Skip to main content

Nurturing the next generation

Passing along your passion for the water can be a fun learning experience for both parents and children

I recently gave a talk at a prestigious yacht club on the East Coast. Before my talk, the commodore spoke to the members about a major issue facing the club. He said the average age of the membership was 60. He warned that unless something was done to attract and hold young members, the club couldn't survive, even though it was a very healthy club at the time.

A passion for boating runs deep in the Allard family of New York. Chris Allard's grandmother christens the new family cruiser, circa 1935.

I love to walk around marinas and look at the boats. More and more I notice boats just sitting unused. And then, the next year, the unused boats aren't even there. And I notice something else. I seldom see young people on the boats at the marinas or on the water. There are notable exceptions, such as organized boating groups and an occasional family with happy kids in a boat, but these are exceptions.

When I got my first boat, at age 9, it seemed a natural thing to do. Several of my friends also had boats - built of wood and around 12 feet. We cared for them and repaired them ourselves. Git-Rot was my first introduction to the miraculous marvels of chemicals. We kept the boats anchored off or pulled up onto a beach, and when we had to "haul" them for work or storage, we rolled them up from the water on logs.

It was a sleepy little town. Only one of my friends had a television in his house, and the one movie theater was only open on the weekends - sometimes. By today's standards, there wasn't much to do, but the rivers always beckoned. Some of the families had fast powerboats, but I was the only one in my family interested.

I didn't know it then, but far down the river and Chesapeake Bay, my future wife, Mel, was going out on long and short cruises with her parents and four sisters. She and I both kept our love of being on the water, and when we married and got out of school, we bought a 27-foot sailboat instead of a new car or a country club membership. Now, 43 years later, we're on a 53-foot motorsailer.

When our two daughters were born we brought them straight from the hospital to our home - on a boat. There we all lived, traveling thousands of miles a year, until they went ashore to college. They learned to run and repair boats, to decipher clouds, to name whales and fish, to read the waters and find and spear a grouper free-diving in 30 feet. Carolyn actually had a pet cocoa damselfish that she fed tiny shrimp she netted from floating sargasso weed. Melanie attained her 50-ton captain's license.

Both of our daughters still love boating and being on the water. They both live near the water. Melanie lived on her own sailboat during graduate school but had to give it up because she couldn't afford the cost of the marinas and insurance. She and her husband now have a trailerable sailboat with a cabin and go out whenever they can. She's written regularly for various boating publications.

Carolyn is office manager at a fine marina and not only loves boating, but also surfing. Our daughters are third-generation boaters. We've known many other people who were intimately involved with boating as kids and still enjoy it.

Back in the late 1990s we got to know a family who cruised in their trawler during summers. The parents were Greg and Barbara Allard from Long Island; the kids were Chris and Liz. Like us, they had a family history of boating. The boy seemed particularly in love with it.

Allard at age 16 aboard a Boston Whaler.

His paternal great-grandparents had been lifelong boaters who enjoyed cruising to Fire Island and along the south shore of Long Island. His paternal grandmother, Beverly, knew how to filet fish and skin eels. She loved crabbing, treading for clams with bare feet and fishing.

His grandparents often cruised with their sons in a 17-foot lapstrake Thompson runabout with a 40-hp outboard. The family took weeklong trips along the south shore of Long Island in the open boat, with only canvas covers and no berths. The two brothers, one of whom was Greg, slept on the front bench seat and under the front deck while their parents slept on the aft deck. Greg and Barbara have owned many boats through the years, including a 27 Albin Aft Cabin, a 36 Albin trawler and a 48 DeFever trawler.

Chris graduated from the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture in 2004 and went on to become director of engineering for a commercial division of Donzi. Later, he and a partner founded Metal Shark Boats (, which specializes in high-tech, high-speed welded aluminum boats for such entities as the Navy, Coast Guard, Army, state and local law enforcement, and foreign allies. Chris is now 27 and, as you might imagine, also has a pleasure boat of his own.

Chris Allard with one of the 27-foot boats his company, Metal Shark Boats, designed and built for the Navy.

Bill Sisson, the editor of this magazine, grew up in coastal Rhode Island, where the sea was his playground. As a boy he roamed local waters in his family's 13-foot Boston Whaler accompanied by friends in their boats. They fished, crabbed, snorkeled and surfed. They learned boating as they played.

Today, after a long day at the office, Bill regularly spends half the night fishing the challenging waters at the eastern end of Long Island Sound. Watch Hill Light, when he can see it, is a beacon, just as it stood watch over his playground as a boy. He says his passionate pursuit of fishing cemented his relationship with the sea.

The story of Bill's seagoing heritage would make a good book. His ancestors include a one-legged commercial fisherman, a sea captain and a surfman in the U.S. Lifesaving Service. Bill wants to pass it on to his children, Michael and Carly. "I don't know how people get the time it takes to really get into it deeply," he says. "Today there don't seem to be the endless summers that we had."

