Theo Stocker speaks to a variety of cruising sailors in order to get their best tips on what to do and what to avoid when going family sailing
As sailors, you’re likely to share your passion with your nearest and dearest. Family sailing offers the promise of quality time with your family, adventures and memories for the children and passing on your love of the sea, whether they are your own children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren or those of friends.
Family sailing isn’t without its challenges, however. How do you keep your crew happy, warm, fed, entertained and occupied within the confines of a small boat? And how does life aboard change as children grow from babies and toddlers to teenagers?
More importantly, how do you ensure that going sailing is a positive experience for everyone involved, and that they are going to want to come back next time?
Unlike navigation or boat handling, there are no courses or text books for family sailing. The particular challenges will be different for everyone, depending on the children’s age, temperament, and how many of them there are, the size of your boat, your level of experience, where you sail and the kind of sailing you’re planning.
We’ve canvassed a diverse group of skippers who sail with an array of family arrangements, including as grandparents, parents and teenagers, from liveaboard cruisers to open-boat adventurers, and those raised with salt in their blood to sailing novices. Their wisdom has been gained through years of family sailing and discovering by experience what works and what doesn’t.
It’s easy to put a child off sailing with an initial negative experience, but a positive one can be the start of a life-long passion for the sea. Clearly, the sailors in this article have found how to make family sailing a success, and hopefully their advice and experiences will help you do the same.
The most formative time for your children will be the first few times you sail with them, says Olly Perkins. ‘Children and teenagers are quick to decide if they like something or not and it would be very easy to put your kids off sailing for life if you are not careful. Most importantly, don’t be too ambitious.
Even one eight-hour passage in a lumpy sea could give children the impression that sailing is always unpleasant.
‘Start off with small trips, building up excitement towards big adventures. It took us years before we first ventured out of the cosy confines of Chichester Harbour, once we did we were so thrilled to be able to leave harbour.’
Abi Kavanagh agrees that, initially at least, plans should be modest. ‘We have found that for any given trip we do less sailing than we did pre-kids and never push as hard, but as they get older this is changing. We’ve done a few very early morning departures with the kids still asleep and late evening sails after they have gone to bed which have worked well.’
You don’t even have to leave harbour if you don’t want to. ‘Sometimes not going anywhere is as much of an adventure with young children,’ says Hamish Southby Tailyour. ‘On a mooring just use the boat as a base for the weekend with a barbecue or pub supper ashore. At anchor stay there an extra day, relax and see who turns up in the evening.’
Having all the mod cons isn’t necessary either. Conrad Humphreys and daughters enjoy river cruises in an open boat. ‘We’ve been mainly cruising around Devon and Cornwall, exploring the rivers closer to home,’ he says. ‘We love the Yealm and the upper reaches of the Tamar and Lynher Rivers are just fantastic for a small, shallow draft boat like Bounty’s End. This year we plan to explore the River Fal and venture down to the Scilly Isles, which should be a reasonable passage in an open boat.
‘Our biggest challenge when away for longer trips is keeping Bounty’s End’s batteries charged, as she is fully electric with only a small capacity to charge when under sail. We either carry a small generator or make sure we can spend the night in a marina for an overnight charge if necessary.’
Think about where children would choose to go. ‘In the early years, we favoured beach anchorages, and that now holds true with our small granddaughters,’ says Ken Endean – and beaches were the most popular by consensus.
Priorities change as children get older, however. ‘Teenagers are more alert to foreign cultures and places that are off the normal tourist track, while unfamiliar wildlife, such as dolphins, is always a bonus,’ says Ken. ‘Our actual passage planning was not greatly affected by having youngsters on board: a cruise should be safe and comfortable, whatever the ages of the crew.’
Planning small adventures works well, says Perkins. ‘We loved visiting beaches, fishing and going on “expeditions” – in other words, walks we hadn’t done before.’
Family sailing is also about the people you’ll meet, says Hamish Southby Tailyour. ‘Plan to meet with friends either afloat or on the beach on your cruise. Row over, with your children, to any boat with other children onboard sharing the anchorage or marina. Join Kids4Sail, a subset of www.noforeignland.com. This totally changed our cruising and connecting with other boats with children in the Med.’
Erin Carey agrees. ‘When cruising with children, the destinations you choose to visit will often revolve around where the other boats with kids are. This gives them the chance to make playmates and allows parents to have a break. It’s truly amazing how quickly families on boats can become friends, with the common interest of keeping the kids sociable, well-rounded creatures.’
Don’t fight the weather
‘I am much more mindful about the weather, picking and choosing the days when I know sailing will be enjoyable for us both,’ says Graham Snook. ‘This is probably one of the most important things I’ve learnt.
‘Being divorced, the dates I have Ella are set in advance so if the weather doesn’t look good, we don’t go sailing and use the boat as a base instead. Last year the two weeks over the holiday were beset by strong winds; we still went to the boat but did different things around Gosport instead.’
Family sailing planning
One piece of family sailing advice from Hamish is to get everyone involved with the planning. ‘Google maps, electronic charts – get your digital natives helping. Ask them and give no more than two choices, both that are acceptable to you.
‘You may need lots of expectation management. Pubs, ice-cream, the draw of good free Wi-Fi connections, and time on the beach are obvious incentives, but funfairs, skate parks and a land visit to the local lighthouse have all proved to be tempting destinations.’
Family sailing safely
Safety is essential, but sailing shouldn’t be a list of dos and don’ts, says Olly Perkins. ‘Have only a few rules, but emphasise their importance.’
‘Rules were an integral part of our liveaboard lifestyle,’ says Erin Carey. ‘When you are above deck underway, you are tethered with a self-inflating lifejacket, no matter what. When we were anchored, they were not allowed on deck without a buddy, and never before we were out of bed.’
