Sailing with Children for the First Time
Sailing with Children
Prior to having children, we sailed our little dinghy and experienced the love of sun, wind, and water. When our little ones came along, we wanted to share the exhilaration of racing across the water with sails full of air.
Some families have a sailboat with a berth, and are able to take very young children sailing (keeping the little ones below in a well padded, gated playroom). We have a sixteen foot sailboat, which has no berth or other safe holding area for babies or toddlers. For this reason, we waited until our boys were four and five years old for the first sail. The thrill of boats and water is fun enough, but there are several other factors to keep in mind for a successful sailing trip with children.
Life jackets are a must (and are generally legally required). Young children should wear a type I or type II life jacket that will keep them face-up in the water. Older children may wear a vest-style life jacket (type III), as their age and abilities (and local boating laws) allow. The Mustang Survival Little Legends life jacket (type II) is the best life jacket for boating toddlers and preschoolers, as it has a grab strap in case a child falls overboard. This life jacket is also very comfortable and has a secure fit. Always test a child’s life jacket in a pool prior to heading out to the open water.
Lifelines are generally installed on larger sailing vessels. Sailors who plan to take children out might consider installing lifelines if they are not already installed on the boat.
Nylon safety netting can also be rigged (be sure to rig it tightly, so that the child bounces off of the netting, rather than becomes entangled in the netting).
Boats containing a berth have the great advantage of creating a mobile playroom: the berth can be softened with several pillows and a bag of soft toys, and gated off to keep little ones below.
How to Prepare Kids for Sailing
There are several books to help children understand and become more excited about sailing. Our four year old son is very hard of hearing, and cannot wear his hearing aids on our boat (the water would fry the electronic circuits). For this reason, we read several books and discussed several rules before we set out on our first sail. Although he is extremely verbal (he listens and speaks quite well), we did use some sign language to maintain communication while on board. Our older son has no issues hearing, but the extra preparation helped him understand what to expect.
Prior to heading out to the lake, the boys helped to clean and rig the boat. Since they are rather young, their “help” was quite limited. Still, it helped them to learn the names of various sailboat parts and let them feel like a part of the crew.
We rigged the boat in our front yard, and had our five year old put the battens in the sail. Our four year old helped to wash the boat. It is highly important that children be involved in sailing – from selecting which snacks go into the cooler to helping with the easier parts of rigging the boat.
There are several books that are extremely helpful to parents of first-time sailors. Sailing for Kids (by Gary Kibble) is great for older children who want to learn the correct terminology and techniques behind sailing. Kids in the Cockpit (by Jill Schinas) is a wonderful resource. The book is written by a British author, so the sailing locations will be unfamiliar to Americas - despite the different locations, the tips for getting kids involved and keeping them entertained on board the sailing vessel are invaluable.
For very young children, picture books such as Click and the Kids go Sailing (by Charnon Simon) are wonderful. First Sail (Richard Henderson) is another wonderful resource for young kids: in addition to providing beautiful artwork, the book teaches children basic sailing terminology in the context of an adventurous story.
Launching a Sailboat
We found the boat launch to be the most challenging aspect of sailing with our young boys. The parking lot was extremely busy, and the boys were apt to run around the boat in an excited frenzy. Since our younger son does not hear very well, this caused some panicked moments as we were trying to put up the mast and attach the forestay and shrouds. Our final solution was to put the boys in the back of the truck while the more difficult portions of rigging the boat were completed: they watched a DVD while we finished securing the mast.
Once the boat is launched into the water, children can help by holding the dock lines to keep the boat near the dock. We always had an adult act as “backup” by holding at least one of the lines: the kids felt they were doing an important job, and the adult behind them provided an extra measure of safety.
On our first sail trip, we did not hoist the jib and sailed with only the mainsail: we wanted a smooth, calm ride for the first time out. Unfortunately, it proved a little too calm when the wind died down, and the kids started to get bored!
Sailing with Kids is Pure and Simple Fun
Entertaining Kids on a Boat Ride
Large sailboats with berths offer several options for entertaining young children. Most young toddlers will simply fall asleep once the boat is underway, and a berth is the perfect place for them to sleep. In our case, of course, there is no berth – so sleeping and watching DVD’s are not really an option.
Having a play “fishing rod” is a wonderful way to keep kids entertained. Simply tie some twine to a stick – the child can drag the rope through the water and pretend to catch fish. Another option (in calmer weather, of course) is to attach a little plastic play boat (or rubber ducky) to some twine and let the child drag it through the water when the boat is underway. This only works for small boats, which are closer to the water.
Fill a small bucket with some water and let the little ones play in the bucket with some toys – this works on any size boat and will keep younger kids entertained for quite some time. Our boys enjoyed examining different types of seaweed in the bucket.
Giving the child a job as part of the crew on the boat is also a good idea. An older child may be able to handle the jib, for example. Our boys are too young to handle the sails, but we let them pretend they were helping us sail by letting them play with the dock lines (our four year old believed he was moving the sail, though the line was only attached to a cleat)!
Don’t forget the drinks and snacks: a hungry or thirsty child is not a happy child. We stashed several spill-proof cups (even though both of our boys no longer use “sippy cups”) and cans of Pringles in a bag. We also carried a cooler filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, drinks, and string cheese. The snacks were the saving grace when we lost some wind and were sitting idle for a while.
Anxiety on the Water: When Kids are Afraid of Sailing
While many children thrill at the thought of speeding over the water, some children may be fearful of the rocking boat, water spray, and the other unpredictable events that occur while sailing. We encountered this with our older son, who was uneasy as the dock disappeared behind us and we hit some choppy water. He constantly inquired as to when we would turn around and go home – for a child who loves adventure, this surprised us! We discovered that he needed the comfort of knowing how long we would be out on the open water. He also needed to get used to the new sensation of a rocking boat: it took a lot of reassurance that the movement was normal (he was afraid the boat would tip over).
Preparation and getting him involved did help with this fear, though we still see some of his uneasiness return when we encounter any sudden wind gusts or water sprays. Keep sailing fun, and if your child is upset by the experience, wait a year or two until he is truly ready. Our son has learned to enjoy sailing, but our willingness to return to shore when he had had enough was paramount to his enjoyment. As he gets more comfortable with the boat, we are able to go for longer and longer periods of time.