Sailing with KidsSailing with Kids

I was finally able to get to Cape Cod with the family this weekend. It was truly a beautiful weekend with 15kts on Saturday afternoon, 10kts on Sunday and low 70’s both days. I took just Maggie (8) out sailing on Saturday. She loves sailing and has very little fear knowing that I am in control. I then took both Maggie and Harry (6) on Sunday. Harry is a little more squeamish and I don’t think totally trusts my boat handling skills. Either way, I kept both trips pretty short and the kids had a blast.  Sailing with kids can be tough so I thought I’d share some of my tips and tricks.

    • End on a Good Note:  I know we all want to sail out to blue water and come back when the sun sets, but kids get bored, seasick, hungry, and bored (yes, I said bored twice).  When you leave the dock, tell the kids how long you are going out for and/or what destination you are trying to reach, and stick to it.  Sailing back to the dock with a kid complaining that he wants to stay out longer is much better than being an hour from home and him complaining that he doesn’t feel well.  Keep it short and fun.
    • Get Them Involved:  This is obviously dependent on their age, but when I took Maggie out, she helped me bend on the sail and ready the boat for the summer.  I kept giving her tasks and she completed them and asked for another.  This is NOT the norm for my daughter.  She seldom follows instruction, but she was like a girl on a mission as I rattled out orders to her.  Once under way, have them steer the boat or loosen and re-cleat a line even if it isn’t required.  I had her loosen and re-cleat the topping lift 4 times before she caught on that I was giving her busy work.  Even then, she still wanted to try it a couple more times
    • Keep Calm and Be Fun:  Raising the sail on an 18′ catboat can be a harrowing adventure.  I have gotten pretty good at it, but it makes alot of noise with the giant sail luffing and all of the running rigging slapping around.  I’ll admit, I am hyper-focused and pretty intense going through that step when I am alone.  When the kids are on-board, I still maintain the focus, but I put on a funner face, and if something goes wrong (like Daddy forgetting to move the topping lift to the end of the mast after the sail was 3/4 up), crack a joke about it or say something light-hearted.  Don’t let the kids see your stress or concern.  Keep it on the kid level (fun).
    • Teach, Teach, Teach:  Kids are like sponges and love to learn.  Sure, learning their multiplication tables or the alphabet for the 400th time might not be their cup of tea, but learning the ins and outs of Daddy’s prized possession, now that’s fun.  Every time you get a chance to teach them something, take it.  What does that red channel marker mean?  Who has the right of way right now?  What is that side of the boat called?  Keep the questions coming.  They love answering them, especially when they get it right.  More importantly, you are teaching them rules of the water and parts of the boat.  All things that will contribute to their safety.  When they are older, someone will ask them how they know so much about boats and boating, and they will reply just as I do, “My Dad taught us when we were kids.”
    • Safety First….Always:  The set of rules on my boat that I am the most strict about are the safety rules.  I ask them to recite them back to me all the time.  For example, before my daughter leaves the cockpit, we always have this dialogue.
      • Maggie:  Daddy can I go up on the bow?
      • Daddy:  Yup.  What’s the rule?
      • Maggie:  One hand for me and one for the boat.
      • Daddy:  What do you do if you fall overboard?
      • Maggie:  Swim and don’t panic and you will circle around to pick me up.

It may sound simple enough, but if a young child falls off a sailboat and they come up to see it sailing off (in preparation for an emergency tack or gybe), they will obviously panic.  My kids (hopefully) will hit the water and recite that sentence to themselves and just swim calmly until I am able to bring her around.  Obviously, PFD’s are worn 100% of the time on the boat.

Sailing with Kids

    • Keep Them Fed and Hydrated:  Snack time or lunch time on a boat can easily get you another 1/2 hour on the water.  In addition, nothing ruins a peaceful voyage like a hungry whining child.  I don’t know about your kids, but my Harry whines like a busted chainsaw when it comes to a low blood-sugar level.
    • Make It Fun (ie. distract them!):  Just the fact that I am out sailing on my boat is enough for me.  Throw in some bluegrass music on the Bluetooth Speaker and I’ve found my Graceland.  Kids on the other hand have the attention span of a gnat.  You need to find something that will entertain them if you want to spend more than 30 minutes without the dreaded “When are we going to go back?” question.  Here are some ideas
      • If there are small buoys in the water, sail close enough for them to touch them
      • Let them drive for awhile
      • Get them talking.  In today’s busy world, your kid might not have time to sit down with a parent and just chat about life.  That is what sailing is all about.
      • Give them a piece of rope and teach them some knots
      • Let them go sit up on the bow.  A catboat doesn’t offer much standing room on the bow, but my daughter Maggie squeezes herself up there between the mast and the forestay for extended stretches.
      • Install a flag halyard and buy a big Jolly Roger pirate flag.  Kids can invent a plethora of adventures just buy hoisting the colors up and down the mast.
      • Bring a book if they like to read, but keep a sharp eye out for sea-sickness
      • Bring some nets and a bucket.  It is amazing the sea creatures one can catch by just skimming the net along the surface.  On the Cape, Jellyfish, shrimp, and minnows are plentiful
      • Bring a fishing pole and let them troll if the conditions suit, but keep in mind that you may have to heave-to if they land a whopper
      • Bring some squirt guns on a hot day.  On the cooler days, just add a scrub brush and they turn into “cleaning guns”
      • Pick a destination and stop for a swim or some exploring.
      • Practice your Man Overboard Drill.  Kids are dramatic.  If you feed to that and make the Man Overboard Drill a life-or-death situation, they will take to their tasks like a pro.  I like to surprise them and just throw a PFD overboard.  Then I bark out, “Man Overboard!  Man Overboard!!  Maggie point at the target and don’t take your eyes off it!  Harry ready the throw line!”  They scramble around like their little brother just fell off the boat and we’ve had at least a dozen successful recoveries with no loss of life (jackets).

Sailing with Kids

Kids and sailing can be a difficult venture.  My son would much rather be doing 60MPH on Uncle Jimmy’s powerboat.  The bottom line is that if you keep it fun, teach them the boat, the rules, and the safety, the worst that will happen is that you have a marine educated kid that you got to spend lots of time with….that also hates sailing.  The best case scenario is that you have a new sailing partner for life that will someday be passing those lessons on to your grand kids.

If you have any other great ideas for making kids enjoy your boat trip, please share in the comments section below!

Thank you for reading,



2 Responses to Sailing with Kids

  1. Great ideas. Wish I’d followed them during my first two summers when I was so stupid as a skipper that I was barking all the time. At whomever was aboard. Not my finest hours.
    You have many nuggets in your blog for the chapters of a new book someday.

  2. Hi Spencer. Unfortunately, I have not always practiced what I preach. There was a time when I used to get stressed and was a cranky curmudgeon of a captain. I’m not sure why, but it hit me a few years back. I think reading Catboat Summers 3-4 times helped. It made me think to myself that if I act this way, the kids are going to hate sailing and I’ll never get out on the water. I have to make this FUN so they want to do it all the time!!! Truly a selfish motive. haha!

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