explain to little ones that it’s more important than fun, but assure them there will be time for both. When getting young children out, establishing a few basic but very clear safety rules can make all the difference.

Above and below deck safety

Children in the cockpit of a moving boat must wear flotation. It’s not only sensible and safe, it’s the law almost everywhere. So get your children comfortable PFDs that are properly sized, and make it clear that if they want to sit up top, they have to wear their “special coats” (as our kids called them). A comfortable and properly fit PFD is an excellent investment, since they’ll get used to it and wear it more readily.

But they need a break from those sweaty things, so let them go below if they want to take them off. Giving them the freedom to choose (when the weather is calm) lets them decide how to handle the trip the way they’d enjoy it. Even children in the same family are very different about this – our son rarely missed a second in the cockpit when the sails were up. But it was very common for his younger sister to disappear below with a few toys shortly after we cast off and end up sleeping through most of the trip.

Of course, conditions may prevent this freedom, and there should be sensible guidelines about what the kids can do down below or be in the cockpit. But an easy to follow rule like “you can’t come up the companionway without your PFD” keeps them safe.

Harbor rules

One important thing we worked out for both our safety and sanity was “Harbor rules.” We explained to the kids that on the boat they are always welcome to ask questions, talk to us, ask to take part in the sailing, and involve us any time they wanted. Unless we called “Harbor Rules.” We made it explicit when we invoked these rules. And when we said “Harbor Rules, kids,” it meant we were:

  • Docking, anchoring, or picking up a mooring.
  • Picking our way through a channel or tight spot.
  • Doing other boat handling that needed concentration, clear communication, and no interruptions, like setting a spinnaker or finding our way through fog.

They understood it was time for them to be quiet and stay out of the way unless we asked them to help. And when we asked them to do something, they were to do it without question.

Harbor Rules also didn’t last forever, and we were always clear about when they went into and out of effect. “Harbor Rules” came into existence for the first time during a tricky harbor approach, but the children knew we might invoke them anywhere. And they knew it wasn’t long term. We’d clear it as soon as the anchor was down or the spinnaker up.

Working out a clear and simple communication method with your children for more intense boating operations will save everyone a lot of trouble.

Keeping it fun

If the adults on a boat have an atmosphere of tension and stress, kids pick up on it. All the advice about not yelling and shouting for boating couples applies tenfold with children on board. If they go on the boat and their parents get snippy or someone yells, that’s not nearly as fun as staying home and doing nothing, where at least everyone is calm.

But it’s more than just using calm voices on board. Boating is an adventure. It’s something exciting and different. And it’s up to you, the parents, to bring that sense of adventure along for them. Yes, boating can be work, but try not to make it sound or look like a chore, because we are all out there to have fun, in the end.

It’s also a good time for family entertainment, so keep family games and diversions on board. Some of our better memories are playing Apples to Apples in the cockpit, or watching a movie together with a big bowl of popcorn while the rain pattered on the deck above us.

If boating isn’t fun, the kids won’t get excited to do it, even if they can’t really tell you why.


Screens – phones, tablets, and gaming devices, are of course very popular. And they’re controversial, because they can take a child right out of the room and family group into their own self-involved world. Some prefer a “no screens” boating trip, others figure it’s all free time, do what you want. Ultimately, it’s up to you and how your children interact with them, but there are pros and cons to bringing and using electronic entertainment.

For pros:

  • Boating trips often have long stretches of time with little going on for children, especially longer trips or slower sailing.
  • Sometimes it rains and you can’t get off the boat. Family games and movies are great, but everyone needs a break.
  • Completely disconnecting older children and teens from their friends may cause strong resistance to boating.

For cons:

  • Some of the most memorable boating moments happen quickly. If you spy a pod of dolphins or a whale, by the time you’ve roused the kids from their video games and gotten them on deck, it may be long gone. Of course, a handy phone can get you a stunning picture.
  • The usual “alone together” effects can happen. If everyone sits around the saloon or cockpit on their devices without interacting, you don’t need to be on a boat for that.
  • The marine environment can be tough on electronics that aren’t designed to handle it. Keeping electronics dry in the dinghy is tricky.
  • Depending on your boat, keeping them all charged up can be a hassle.

