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Top tips

Sailing with kids

William Thomson

Imray’s Commissioning Editor William Thomson shares his top tips for sailing with kids.

It was one of those glorious June mornings with clear blue skies and a gentle 9-knot breeze from the north-west. The waters off Dodman Point were mirror smooth as we made our way from Fowey to Falmouth under the brightly coloured cruising chute. Just when I was thinking things couldn’t get any more sublime, a pod of dolphins appeared off the starboard bow. 

I rushed into the saloon to alert the kids, but the scene inside quickly put an end to any joy the cetaceans had instilled. When I last checked they had been playing quietly in the saloon, making a den from cushions and sleeping bags. That was all good. But since the last check-in, the game between 4-year-old Arva and 6-year-old Ottilie had stepped up a notch and at some point Ottilie convinced Arva to unload an entire tub of PVA glue into his sleeping bag, making it a huge sticky ball. On seeing the devastation, I must have let out an exasperated gasp that alerted their mother, who gave them a telling off so severe that it echoed back to us from off the Dodman. 

Oh yes, sailing with kids is just wonderful.

In all seriousness, putting aside the occasional drama– and low points there will be – the rewards of taking children sailing definitely outweighs those glued sleeping bag moments. I have learnt the hard way that the secret lies in preparation and taking care with your approach, setting everything up to maximise your chances of success. I would be lying to say we have the formula nailed, but here are ten tips I have found work well. 

#1. Turn off the tech
At Easter, I announced in advance that there would be no screens aboard Luna except for navigation. After an impassioned resistance, they soon relented and got on with life sans YouTube or Netflix. The results were astounding. Without the negative effects of screen transfixion, their imaginative play flourished and the boat became a zoo, a classroom, a treehouse – the stage for whatever game they were playing. 

Out in the cockpit, we tied a climbing harness to the main halyard and they spent hours running out from the saloon roof and propelling themselves out over the cockpit before crashing back into the mast and repeating the process over and over again. It was a joy to behold how quickly they adapted to play without tech, a hopeful reminder that there can be happiness afloat without iPhones.

#2. Stock up on arts & crafts
If you’re going cold turkey with the tech it will make your life considerably easier to have a range of indoor activities the kids can play with. Books and games are perfect, as is a box of paper with pens and colouring-in paraphernalia. Taking creativity to the next level, we have designated areas on Luna that the kids can ‘decorate’, which gives them a feeling of attachment to the boat and keeps them entertained for hours. 

The underside of the saloon table is one these places; I dread to think what’s drawn under there, but if it’s out of sight it’s out of mind. The one thing you have to accept when sailing with young children is that you can’t be too precious with your yacht, especially if you want them to think of it as a home away from home. 

#3. Don’t be a dictator
Many kids are put off sailing because of bossy captains (dads who shout orders). Unless it’s tidying up their mess and simple daily routines, I find the best approach to getting them sailing is waiting for them to volunteer. Popular tasks my two always enjoy include turning on the engine, raising the mainsail, laying out the anchor warp on the foredeck, steering and tying the mooring lines. Before I do any of these, I say out loud “Who wants to…turn on the engine/steer us out the harbour/pull up the anchor?” and wait for a reply. If nobody answers then I’ll do it myself, but more often than not one of them will shout “Me!”. 

With jobs that take more time, chances are they will get distracted before it’s complete and you will have two options; encourage them to concentrate on the task in hand or let them go. Making them stay will often result in grumpy crew but by letting them leave on their own volition while they’re still happy they’ll remember the task with fondness and will want to help again next time. As they get older and their concentration span increases, they’ll get involved more and more until they’re doing all the tasks themselves, from start to finish. Moral of the story? Play the long game.

#4. Let the little ones make decisions
This follows on from the last point but is focused on passage planning and choosing where to stop. Quite often, the kids see somewhere we’re sailing past that takes their fancy, be it a little beach or cove. “Can we go there? Please!” My initial response is usually ‘No, that’s going to deviate from the passage plan’, but on second thoughts, does it really matter? If the place is not tidally sensitive and you’ve got settled weather forecasted, just because you decided to go somewhere else doesn’t means you’re committed to that course. 