Soundings editor Bill Sisson's maritime roots run deep. A grandfather was captain of this yacht tied up at the Watch Hill, R.I., Yacht Club.

Bill says they go out to have fun, relax and play - and with that comes learning. "Not only about safety, but also about where the crabs live, names of birds, what the eel grass hides," he says. "We always have crab nets, fishing rods, snorkeling gear, and we never mind stopping in a quiet cove to swim."

Bill says he has always felt comfortable on the water, even at times when he perhaps shouldn't. He didn't particularly worry about the boat sinking. He felt he could tread water forever. "I want to instill the same level of comfort in my kids but with what I know now, so that they'll be much safer," he says, "And we don't go out when the weather and the water aren't right. It has to be safe and fun."

Another of Sisson's grandfathers was a surfman in the U.S. Lifesaving Service (back row, middle).

Bill's son wants his own boat, and Dad plans to work with him to "stitch-and-glue a 16- or 17-foot rowing skiff." He says it's important to not miss this window. Kids grow up so fast, and if they've never really learned what they're missing, they may miss it altogether - for the rest of their lives.

All in the family

Bill Sisson is passing his love of boats and the water to his children Carly and Michael.

Family boating is a great way to bring younger people into the lifestyle. We've known many other families who have a long and ongoing involvement in boating. But we've also seen families out on boats with kids anxious to get away from it, and when liberated by adulthood they do get away from it. Through the years we've noticed several factors that come into play.

One of the biggest turnoffs is that kids quickly pick up on the anxieties, fears and stresses of their parents. And if, for example, the dad always has to be a macho man and head out when the weather isn't right or the seas are too high, causing stress to the mom and everybody else aboard with any sense (and kids have a lot of sense), boating is going to become an unhappy experience. It becomes something to dread. It's often associated with either fear or boredom. Family boating should be associated with fun times, camaraderie, relaxation, escape from the hassles of shore, and a pleasant closeness to nature.

Four practices can help make family boating work not only for the family but also for the son or daughter on a lifelong basis. The first is to make the "when and where you go" something that is good for all. Let the kids in on the decision making. Have fun planning the trip as a family. This can add to the excitement and increase involvement. Boating wants and needs of kids include going to places where there may be other boating kids, taking the children's friends along and doing things on the water that are fun for their ages.

The second is to involve the kids on the boat. Let them do things, from the glory stuff like steering (when they're ready) to the not-so-fun stuff like maintenance and repairs. But have them do things they are able to do. Don't cause unfair stress by expecting them to do something that's far beyond their capabilities at the time.

Third, steadily teach them how to do more things. Don't make the learning a painful experience and don't make it an experience that's unduly stressful or to be dreaded. If it's a subject area you're not comfortable with, consider getting another adult or older kid to teach them. Kids on boats, just like kids everywhere else, sometimes have a lot more respect for what's being said if it's coming from outside the family. But teach them well. This makes them involved, important, more assured, less likely to be frightened or bored, and more likely to have fun.

The fourth thing may be the hardest. Many couples fight on the boat. Whether it's a subtle subliminal unhappiness with each other or outright hostility, it's far too common. Usually the unpleasantness is caused by insecurities. Wife must throw a line to someone on the pier. Wife hasn't learned how to do this. Husband, wearing his new captain's hat and seated proudly at the wheel, must maneuver the boat within throwing distance. Husband hasn't learned how to do this. Or maybe they both know, but someone makes a mistake. It happens. The line goes into the water, maybe sucked into the prop. The boat creams the dock. Or there's simply embarrassment as friends and strangers watch the fiasco. Kids pick up on anger and stress between their parents, even if it isn't accompanied by yelling. And they don't like it. And when it's obviously associated with boating, why would they want to go on the boat?

Tom helps his daughter 'Captain Carolyn' Neale (age 6) steer a compass course.

Keep it fun

While many people get into boating because their families introduce them to it, you don't have to be born into it to love being on the water. But it helps to have assistance from people already involved. Many say it's much harder today for younger people whose families aren't already involved to make this part of their lifestyle. It's harder for the average person, regardless of age, to get into boating. It's gotten incredibly expensive, but it doesn't have to be.

I camped out under a tent in my little leaky wooden skiff. We have a 53-foot boat now, but it's home, and we want to sell it in order to downsize. Greg Allard and his parents cruised with a family of four in a 17-foot open boat. Sisson spends most of his time on the water in his 1968 17-foot Boston Whaler Nauset with a mahogany console and pilot seat. You don't see much of that today. Instead, you see many people in very expensive boats built to go much farther than the owner will ever go, much faster than the owner will need to go, and have far more creature comforts and toys than are really needed.

