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Make the boat a fun place for kids

Get the youngsters involved, and they might actually look forward to family cruising

Sea Savvy

Get the youngsters involved, and they might actually look forward to family cruising

That boat cost you a big chunk of money. You had some pretty good ideas when you bought it, even dreams: getting away from the rat race and out into nature, something great for the whole family. Ah, there’s the rub.

“Mom, Dad, do I hafta go? Can’t I stay home? Me and some friends had planned to go to the mall. And there’s a party. And I don’t want to be trapped in that boat all weekend.”

Sometimes the dream is even larger, the complaints more heartfelt. “What? You’re going to take me out of school! I’ve got to ride with you on that boat for a whole year? What about my friends? What’ll I do? I won’t have a life anymore.”

Buying a boat can be one of the best things we can do for our families, especially the kids. But so often there’s a disconnect between concept and reality, and it’s never repaired. There are specific things you can do to make cruising enjoyable for kids, too.

We brought our babies home from the hospital to a boat. We lived aboard and cruised with them until they went off to college. All of their formal education from preschool through high school occurred on board. Both now work in jobs related to boating; one lives on a boat of her own. Not every moment has been idyllic. We made mistakes like all parents, and we learned a few things, often from our kids. Like the fact that kids can contribute much more than we adults sometimes realize. We’d do this again without the slightest hesitation. While few families cruise and live aboard full time, the lessons we’ve learned can help even a weekend cruise.

As you’ll see, I’m not primarily emphasizing children who are still at that very young age where they’re happy to be with Mom and Dad (or grandparents) no matter what. It’s usually much easier then, and those times are very important in building lasting foundations for fun days afloat.

And before I go any further, I’ve got to say this: Some people don’t like to be called “kids.” Many don’t care. I’m going to use that word a lot because I’m talking about a wide spectrum of ages, and I think it would get confusing if I tried to be more creative. And besides, I don’t know if I could come up with the right words to make everybody happy. So if you’re a “kid,” don’t let this turn you off. Read on; I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I’m going to begin with a major boating problem for us adults.

Don’t be stupid

Yes you. And me. We adults can do some of the most ridiculous things, especially when we get around boats. This often means we get a little huffy. After all, we’re the ones who bought the boat. We’re the ones wearing that new captain’s cap with the fake gold braid. We’re the ones who are supposed to be knowledgeable seamen (not to mention parents). We’re the ones who are supposed to know what we’re doing.

So when we do something really stupid we seem to think that we’ve got the right to redeem ourselves and do something even more stupid. None of this is missed by the kids, who at least want to have a good time, which gets to my next point.

Don’t do scary things

If you’re scared or stressed out, kids will pick up on it in a heartbeat. They are tuned in more than you may realize. If you leave when the weather’s bad in order to reach a preplanned destination, if you dock in high winds when you shouldn’t, if you’re freaking out deep down inside because you know you should have fixed that engine long ago, the vibes are going to be radiating whether you know it or not. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure what the kids are thinking: OK, so Mom and Dad are freaking. They’re scared. Does this mean I’m supposed to be having fun or something?

Be nice

We’ve all seen the “War of the Words” between those on the bow and those at the wheel. We’ve all seen spouses take it out on spouses rather than admit, “Honey, I really screwed up.” We’ve all seen spouses yell at spouses that they’ve really screwed up, even when everyone around already knows it. What we don’t see is the kids huddling down in the V-berth wondering, And this is supposed to be a fun family thing?

It’s easy to be an even-handed, cool-headed, knowing, loving adult when things are going well, like when you’re sitting on the couch at home watching television with the remote control in your hand. But many times things don’t go well on boats because they’re boats, and because we’re out of our natural element not only by being on the water, but by just being on a boat in the first place. Remote controls don’t make it here. No matter how hard we try to be nice, how many times we’ve read somebody’s book about self-analytic psychology for personal niceness, we slip. Perhaps instead, we ought to read Chapman’s, which gets us back to the part about not being stupid. We adults need to know what we’re doing.

No one aboard is going to even be safe, let alone have fun, if you haven’t taken care of your training in seamanship and hands-on skills. This includes book learning, boat handling, maintenance and practice. When we don’t know what we’re doing, we not only jeopardize our families, we establish an aura of uneasiness around the venture, which usually degenerates into unpleasantness. It isn’t the stuff fun is made of.