The major advantage of letting them make decisions is that they’ll be much happier once you’re there because instead of having been ‘dragged’ somewhere boring, they made the ‘discovery’ of that new place themselves and feel more connected to it. And quite often, you might find that their choice actually turns out to be better than the place you were heading towards.

#5. Give the adults some time
There is no denying that sailing with children is hard work. While you want to concentrate on them and make sure they’re having a good time, don’t disregard your fellow adult crew. Allocating time in the day for you each to have a breather away from the kids can considerably boost morale and keep the adults energised too. 

This might involve one of you taking the kids out for a swim or walk so the other can enjoy the boat in peace and quiet, or the other may stay aboard with the children while you pop out for stores (via a quiet beer in the beachfront bar). Either way, just a few minutes to restore tranquillity goes a long way. 

#6. Establish clear safety rules
There is no denying that taking kids sailing is riskier than a package holiday to somewhere like Center Parcs. But the rewards are exponentially higher and the risks can be minimised through a simple safety policy. Every boat is different (see tip #6), so the most effective rules are tailored to the vessel and the ages of the kids. 

On Luna, the children don’t need to wear lifejackets when they’re inside - but when they come out into the cockpit they must put their lifejacket on. The most important rule is that they are not allowed outside the cockpit unless with specific permission; this might be to help prepare the anchor or if there’s a dolphin on the bow wave, but for 99% of the time they can enjoy the outdoor sailing experience from the cockpit where it is totally safe. 

#7. Choose your boat carefully
Some boats are more child friendly than others and you can’t deny that multihulls make fantastic family boats. When we decided upon our Prout catamaran, a major appeal of that specific design was the safe and secure cockpit that makes it almost impossible for a clumsy 4-year-old to fall overboard from, especially as we sail ‘flat’ and are never heeled right over. 

In addition to the child-friendly cockpit, the vast foredeck is ideal for water balloon fights (Ottilie bought a bag of 500 for €4), lounging about and sleeping under the stars. Being a multihull, it doesn’t roll uncomfortably at anchor which is another bonus for everyone on board. Finally, there’s masses of storage space aboard for games and toys (paddleboards, snorkelling gear, paddling pool), which as we learnt in tip #2 is essential for keeping the little ones entertained.  

#8. Select sheltered waters
Equally important as boat choice, choosing your cruising ground carefully is crucial. Ideally you want to go somewhere sheltered like the creeks around Falmouth and the Helford, but the mizzle can dampen spirits and keep everyone stuck down below for days on end – perhaps cosy for a couple of adults, but a recipe for disaster with kids. 

Dry weather makes family life infinitely easier, which is why archipelagos like Greece are perfect because they combine sun and shelter. A further advantage of the Mediterranean is the lack of tides, reducing the time you need to spend on passage planning and taking away the pressure of needing to pass headlands at the critical periods of Slack Water to avoid overfalls.

Ideally, when sailing with kids you just want to potter with the flexibility to stop as much as possible.  This makes inland waterways a good option because you simply wake up and go, stopping wherever takes your fancy. If you carry bikes onboard, the kids can also let off some steam cycling along the canal while you motor alongside. 

#9. Don’t be shy with other families
By their nature, boating holidays are ephemeral and your movements are guided by factors out of your control (wind and tide). Because of this, the motto ‘Carpe Diem’ has never had more significance and this is especially poignant when it comes to finding playmates for the kids.

If you see another boat in the anchorage, they may be gone the next morning so don’t be too shy to row over and say hello. From experience, you’ll soon you’ll be alternating dinner parties while the kids explore each other’s collection of toys. With them happily distracted, you can unwind and enjoy adult time.

#10. Savour the small moments
If you ask anyone who grew up sailing about their childhood experiences afloat, they will recount the small moments as the most memorable - the smell of varnish in the saloon, the sound of wind in the rigging or the way light refracted through the portholes to create a shimmering effect on the cabin wall. By simply getting your kids out in a boat you have done something special, creating powerful memories that will stay with them for a lifetime and perhaps shape the course of their adult life. Good work. 

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