This isn't to say boating should be done cheaply. Safety on the water takes money. There's no way around this. But we can have choices as to whether our bucks are going, for example, into sound hulls or built-in flat-screen televisions.

Too many people get into it for the wrong reason. They do it for social status or to show off. They require the comforts, conveniences and toys of a palatial condo. They pay fortunes for their boats. It seems the price of some boats is driven not so much by the qualities and features of the boat as by the fact that there are enough people out there who are unwise enough to pay that price. Then the boats sour. It becomes hard to keep all the stuff working. The boat payments become impossible in a personal or general economic downturn, and the stylish "yachtsmen" are off to other pursuits. Like maybe having a blast down at bankruptcy court.

In addition to the expense of boating, there are three mindsets in society today that militate against younger people or the average Joe getting into boating. The first is the idea that we're all entitled to be taken care of. The fact that you're on your own can hit you like a 4-by-6 swung by a ticked-off giant when things go wrong far from land.

Carolyn Neale is now office manager of a large Florida marina.

Concurrent with this "entitlement" is the fact that many of us are accustomed to being able to blame somebody or something for just about everything that goes wrong. If you're in charge on your boat far from land and something goes wrong, you're probably not going to see anyone else to point your finger at when you look around. And you're stuck with making it right.

Instant gratification is the third mindset, and it clearly doesn't fit in with most types of boating. You don't just buy a boat and drive off, although more and more people seem to be doing that these days, often with disaster looming on the horizon. You not only need to learn how to "drive" it, you need to learn about an entirely alien and potentially dangerous dimension of our planet. You need to learn about seamanship. As if that isn't bad enough, it takes work to prepare the boat for use and to maintain it. Even if you're rich enough to have someone do most of it for you, there's always going to be work that you'll have to do yourself, because you're not driving down a road with myriad service centers available.

However, instant gratification doesn't have to be completely alien to all boating. There are some boats that can be launched quickly and maintained easily. Obviously there are powerboats like this, but there are also sailboats, such as Hunter Marine's soon-to-be-introduced 15, 18 and its other small sailboats ( And Catalina has the Expo 14.2 with a Hoyt boom and no standing rigging, or the 16.5 and other models in that size range (www.cata Boats such as these are easy to get under way, fun and can help bring people into boating. Kayaks and rowboats also are easy to get under way and require little maintenance. These are all relatively inexpensive smaller boats, but there's a caveat.

Carolyn Schmalenberger is co-owner and president of Norton's Yacht Sales ( in Deltaville, Va., which is listed as one of the top Hunter dealers worldwide and also sells Jeanneau and brokerage boats. Schmalenberger's grandfather began the business in 1948, and then her father, Billy Norton, began running the marina and business in 1961. She carries on her family's boating traditions.

She says she's found that if people start out with boats that are too small and easy - say, in the 12-foot range - they're less likely to move on to larger boats. She surmises that this may be related to the fact that extra small and inexpensive boats are too tippy, too uncomfortable and not as relaxing as boats that provide a more stable platform. It's supposed to be fun, she says.

Dream and reality

If we want to get more people, particularly younger people, into boating on a long-term basis, we have to tell it like it is. This may discourage some, but we're whistling against a hurricane if we pretend boating is for everybody. We need to cut the hype and kill the turn-the-key-and-drive-away mentality.

Tom and his daughter Melanie return to Chez Nous in their 'tinboat' dinghy.

When someone goes out on the water and has a terrible time or is scared to death or even worse, the word gets around, and it isn't entirely encouraging to others thinking about doing it. You don't get people into boating for long by selling tickets like it's an amusement park. We are land creatures. Doing well on the water and, therefore, having long-term fun comes only from training and experience, predicated on a realistic idea of what it's all about. Getting new people out on the water shouldn't be like leading a bunch of lemmings over a cliff.

Lack of understanding and preparedness is often generated by media coverage that makes being at sea seem like a Hollywood story. Dealing with real storms is very different from standing on a set and having staff throw buckets of water in your face. There are very few people in the world who truly realize what the ocean (or any significant body of water) can do.

We're familiar with the terms. We know storms can be "terrible," that waves can be "monstrous," and that hurricanes have "more power than many nuclear bombs." But we don't really know. We haven't been there. We're mouthing familiar concepts we really don't comprehend or fathom.

Misleading portrayals of boating based on false premises not only lead to disappointment in new boaters but often injury or loss. For example, we're seeing more and more very young people making attempts to cross oceans or sail around the world, sometimes supported by various businesses seeking to capitalize on the media coverage. We hear statements like, "the boat is designed to be hurricane proof," and "equipped with the latest technology." Instead, statements such as, "a total disconnect with reality" may be more appropriate.