Involve your kids

There’s a world of difference between doing something constructive and feeling like you’re contributing as compared to just sitting around wondering when you’re going to throw up. And besides, don’t you have fun running the boat and messing about with it? Maybe the kids will too. The training and acquisition of skills should include them to the fullest extent possible.

When you teach kids seamanship and other boating skills, not only are they more likely to have fun, it’ll contribute significantly to safety on board and a better time for you. Young crewmembers can do just as well or much better than older crewmembers in many areas. For example, we found quite early that our daughters could both see and hear better than we could (go figure). This was immeasurable help in fog or at other times of restricted visibility. And they were sharp on night watches. You know how kids like to stay up at night? Take advantage of it to a reasonable extent. We wouldn’t have them on watch without one of us, but they sure made good company and great help.

Youngsters are fascinated by things like weather, marine life and just about anything else that’s exciting. Our daughters were very helpful in watching cloud lines for telltale wisps that might indicate waterspout formation, for birds that might indicate land, for water colors that might indicate reefs, for seaweed that might indicate fish or tidal changes, and many other things. And if your kids are computer savvy (most of them are) let them get involved with the electronic navigation equipment that you barely know how to turn on, much less use. You’ll probably find they’re teaching you soon.

Young family members also can be quick to pick up on things mechanical. They may like to see what makes something work, and want to help make it work when it breaks. This applies to girls as well as boys. If you’re doing a mechanical job, ask them to help, explain what you’re doing and why, and what the tools can do. At first this may take a bit more of your time. However, as they pick up on the concepts, it’ll take less time until at some point they may be able to do some of these things themselves, if it’s appropriate and safe.

Learning this aspect of boating not only serves them well later, it makes life more interesting on the boat. Having said this, it’s important to recognize that some of us are more mechanically inclined than others, but there are plenty of additional areas for contribution.

It helps to relate the practical aspects of boating with things that are more fun. Our daughters, when the time was right, got their own “car:” an inflatable with an outboard. Before they could take it out, they learned how to row and sail. Then they learned how to disassemble a carburetor, check for spark, check for fuel flow, and many other things. They each disassembled and reassembled an internal combustion engine as part of their schooling. This meant that they were safer in the dinghy, could show up the little boys on the beach who didn’t know the difference between a throttle and a choke (although they thought they did), and aren’t totally helpless now when they need the services of a mechanic.

When your kids understand what’s going on with mechanical and other practical aspects on board, it can result in some invaluable help for you, contribute to overall safety, make boating more fun because they appreciate doing meaningful things, and help to remove some of the fear factor associated with not understanding what’s going on and why things are happening.

Teach them to drive

It’s an almost universal truth that younger people love to drive. Sure, this must be done consistently and with safety, for your boat and for others. It must be done at the right times, in the right places, at the right speeds, and with appropriate supervision. It also must be done in compliance with the law. But if it captures their interest, it can eventually result in giving you a break (after appropriate maturation and training), and you’ll probably find that soon they’ll do at least as well if not better than you. Besides, we can’t expect anyone to stay in boating if they can’t do it themselves.

Instruction is very important. Opportunities range from formal training by such organizations as the U.S. Power Squadrons, Coast Guard Auxiliary and local clubs to what you can do yourself. “Driving” a boat, contrary to what some think, doesn’t mean simply getting behind the wheel and turning the key. It includes navigation and seamanship skills. Again, this means less unreasonable fear, more safety, more fun.

What about grandchildren?

Some of the above may be more difficult to do if we’re talking about grandchildren who only get on the boat occasionally. This is because you may not have as much time with them as you need (and would like). But do these things to the extent you can. And there are short-term things to do that are appropriate both for a parent-child situation and the briefer visits with grandchildren.

Keep young folks in mind

Too often adults have the idea that kids are just along for the ride, and selfishly plan the trip around what the adults want to do. Kids need and want to do things, too. Just sitting around reading and watching the sunset may turn you on, but it would be boring if you were a few years younger (OK, 40 years younger).

Maybe you’re into fishing. If the young person also likes fishing, that’s perfect. But it simply isn’t true that everyone in our species likes to fish. For a non-angler, being trapped on a boat heaving around while everyone else is fishing is about as exciting as riding down a bumpy road on a hot day in the back of an empty garbage truck. Unless, of course, you can actually catch some fish, a solution I’ve found to be far beyond the limited parameters of my ability.

