When people talk about sailing with children, I hear two refrains - how to keep them safe, and how to keep them from becoming bored. The first requires more attention. However, with a few good rules of thumb, there should be few problems. The following information comes from our experiences, the experiences of fellow Albergers, and a modest amount of research. For the most part these comments are for parents with younger children – eight or under.
Number 1: Lifejackets ALL the time for the smaller children. For adults this may seem like an onerous request. However, kids do not seem to mind. The trick is to find one that is comfortable and fits well. Our rule when they were very young was that the life jacket went on before they hit the dock. Now as they are older (6 and up) they must wear a life jacket whenever on deck while we are under sail. When at anchor, the rules are relaxed if they are in the cockpit. I know of three Albergers whose kids have fallen over the side while at anchor. One of them was my oldest, who was trying to get into the dingy while I was down below. I came up to find her hanging off the edge of the boat, with her legs flapping in the water trying to catch the dingy that had drifted out from under her while she was getting aboard – she had a lifejacket on. (My wife found this out for the first time while proof reading this article!)
There are plenty of stories of kids going over the side. The common theme is that when it happens, it happens quickly, and especially with small kids, it seems to happen as a result of routine activity (like sitting down or walking). Obviously care must be taken when walking from boat-to-boat in a raft-up.
Number 2: There needs to be a Safe Place. The definition of a “safe place” changes based on the age of the children. For people sailing with small babies, this invariably means that folks have made a playpen down below. The Coopers on Cookin had a play pen slung from the handrails over the port main cabin bunk. The Morris’ on Solstice created a hatch for the v birth so the kids could see out, but had to stay there. The literature seems to favor taking a car seat aboard to strap small babies into. I have done this once on a very hot summer day. I found that the kid needed to get out of the seat just to cool off! It was August. Our kids were a little older when we started, the youngest was three. The whole area down below was their play pen. The key here is that when you need the kids out of the way, you need to know they are safe, so you can attend to the task at hand – dousing a spinnaker, docking the boat, or those pesky tasks associated with preparing the bar for an invading hoard of rafted Albergers.
As kids grow older, the Safe Place changes. For us it is on the bridge deck, with their feet up off the cockpit floor, and safe from being entangled. I have seen others put the extra folks on the cabin top while the boat is being docked. Regardless of where it is, children need to be forward of the helmsperson. Having a little kid behind you is asking for it. While underway, a child can go over the side in a heartbeat.
Number 3: Do not go over the side! This may seem an obvious rule. However, I am always struck by how little thought seems to go into the difference between dealing with safety issues prior to someone falling over the side, and that of after it has happened. Once someone is in the water, the game changes considerably. The obvious solution to this is making sure one does not go overboard in the first place. (See rules #1 and #2.) Our solution to this when they were very young was to keep them in the cockpit while underway. As they get older, this is harder to enforce; they are allowed to be on the foredeck if they are straddling (“strangling” as they say) a stanchion. I am considering getting harnesses, and running a jack line forward from the cockpit. This has mostly been on my mind when I am by myself with the three kids. The second obvious solution to this is to be well practiced in the “man overboard drill.”
Number 4: Hydrate and Slather! No one is happy when they are dehydrated or sunburned, or both! And no parent wants the guilt, or the whining, associated with either. Enough said.
The issue of boredom is relatively easy to deal with – kids rarely get as bored as parents think they will. Everyone’s children are different, their attention spans vary, and they each have different things that keep them amused and happy.
A number of new boat owning parents have expressed surprise that their kids have been happy while the boat is underway and generally find ways to amuse themselves. We bring a number of toys (we make sure that there are no small pieces), an assortment of books and writing/drawing supplies, and have also engaged the kids in understanding charts and helping navigate. We got surprising mileage out of some kids’ star charts. Often, if the right distractions are aboard, the kids will play for hours below. During the last day of this Canadian Friendship Regatta, we had two children aboard (ages 6 and 8). They played below the entire time.
In addition to toys, we bring a good supply of food that can be quickly prepared. As the kids grow older they are able to wait for food, but while young – this is virtually an unheard of trait. When they want food – they want it NOW!
Another useful method of ensuring that kids are happy is to give them a task- get them involved. Scrubbing the deck – or better yet the dingy while you are at anchor provides hours of fun. While underway, provide them the opportunity to steer or work a sail. Depending on their age, this may not last too long, but it gives them a change of pace, and perhaps most importantly some attention from one of the parents. Another thing to think about is that with children aboard, you cannot expect to have long 12 hour sailing days. Plan the trip so that you are at anchor after a five or six hour sail versus a 12 hour haul.
With attention paid to these two issues, sailing with children is a great way to spend time with the family. We look forward to many wonderful experiences as they grow. If anyone has any interesting experiences or ideas or recommendations, please drop me a line. Perhaps I can compile a “best of” fpr a future column.