Consider a mixed approach, where everything but phones stays on the boat. You won’t have to worry about gaming consoles getting splashed on or lost, and on shore activities will be more engaged while people can still take pictures and split up. On the boat, follow the same guidelines you do at home.

Comfortable travels

The same common sense rules apply to boat trips that you’d use for a long car trip on land. Kids get bored, hungry, thirsty, and tired. So snacks, drinks, toys, books and activities for young ones are a must. As they get older, they can choose their own things, and that really enhances interest. Especially if they have options available only on boat trips.

We had our kids pick out a few toys that stayed on the boat all season, which worked well because they were “new” things they hadn’t seen for a week or two every time we got on board. We also didn’t have to schlep a bag of toys up and down the dock every trip, or worry about forgetting anything.

You’ve got an enormous advantage on a boat trip over a car, since kids can move around. They can make a nest in the pillows and cushions down below and sleep or play, and they won’t get as antsy if they don’t feel like being up above. Add in some special “boat only” snacks and drinks for the trip, and they’ll look forward to it.

Getting them involved

Involving your kids in your boating engages them. Not every child wants to learn to drive the boat or trim the sails, but feeling they are contributing and taking part gets them more into in the experience. And some experiences can turn work into fun with the kids involved. Washing the boat off on a hot day may turn into more water fight than wash-down, but you’ll have a lot of laughs along the way.

Think about tasks your kids can handle, and take the time to teach them to do them properly and safely. They may surprise you. We always had the nicest Flemish coils and tidy dock lines because our son liked that job, and he enjoyed making the boat look neat and cared for.

Another good way to get your kids involved, especially when they’re older, is to bring them into the trip planning. If you’re heading back to places they know, even young ones will have preferences. Young children may not have the same reasons we do to return, but if a particular playground, ice cream stand, or toy shop gets them excited, they’ll look forward to it the whole trip.

Bringing Friends

Some of the best times your children have on boat trips are with other children. They might make new friends on the trip, but those are usually temporary and may not happen. But bringing their best friend along for a weekend on the boat? That’s pretty tough to beat, especially when they get older.

This is more than a sleepover at home, of course, so you pick your guest carefully. And their parents may need assurance that spending the weekend on a boat with you will be safe and comfortable. After all, they can’t exactly drive over to pick their child up if they’re unhappy.

We learned to watch the dynamics with more than one child of our own, and you can learn this easily with play dates on land. A left out younger sibling will be miserable, and the solo child may prefer a weekend with a land-bound friend or grandparent over three days with their brother’s best friend who won’t include them. It’s something to watch, as not every one of your children’s friends will mesh well into boat life.

But for your children – especially older children – there’s almost no better way to spend a weekend than showing their best friend a cool place with the boat.

Boating with Teens

If you’ve gotten them to fall in love with family boating as kids, your job keeping your teens interested is easier. But even boat-loving teens present their own challenges. With friends, dating, weekend sports, social events, summer jobs, and many other things drawing your teen’s interest, boating with the family may not make the top of their list. If it makes the list at all. But you can make it more appealing.

Bringing friends is a great way. You can’t take ten teenagers offshore for the weekend, but you can take them out for an afternoon of swimming off the boat and hanging out somewhere nice. And you can bring a friend or two for longer trips and give them some choice in where you go.

Teens also love independence, and giving them use of the dinghy for a few hours to go off on their own is like tossing them the keys to the family car. Nerve-wracking for us…but much appreciated! (In all directions – did I mention how tough it is for adults to get quiet time alone with a boatload of kids?)

We were fortunate we could carry a second dinghy with us. They could row or sail to shore, which gave enormous freedom to boat time with friends. Be prepared to split up and do a little ferrying with the dinghy. Your teens aren’t likely to want you cramping their beach action or visits to town.

Go with what you know

You know your children better than anyone, and you’ll have the best idea what works with them. Time on the boat is a big change from home, with all their usual toys and distractions. They may not be so used to that, so don’t lose sight of the added dimension, set a loose schedule, and leave plenty of time for fun!

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