“Doing something” can start with helping to prepare for and execute the trip. Looking at a chart and pointing out the destination and interesting features of the trip, such as reefs or wrecks or narrow channels, adds anticipation, excitement and understanding. Computers can be used with navigation programs to plan trips, show where you’re going, illustrate interesting topographical features, and watch developing weather systems.

C-MAP’s PC Planner ( ) is great for planning purposes, and Maptech includes with its paper chart books a CD containing the charts ( ). These aren’t just fun for planning; they also help introduce your kids (and you) to navigation programs on the computer and chart plotters. All of this can be fun and add to interest in the trip, especially for those of the computer generation. You’ll probably find they pick up on the technology quicker than you do.

While under way, even a very young person can help by looking for buoys or watching for lobster pots. Here’s an important hint: There are few things more interesting for most young people than being trusted with a decent set of binoculars (with a floating strap) to keep a lookout for items of concern.

If you’re going to have a potentially scary or uncomfortable instance, talk about it in advance. For example, shooting out a rough inlet with green water rushing down the deck while the interior of the boat feels like the interior of a washing machine isn’t going to inspire a lot of confidence in the days to come. But if you explain first about things like outgoing tides and incoming winds, and that this will only be for a short while, your younger crewmembers may enjoy it — at least they won’t be thinking they’re going to die before the trip hardly begins.

No geriatric equipment

You’ve got your sunscreen, wraparound sunglasses, stainless steel martini mixer, AARP magazine, Frank Sinatra CDs and History Channel DVDs. Sounds like a great weekend. NOT. That is, not if you’re the kids on board.

Whether it’s a day trip or a yearlong cruise, it’s important to bring things to entertain everyone. What you have aboard will depend upon the type and size of your boat, the age and interests of the kids, and the duration and location of the cruise. And you may need to invest in some coaxing and/or training, such as formal or informal lessons in surfing, body surfing, water skiing, boardsailing, snorkeling or scuba diving.

Some equipment can be good for everyone aboard — for example, a Nettle Net boat pool ( In many areas along the East Coast, notably Chesapeake Bay, stinging nettles can prevent you from jumping off the boat for a swim on a hot, lazy afternoon. A Nettle Net basically creates a little pool in the water enclosed by netting that usually keeps nettles out.

When we started cruising, we didn’t even have VHF radios. I would have been amazed at the thought of watching movies aboard. Now I think it’s great. The necessary equipment fits in smaller spaces, it provides good entertainment at anchor (with an inverter you can use AC equipment without running the generator), and on a boat there’s a good opportunity for healthy program selections. Satellite television, even at anchor, is easier now with such equipment as the Follow Me TV tracker ( ). Sure, we may be trying to get the kids away from that stuff when we hit the high seas, but cold turkeydoesn’t always get the best results.

Remember kites? Think they’re corny? Think again, especially if you’re flying one from your stern on a really windy day or from a beautiful beach. Kite-flying can be even more fun if you’re flying one from a small dinghy and using it as a sail to pull you along. (Plan ahead for how you will get back since you won’t be able to tack.) To go a step further, check out the various light, small and easily rigged sailing dinghies on the market today. They are fun and usually easy to sail. Or consider kayaks, some of which have see-through bottoms.

Plan interesting things

Cruising presents many opportunities for fun and adventure. Exploration hikes along beaches, in shoreside parks, and on uninhabited islands can consume energy and be exciting. Cumberland Island, Ga., for example, is one of our favorite stops along the East Coast. You can anchor off, dinghy in and walk trails in a protected wildlife preserve. It’s almost like being in a tropical jungle. There are also miles of open beach on the Atlantic side.

There are probably places like this where you cruise. Always familiarize your family with possible perils (snakes, insects, plants, etc.), wear suitable clothing, and keep reference books and appropriate medical supplies on hand.

You don’t have to go into the wilderness for a neat stop. There are museums, science centers, theme parks and interesting historical sites to visit: Mystic (Conn.) Seaport, New York City, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Jamestown and Williamsburg, Va., Nauticus in Norfolk, Va. (where you can walk the decks of the USS Wisconsin, the largest battleship built by the U.S. Navy), Wilmington, N.C. (and the battleship North Carolina), Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. (where began that unpleasantness between the North and the South), and St. Augustine, Fla. Most of these stops not only are fun but give a young person a living perspective of the history that was previously only boring stuff in school textbooks.

