Would you take your preschooler sailing? Cruising, and even liveaboard bluewater sailing, with young children can be done. We get tips from families who've done it on how to keep it safe and stress-free
While going on a bluewater adventure with your family is a popular dream, the advantages of having a child that can understand instructions, occupy themselves with a book, and have mastered at least the basics of swimming, keep many families ashore until school age. But cruising, and even liveaboard bluewater sailing with young children can be done.
Four families cruising and sailing with young children share their tips on how to manage – and enjoy – sailing with very small crew.
Setting sail with preschoolers
There are many reasons for setting off with under-fives. For some families it is simply a case of not waiting – especially where older siblings want to rejoin formal education before their senior school years. Casting off sooner may enable you to sail for longer, even if taking it easy for the early stages. Going when children are younger may also negate the need to move up a size of yacht to increase the number of cabins.
For many families the ability to go sailing without having to factor in ‘boat school’ is a huge draw. “I found home schooling for pre-school and early primary school aged children was very easy and stress-free,” recalls Carolyn Simpson, mother of four boys aged four to nine.
She and her husband have lived aboard their 47ft Herreshoff ketch Moon River since their youngest son was born, cruising the Pacific when he was two and his brothers four, six and seven years old.
“We really just wanted to ensure that the boys weren’t behind in reading and letter formation. Basic maths, alphabet etc can be learned as games and during day-to-day activities, and the lifestyle itself is an education.”
Friendships are less critical at the preschool stage, which takes the pressure off finding other ‘kid boats’ – though maintaining relationships with wider family members, such as grandparents and cousins, can be harder with small children if relying on video calls or similar.
The slow, simple life on board can suit a very young family, as Carolyn recalls: “For us all to be together as a family 24/7 for extended periods of cruising, it [was] lovely having a newborn and not having a schedule. My memories of breastfeeding on board, relaxing on beaches, playing in the shallows, and sleeping in hammocks under trees are dreamy.”
But there are obvious hurdles to overcome. Sleep deprivation is a huge factor during the early parenting years. Add in night watches, anchor monitoring, the challenges of getting proper rest while under way, of trying to sleep undisturbed in a small space – and a tropical climate – and it’s easy to see why many sailing parents baulk at the idea of sailing with young children.
Factor in essential boat maintenance, the domestic workload, and possibly income generating work, and creating enough time for sleep can be challenging. For many families this means taking things very slowly. For others it means bringing in additional hands – extended family, an au pair, or deck crew.
The health and safety concerns can seem daunting. All the usual hazards – falls, choking, burns – become amplified on board. With very young children who simply can’t be relied on to follow key instructions, ‘man-marking’ becomes a full-time job. If one parent is looking after the boat, the other will need to be looking after the child(ren). Preventing man overboards, falls off jetties and pontoons, and safely transferring to and from a dinghy etc requires careful planning and constant vigilance.
There is also the question of how sailing with young children will alter the experience of cruising itself. While diving coral reefs, or immersing oneself in different cultural experiences, are likely to be high on adult cruisers’ wish lists, for young children the best moments involve the simple things. Finding a shallow sandy beach may become your anchorage goal.
“There are elements of liveaboard life that toddlers can’t appreciate the same way an older child could,” points out Emily Lane, who is cruising with her husband, four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter on their Norseman 447 Resolute. “I think we had grand visions of spotting dolphins together and teaching our kids the names of fish and seabirds… but to be honest, they’re so young that nothing gets them excited like a good old fashioned playground. Our route along the Intracoastal Waterway was basically dictated by proximity to playgrounds.”
Preparing to be tested
The first thing any parents planning to cruise with young children should do is accept that plans may change. Heather Richard initially set off cruising with her ex-husband and three children, including a preschooler. She then continued sailing with her young children as a solo parent, bringing on additional crew when needed and using her experience as a sailing instructor to teach them additional skills.
“I have some very unique experience as a single parent taking my three kids cruising solo. But it was quite easy to find young, capable, strong and willing crew who fit in easily with my family and added a lot to my kids education – and also gave them good role models. Their energy and positive attitude was fantastic for both me and the kids.”
Carolyn Simpson also discovered how sailing with young children can challenge a relationship. “One of the biggest challenges early on was how tired we’d get on passage, or even around the coast in stormy weather. It’s very hard to keep an even keel with each other when we are both sleep deprived, but nothing a day on the beach resting while the boys run around doesn’t fix! It helps that [husband] Richie is a very patient captain.”
The couple planned assiduously. “We both undertook offshore medical courses, sea survival courses, and Richie crewed on a passage to New Caledonia to gain experience. One of the most valuable things we did together was cast off the lines and live at anchor for three months while coastal sailing around New Zealand.
However, she admits: “No matter how well prepared we were, I was (and still am) quite worried about one of the boys getting injured or sick while we are on passage or somewhere remote. On top of that my self-doubt was a difficult hurdle to overcome.
“We have an amazing support network who were behind what we were doing, we got no negative comments or criticism for our lifestyle choice, but I couldn’t shake a level of self-doubt!
