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Know-How: Boating with kids

Strategies for boating with kids depend a lot on the nature of the children and on you.

Strategies for boating with kids depend a lot on the nature of the children and on you. Do they listen when you tell them to do something? Do they obey immediately? I remember boating on Lake Simcoe in Ontario in a 17-foot bowrider. It was hot, and our daughters behaved like turtles. A motoryacht crossed our bow, and I warned them to move aft before its wake reached us. They responded like turtles … until the wake hit. The bow rose to the first wave, but with their weight forward it couldn’t recover fast enough to meet the second wave. That got their attention.

Recognize that few adults will respond rapidly to orders unless the adrenaline is pumping (often not even then). Why should we expect more from our kids? Often a delay in responding to requests is the result of not knowing what to do. Here are some tips for making time on the water with children more enjoyable.

1. There are federal and state laws regarding boating safety. State regs, published annually, are available free of charge at most yacht clubs, marinas and boating supply stores. Keep a current copy on hand, along with the Rules of the Road.

2. All kids must wear life jackets. This is non-negotiable, and it’s the law. (Check your state’s laws for specific ages.) You can set the example by wearing yours. And let older children see the film “The Guardian,” about Coast Guard rescue swimmers. The heroes all wear PFDs.

3. While PFDs are designed to keep kids afloat, you really want to keep them on board. No one wants to perform an MOB drill with children accidentally in the water. In addition to PFDs, you can secure them to the boat with harnesses and tethers attached to jackstays rigged to strong points on board. Even if someone does go overboard, the harness will keep him or her in contact with the boat and make retrieval easier.

4. If you’ll be cruising with children, consider investing in a man overboard system. Systems like the MOBi-lert 720i ( and Raymarine LifeTag ( sound an alarm if someone unintentionally leaves the boat.

5. Remember, your confidence level in having prepared for the children’s safety will make you less likely to transmit insecurities to them.

6. Familiarize everyone with the boat before getting under way. Be consistent with what you call things on board. Proper nomenclature is less important than everyone knowing what you’re talking about and where things are. But don’t emulate a drill instructor; make it a game with prizes.

7. Have a sense of humor and keep your cool. Help kids buy into boating rather than just tagging along, but don’t force the issue. Catch them while they’re still young, and make a conscious effort to make boating a positive experience.

8. Let kids be active crewmembers, including maintaining the boat. If they want to help you prep the boat for the new season, great; if not, that’s OK, too. We worked hard at not showing our frustration if their (or their friends’) work wasn’t up to par.

9. At first, our time on the boat was short, as were our passages. The kids had games and books on board but no television. In time our daughters learned marlinespike seamanship; how to hand, reef and steer; and how to interpret weather signs. They helped select our cruising destinations and participated in the planning and preparation. When they were older and tall enough, they stood watch and did the steering. They took pride in how our boats looked and performed. Two of the three ended up better than I was at varnishing, and one is a better oarsman. When there were compliments for performance or appearance, they received the credit. It became their boat.

10. Of course, it wasn’t always as idyllic as it might sound — Capt. Bligh did occasionally accompany me on board — nor was our daughters’ enthusiasm constant. When they were in their teens, their personalities seemed to change dramatically. Yet somehow we still communicated when around boats. They’re now in their 40s, and they fondly recall boating. We succeeded. Good luck with your efforts.