It’s one thing to read about Capt. John Smith and the settlers coming over in the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery. It’s another to board the working replicas of those ships at Jamestown, and actually see how the settlers lived ( ). It’s one thing to read about the conflicts between the fledgling United States and the Native Americans, but it’s quite another to visit Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, where the great chiefs Osceola and Coacoochee were imprisoned ( ). It’s one thing to read about pirates and treasure; it’s another to visit Mel Fisher’s MaritimeMuseum in Key West and see some of the booty ( ).

Visit kid harbors

Even weekend trips can involve the traumatic withdrawal from social life felt so strongly by kids, particularly as they reach their teens. This is an important and valid issue that needs to be recognized. Consider letting them take friends along as guests. This can solve many anxieties and issues. Talk to their parents first to be sure everyone understands what’s involved, and to get an idea of how well they’d do on a boat.

The social problem can become much more acute on longer cruises. But there are other families out here doing the same thing, usually with the same problem. “Mom, Dad, you’re stunting my social and emotional development. I don’t want to be a hermit.” Consider it a must that you connect with other boats cruising with kids. It might be difficult because there might not be many around, but there are ways to make it easier:

• Listen to the VHF. You should be standing by on channels 16 and 9 anyway. You’ll hear kids calling other boats or calling other kids on boats. They may be looking for boats with kids, too.

• Try to travel with the cruising crowds. You’re more likely to run into kid boats or those who know that there’s one a day or so ahead or behind. Southbound crowds usually leave the Chesapeake area in late October and early November. They usually leave the South Florida area in late April or early May.

• Hang out where other kid boats hang out. These may or may not be your choice spots, but it’s important for kids to have that social contact. Two notable areas are Annapolis, Md., around the time of the boat shows in October, and George Town on Great Exuma in the Bahamas. The latter has developed into a relatively crowded cruising harbor where many boats remain for much of the winter. It’s also a favorite spot for boats with kids because of the beaches, events (such as the George Town Cruising Regatta in March), and other interests.

Rethink safety

We all recognize the importance of safety equipment: life jackets, safety netting, personal locator beacons. But safety begins with your very state of mind. Habits, rules and expectations concerning safety are very different when you leave shore, whether you’re out for a day or for years. It becomes more critical as you venture farther away from our brand of civilization. We as adults must realize this and instill the differences in our children.

It’s hard enough for some kids to accept danger anywhere. They are imbued with an unrealistic sense of their own immortality. It can be even more difficult to get them to accept dangers that are totally out of the ordinary in the world with which they’re familiar. This is especially true when the adults aboard also fail to get it. A stunning example stands out in my mind.

Around the harbor of George Town are beautiful beaches. Some of these are on StockingIsland on the ocean side. There are rocks and ledges around these beaches and often big waves and a strong undertow. There are no lifeguards, no police stations on the island, no infrastructure as we know it, with the exception of a few private homes. Often the ocean beaches are almost deserted. It isn’t unusual to find teenagers having a great time surfing and swimming here. This is what you brought them here for, and it’s gratifying to see it.

However, if someone were to get into trouble in the water, getting help would mean running a good distance down the beach, running up a high hill and across the island, hailing a boat anchored offshore in the harbor (or getting into a dinghy to go out to a boat), finding a VHF, and calling for assistance. Even then, there would be no beach patrol or U.S. Coast Guard or similar organization to respond. Locals would muster planes and, along with cruisers, take their boats out around the long island and through the cut, but this would take a lot of time. There are no planes or boats standing by dedicated to this purpose.

One person standing watch on the beach with a hand-held VHF would make a huge difference in response time, or in whether there could even be a meaningful response. But we’ve seldom seen this precaution taken. I think the reason is that adults, like kids, are overjoyed to reach paradise. We have a hard time imagining anything can go wrong in such a beautiful place. But it can. And if it does, the safety net to which we’ve grown accustomed back home isn’t going to be there.

But even near home, unexpected dangers lurk. There have been terrible incidents in recent years involving kids innocently hanging out on floats behind anchored boats on pretty weekend afternoons. Eventually parents realize something is wrong — very wrong. Someone has died or is in danger of dying from the exhaust of the boat’s generator purring away to keep the air conditioning going. Remember, it takes much longer to get help when you’re on the water, even for things as common as oxygen or a defibrillator.

I’ve given these two very dire examples not only to make the point about safety, but also to illustrate how very easy it can be to create a safe environment for your kids while boating, one in which fun is the theme of the day.

Having kids aboard is one of the nicest things you can do for them and for yourself. It may take some effort, but all good things do.

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 .