Ten tips from global cruising parents on ways to keep kids (and adults) happy on board.
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The idea was perfectly realistic: I’ll get a little pocket cruiser, we’ll take the kids sailing, they’ll be angels, and life will be perfect.
I imagined sunset cruises, my wife and I canoodling in the cockpit, both of us giggling and drinking spritzers while the boat sailed itself and the kids never spoke. And if they did, they’d speak in nautical (read: British) accents. Look what I’ve spotted in the sextant! I’m just chuffed to bits you’ve taken us sailing, Mum and Dad.
We’ve had a sailboat for a year now, and I still haven’t heard that. My wife and I haven’t had a single sail that felt like a date. And there isn’t a kid aboard who speaks at a volume lower than 80 decibels.
Yeah, I know, a guy on a tiny yacht shouldn’t be whining. In a few short years, the kids will be grown, no one will be yelling, and nothing on the boat will be sticky. Until then, though, what’s a 21st-century parent on a 25-foot sailboat to do?
Perhaps not surprisingly, options do abound. What follows are tips gathered around the world from parents who are cruising, daysailing or simply making way on sailboats with kids.
We sail in southern Brazil and the southern Atlantic ocean. On board, we have a 4-year-old son who first started sailing at age 3. To help him enjoy the experience, we make an effort to make sailing social. We often bring friends and other children aboard. And it works: Our son seems happy when he can teach other kids about sailing. We also call him captain.
As a family of four en route to the Mediterranean Sea, we think it’s important to make it apparent that sailing and living aboard is something that makes us (the parents) happy. We want the kids to see that we’re in a good mood as soon as we’re on the boat. It’s also important for our children to have a chance to play. So we bring along a few of their favorite toys. For example, we have a blanket filled with Lego bricks that we can easily open (and put away quickly) in the salon, cockpit or aft deck.
Kids need activity and attention. On board Casablanca, we bring board games and schoolwork. We even give the kids cooking tasks to keep them busy. It’s not easy. Inevitably, the kids get bored. But sailing teaches them to slow down; it helps them understand that boredom is a part of life. Sailing is also a great learning experience. As we travel, we stop regularly to visit beaches and new places. Geocaching is a fun activity during these stops. The kids love it. They think that living on a boat is so much more fun than their former life because we’re always going somewhere new.
We’ve raised our kids sailing since birth. Even though we haven’t taken off to cruise the world and still live in a house, we’ve made sailing our lifestyle. We’ve always encouraged both kids to explore the many ways they can be a part of sailing and on-the-water life. Over the years, we’ve read sailing stories, learned together about the creatures and natural world we share our lives with, and talked about the historical relevance of all the places we sail to. Today, at ages 13 and 16, the kids sail, surf, snorkel and swim.
My wife and I have been living full time aboard boats for many years. We’ve done several ocean crossings. But, after moving ashore and becoming parents, this is our first season with kids aboard, and we’ve been learning a lot. While the kids seem to love life on the water (which makes us happy), they also need some off time every day. So we go ashore and explore playgrounds and beaches. In difficult situations, and during maneuvers, we have also occasionally been “bad parents” who rely on the hypnotizing effect of Paw Patrol. Our oldest son, age 2, is such a big fan of the series that he will not leave the iPad while we are docking the boat.
We have some simple advice that works for us: Always be one step ahead of the kids. The moment they get bored is the moment they get mischievous. So, keep them entertained. We let the kids help us with small jobs or chores. Our boys are 4 and 3, so they can’t do too much, but they are keen to help with whatever new things we throw at them: drawing, reading, board games, arts and crafts. Our last resort is putting on a movie for the kids, which, funny enough, also helps with seasickness.
We are a liveaboard family with a sailboat charter business. When we’re not chartering, we gunkhole and explore local waters. My advice is this: When it comes to engaging the kids with the actual art and tasks of sailing, don’t teach them. Don’t set a time and force it on them. If you enjoy it, they’ll see it, and they’ll ask questions when they’re ready to learn specifics. Always offer them the opportunity to engage, but let them come at their own pace.
We’ve found that it’s important to get kids excited for each adventure. Before departure, we let them pick out toys. We have new stuffed animals on board when they arrive. And we talk endlessly about all the new and cool things they’re going to do on the boat. For long passages, we bring along audio stories (like the Hardy Boys books) to keep those who are prone to seasickness entertained.
We don’t have a TV or electronics on the boat to entertain the kids. Instead, the adults take turns playing with them. For a few hours each day, we go ashore to play on the beach, swim, paddle or ride bikes. Inside the boat, we keep the kids busy and have them help us make food and wash clothes. They also like to draw, read books and play with our dog. It’s not easy, but we’ve all become quite used to the simplicity.
For us, sailing is about spending quality time together as a family. When the kids are bored or unhappy, we talk, rest, eat snacks and play word games. We also find it helpful to have some strict rules. For example, the kids understand that they have to be quiet during stressful situations. This also keeps us from losing our tempers, which would cause even more stress. In the end, it’s important to respect one another’s feelings, especially when someone is feeling sad, unhappy or homesick. Having a talk, offering a hug, and a lot of love mostly do the trick. Still, there are moments that kids are bored or the parents are annoyed. Just remember that this is normal, and it will pass.
With two kids, ages 3 and 7, on a sailboat, there are often situations that create upset: waves, wind, no wind, heeling, heat, seasickness. As a parent, my goal is to regulate myself first and the kids second. When tantrums happen, I do my best to breathe, maintain my composure, and stay calm. I know I can’t control a toddler’s emotions, but I can control my own. When I’m internally calm, I can respond to the kids with empathy, remind them that they are safe, tell them that they can handle whatever is happening, and slowly teach them to be aware of their emotions. Then again, there’s always a glass of wine.
David Blake Fischer lives in Pasadena, California. Catch his latest new sailing adventures (and mishaps) in his hilarious web column “The Noob Files” at cruisingworld.com/thenoobfiles, and follow him on Instagram @sailingdelilah
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