It's not just about making your boat work for children, you need to make your sailing work for them too says Libby Purves

Wisely, a recent issue of Yachting Monthly addressed the practicalities of making your boat child-friendly: indeed many sensible adjustments are good for all, since adult humans too get clumsy and accident-prone when tired or sick. A morbid imagination is an excellent thing when installing any gear or system.

But it is exhilarating to reflect that boats are by nature definitely child-friendly. Not necessarily safe, but appealing: it runs from the first bathtime discovery of buoyancy, on through the fascination of pirates, explorers and victories.

Any toddler drags its parents towards a boating lake. Some, like the late great editor of this magazine, Des Sleightholme, began their career in short trousers trying to navigate an old door across a duckpond.

So once you have done useful things with netting, lifelines and the like, the trick is to perpetuate that instinctive boating urge and not throttle it: make your sailing child-friendly as well as the actual boat. We did not do it as well as we should, and see other families doing it better. The boat itself was fine: on Grace O’Malley for the Round Britain summer the wide quarter berths were their cabins, with curtains and a tolerance of stick-on Disney figures on the bulkhead (years later her new owners had to put up with them. Glue like cement). We also had a decent toy cupboard.

But what counts equally is where you go, for how long, and in what weather. The 99-day voyage round Britain with children aged 5 and 3 was not a mistake: we were very careful to watch our weather, and everyone knew it was a one-off. The roughest bit was the first night out, which taught a valuable lesson: watch the sea-state forecast as well as the wind. There is something about mopping up sick and seawater with your baby daughter’s nightie at 0200 that makes you wonder about your leisure-choices.

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But in Portsmouth, the children brought their teddies out for an airing and boasted to them about the Big Waves. For the rest of the trip we timed things carefully and it worked: because if there’s one thing small children like, it is parents always on hand and willing to be tortured with repetitive games and the Laughing Policeman tape played 42 times a day.

Our failings were in the years after that. They were accustomed to school and home life, and we were back at work and needed to ‘achieve’ cruises within a normal holiday break. No more hanging around for three days waiting for the sea to ease: we had destinations to meet in time.

We hammered a bit too enthusiastically along the wild coasts, and despite artfully making sure we hit places with diversions like pony-trekking in Ireland and ‘Fétes de la Mer’ in Brittany, the youngest soon kept demanding ‘a land holiday’.

We tried flotillas in the sun, which was easier, and once compromised by exploring Brittany on the canal system. This was a family trip from St Malo to Arzal at Easter with the mast out, and us sneaking back later without them to come home by sea. But on balance, there was too much grown-up passagemaking and not enough time spent on the beach.

On passage – and you all know how passages stretch unexpectedly – they read books, played and listened to tapes. But these days, oh horrors, they would be nose-down on phones and tablets. One of the saddest online boasts I read recently was of a satellite subscription so good ‘Dad could be on a Zoom meeting, the kids gaming, and Mum watching Netflix online’. Why go to sea at all?

And though ours were competent at the helm and could row and secure the dinghy, we didn’t do the same as wiser yachting families, and involve them at every level with formal rewards for ropework skills, navigation and the best log.

So neither grew up yacht-minded. Our eldest became a river dinghy sailor then moved on to tall ships, crossing the Atlantic and Pacific before he was 20. The youngest just went on strike: land holidays only.

There will always be some who turn away from it, but I think it happened sooner than it need have. Because while the boat was child-friendly the cruises weren’t. When I see friends now, willing to hang about in harbours with beaches, sail two hours a day, or create exciting mini-naval-colleges of learning and praise, I sometimes want to turn back time. However, sailing can be bad enough if you like it: why impose it, unadjusted, on those who don’t?

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