“There is an element of risk to this lifestyle that is different from living ashore, so I think that weighs on my mind. But once we get underway a lot of that slips away and we find the lifestyle really relaxing, comfortable and exciting.”
Keeping kids safe aboard
A lot of sailing with young children can be made easier by having the right kit on board, and thinking through systems and routines. Sarah and Will Curry know this more than most. The couple divide the year 50:50 cruising aboard their Jeanneau SO 43 Kaiquest and living ashore in Canada, while also running their company Hydrovane, makers of self-steering systems. They live aboard Kaiquest with their two-year-old twins, and have done so since the boys were babies. It was a daunting proposition.
“We were travelling with 16 bottles (eight feeds a day times two!), a mammoth supply of formula, two car seats, a double stroller, and a high energy miniature poodle – running high on the adrenaline of love of being new parents!” Sarah recalls. “We were tied to the dock (and laundry machine) for those first few months.”
Sarah and Will adapted different ‘safe zones’ in their boat as the boys grew. “‘The Pit’ was a custom lee cloth across our main saloon dropped-down table to create a baby rumble room,” she explains.
“‘The Cage’ is our full cockpit enclosure. This was imperative for the toddler phase and made the cockpit 100% secure. We used Phifertex material, which is ideal for the tropics in that it provides sun protection, but you can see through it. It’s also durable enough to contain two toddlers throwing their bodies against it.
“One of my most useful purchases was two portable pop‘n’sit chairs. We secure them in the cockpit so the twins can be strapped in safely when needed. They have eaten many meals in these chairs on board and out at restaurants.”
Having dedicated places for children to go during mooring or a manoeuvre is a strategy many parents recommend. Carolyn Simpson adds: “Introducing ‘safety seats’ was one of our most important safety tactics. If Richie or I said ‘safety seats’ all four boys would go to (or be put into) dedicated berths/carseats/seats which separated them and kept them safe while we dealt with anything thrown at us. We prepared snack bags for during busy times like anchoring and docking to keep all four quiet.
“We still use the same code-word today, but things have changed as the boys have gotten older. Jackson and Tasman might be asked to come up and help with things like docking, but otherwise they all remain in their seats until told it is safe to leave.”
Having strict rules that are stuck to consistently is key. “The boys all wear lifejackets and are tethered at all times when on-deck under way, these were the rules from day one and in all conditions so everyone knew the drill when we headed offshore,” recalls Carolyn.
“When we are on passage the boys don’t leave the cockpit; this rule also applies to adult crew as much as possible! At anchor/marina the boys weren’t allowed to wander around the topsides without a lifejacket until they could confidently swim four laps of Moon River.”
“Nobody is allowed in the cockpit without a lifejacket and an adult. Period,” adds Lane.
Simplifying systems and sail handling so one adult can manage the boat is vital when sailing with young children. “Everything is rigged on Kaiquest so she can be sailed solo. One of us tends to the twins, the other sails the boat. Sailing is the easy job,” says Susan Curry. “The Hydrovane rudder takes over steering, which means Kaiquest’s main rudder and two wheels are locked off. I now fully appreciate this safety feature for sailing with kids: there is no erratic movement of the wheels, and no chance of fingers or arms getting caught.”
“I wish we’d known that, when you live aboard a sailboat with kids, only about 5% of your time is spent actually sailing,” recalls Emily Lane.
“The other 95% is spent in the day-to-day mundane details of living: feeding the kids, getting them to pick up their toys, making sure they’re going down for nap, getting them on and off the dock safely, arranging for grocery deliveries, tracking down playgrounds and laundromats… the list goes on.
“But we’re all doing it together in a (relatively) tiny little boat, all within a few feet of each other. The kids love being close to us, and we love being close to them. And in the end, that’s really what makes living aboard worth it.”
With limited stowage onboard, large plastic toy sets won’t be an option. Popular recommendations for sailing with young children include:
· Lego/Duplo. Giant drawstring play mat/storage bags keep the pieces contained and out of the bilges.
· Tool kits. Child-appropriate versions of a ‘real’ toolbox are universally popular with liveaboard kids. “We take these ashore and can sit back and relax while they create,” says Simpson.
· A ‘survival kit’ has similar appeal: add a flint and steel, whittling knife, whistle, walkie-talkies and a hammock/den kit.
· Magnatiles for mess-free creativity (just be careful where you store them on board as they are magnetic)
· Journals. Even during ‘no-school’ days on passage many parents get kids to draw or write a few words each day.
· Stationary rolls/craft boxes. Glue guns, lollipops and pipe cleaners, paint, paper, and modelling clay – although these often only come out at anchor.
· Fancy dress. Popular with little ones and easy to store. Also makes it easier to keep an eye on your child ashore if they’re dressed as a cartoon character!
· Water toys. SUPs, kayaks, water pistols. Don’t forget swim goggles.
· Tablets. Particularly invaluable on long passages, explains Emily Lane. “We treat it the same way you’d treat a long-haul flight with toddlers. Routine goes out the window, there are lots of snacks involved, lots of time on the iPad.” Kindle Kids tablets have a no-quibble replacement policy for devices that may take some knocks and spills
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