I'm not speaking of any particular person or persons, and I realize that some of these more than earn and deserve their landfalls. But it's possible to sail around the world and have a relatively easy trip with good luck. We can't rely on luck in the ocean, and I fear for those who go out with an erroneous impression as to what to prepare for and expect, and what they can accomplish with their individual capabilities.

It's not just young people. Every year as we travel we hear boats heading out an inlet despite the fact that a serious storm is forecast. The skippers are often spouting mythology such as, "Oh, I'll just ride the favorable wind down to warmer waters." And later we hear the Coast Guard heading out, personnel risking their lives to pull those skippers from the sea. And the press, including some of the boating media, has a tendency to overlook the irresponsibility of the decision to choose to be out in a storm, focusing instead on cute interviews of the perpetrators as though they're heroes.

Like Dad, Melanie is an award-winning boating writer and now owns her own sailboat.

But the rescue effort can costs millions of dollars, and, far more importantly, some brave soul will be jumping into the raging waves from a helo to save the adventurer from his fantasy, or some ship or plane full of souls will be trying to survive a storm to do the same thing. And that's if all the technology works and it's even possible for the ship or plane to reach the scene. And it should be no surprise that some of these temporary heroes soon leave boating. And those who follow, based on a false premise of what it's like, seldom follow for long. When you pass the torch of boating you don't want the recipient to get burned.

Those who care

Fortunately, there are organizations and groups of people who are working to involve younger people in a helpful and realistic way. The yacht club with the average age of 60 has begun several programs dedicated to getting kids into boating. Many other yacht clubs and boating groups have similar programs.

The Sea Scouts of the Boy Scouts of America celebrates its 100th birthday in 2012, and it offers a great opportunity. I was a member of a Sea Scout ship - a "ship" is like a Scout "troop" - when I was young, and I still value the experience. The Sea Scouts can offer in-depth, hands-on training in seamanship, safety, navigation, skill development and many other aspects of boating, not to mention the opportunity to be out on the water in different types of boats.

Various well-known and respected organizations, such as BoatU.S. and the U.S. Power Squadrons, have sponsored ships and other Sea Scout activities, and the Sea Scouts invite both guys and girls to join. But despite the obvious benefits, it isn't always easy to get youth interested in this program.

I talked with Craig Smith of Kilmarnock, Va., who has been involved with Sea Scouts for some time. This area in the Northern Neck of Virginia is full of rivers and creeks, not to mention bordering Chesapeake Bay. Smith is skipper of Sea Scout Ship 290, which he is trying to revitalize. This ship has a 24- and a 23-foot boat.

Smith, who was a navigator in the Navy, says getting younger people interested in Sea Scouts is difficult even in his rural area with so much water around. Many of the area's young people can already get out on the water when they wish. But this doesn't necessarily result in training and learning experiences that can foster the growth of a lifetime love of safe boating.

He notes that in any community a ship must compete with other organized activities, such as baseball and basketball and soccer leagues, and the YMCA, all of which are good. So he's trying to reach out to kids who already can boat and camp, as well as to the kids who don't have the access. He says that in one sense it's often easier to build a ship in the cities, where there are more kids without the access and opportunity because they just can't get to the water.

He points out another interesting aspect of joining a ship. A Sea Scout quartermaster ranking is equivalent to that of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts. Achieving the rank of Eagle Scout is one of the few single accomplishments you can achieve as a youth, he says, that has a real impact on your adult life (unless you happen to be a superstar ballplayer). Smith is commissioner of accounts in Lancaster County, Va., and a partner in a prestigious law firm. He says people making hiring decisions are typically very impressed when they see on a résumé that the applicant was an Eagle Scout.

But kids often aren't looking that far ahead. He says if we can get them into a ship and start them off having fun and learning how to safely do things in actual boats on the water, we can interest them in the benefits of working on promotions and a greater level of learning.

There are many people like Smith who are ready to help. As this article is being written, this ship is planning a recruiting weekend sometime in late April or early May. Another local ship in nearby West Point, Va., is also actively seeking members. Persons interested can e-mail Smith at or call him at (804) 435-4000. You can find established ships in your area and information on how to begin a new one on the Sea Scout BSA Web site (

And in the end

But so much for analysis. There's something about getting into boating that totally transcends analysis. There have always been some of us who feel at once excited, at peace and at home when we smell the ocean. There have always been some of us who are thrilled at reading the gusts on the water and moving with them, and who enjoy the success of finding an inlet on a distant shore with traditional navigation, who feel a welling of indescribable emotion when the bow meets the first swell, and who worship the magic when the moon rises out of a still ocean and dolphins swim in a trail of luminescence.

And those "some of us" usually find a way to get to the water. We answer the lure of the sea. The lure of the sea is not Hollywood fiction. It is and always will be overpowering and life giving.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, "All in the Same Boat," at

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.