Everyone agreed that either lifejackets or harnesses are necessary underway when family sailing, and when the boat is stopped and children are on deck or on the pontoon, that a flotation device is absolutely essential.
‘Ella initially wore a kids lifejacket,’ says Graham Snook, ‘but it was bulky and uncomfortable. Below decks, she’d take it off, but then change her mind and want to come back up on deck. It was much easier for her to wear a harness that was comfortable enough to wear all day.’
A few basic rules:
- Lifejackets or harnesses to be worn whenever underway, and lifejackets to be donned on the pontoon.
- Keep hands clear of winches.
- One hand for the boat and one for yourself.
- When sleeping at night the children have to tell us if they’re going up on deck alone.
- Take care getting in and out of the dinghy
- Bottoms-first going down into the cabin.
Skills to learn
‘I’ve taken time to show Ella how to use the VHF radio,’ says Graham Snook. ‘I test her on how she’d react if anything happened.’
Practising drills is important, particularly when family sailing says Abi. ‘We practise man-overboard drills, where everyone has a role. Our youngest focuses on pointing at the casualty. Our eldest presses the DSC button and places the Mayday call on the radio. Early in the season we try to get them to practise floating in their lifejackets, so that they understand how it works. Doing this in a swimming pool is fun.’
Going to the toilet underway can be an issue, says Hamish. ‘Make going in a bucket in the cockpit whilst at sea normal. It’s easier and safer and you can help them easily without going below yourself. Children can also become dehydrated quickly, which makes them more clumsy, grumpy and can make them more susceptible to seasickness, so keep them hydrated.’
‘Kids have an amazing ability to have fun,’ says Frank Thorogood, ‘and our three were no exception in finding out what parts of our days on the water they enjoyed.’
‘All of life is on board a cruising boat, from practical and cerebral skills, nautical and domestic, food preparation and cleaning, but also the psychological – seeing their parents solve real immediate problems in a calm logical way is a wonderful legacy to pass on,’ says Hamish Southby Tailyour.
‘There are a multitude of mathematical opportunities to learn. There is the fun of knot-tying and rope-throwing competitions, but give them names that describe how they are used: not a clove hitch, a fender knot; not a rolling hitch but a lee cloth knot; and not how far can you throw a rope, but can you lasso a cleat, or even your brother?
If it’s dark and you notice the phosphorescence, stop putting the children to bed and jump in for a swim. The lasting memories are worth the effort of a midnight swim in the phosphorescence with your children.
Help them keep a daily journal with drawings and scraps stuck in, or a video log. Set up your own traditions. We have pancakes every Sunday, and this doesn’t change when we’re on the boat.’
Julia Jones says a boat is ‘a great space for family reading aloud.’ Frank Thorogood agrees that plenty of books are essential, as well as audiobooks. ‘Our son Kemmel is dyslexic, and on the voyage down to Cornwall audiobooks of the Harry Potter series were brilliant for him.’
Games are essential for family life on board. ‘There’s usually some game that everyone gets obsessed by,’ says Julia.
‘Liar Dice was very popular when I was little, or gambling with matchsticks,’ says Julia. ‘Gameboys suited the millennial children.
I’ve come to dread iPhones as we are not strong on battery power, so long-lasting battery packs are very useful.’
‘Down below we keep a stock of sticker books, colouring books, modelling clay, paints and books to read,’ adds Abi Kavanagh. ‘There are also some good stop-motion apps that you can download and we have made some stop-motion animations with the things they have created.’
‘Musical instruments are a must so they can join in with others who you’ll meet along the way,’ adds Hamish Southby Tailyour.
There’s plenty to occupy children on deck without getting off the boat. Julia says, ‘My brothers and I used to spend hours climbing around without touching the cabin floor or the side decks or whatever the challenge was. I often welcome visiting children and find that being encouraged to climb in and out of the forehatch never fails to provide amusement.’
‘When getting off the boat isn’t an option, we sometimes put a paddling pool on the foredeck and give them a variety of containers to play with,’ says Abi Kavanagh.
Hamish adds, ‘The Star Atlas by H E Ray and red head torches is a wonderful and easy way to learn the constellations. Mast-swinging and jumping from the boom are our best activities. Set up the fender board or passerelle and make them walk the plank. Hammocks are a must.’
‘We have a fishing rod and some hand lines,’ says Conrad Humphreys. ‘We also tow an inflatable paddleboard which the kids spend many an hour jumping off or exploring the mud flats.’
As for equipment for playing, Hamish recommends, ‘Sand castle-making equipment and snorkeling gear, tractor inner tube and an SUP board, wetsuits and rash vests, and things for a barbecue. Or use rope, fenders, oars, boathooks, deck brushes and the passerelle to make a raft.’
If the children are getting cooped up, however, ‘always make sure the kids can let off some steam on dry land,’ says Olly Perkins, ‘and remember sandy beaches are always a winner!’
Exploration and independence
‘Children probably learn more seamanship when commanding a dinghy than while steering their parents’ big yacht,’ says Ken Endean. ‘When the girls were nine and six, we built a small folding boat, Sugarlump, in which they played Swallows and Amazons when at anchor. Sugarlump has been refurbed and is about to be given to our granddaughters.’
Young people thrive on being challenged, says Hamish Southby Tailyour. ‘Give them slightly over-age responsibility. Send them off rowing on a long floating line.
Let them steer with the outboard and lean to start and stop it, practise coming alongside and how to balance the dingy. Heather has been steering with the outboard since she was seven, and by 11 was confident and competent enough to take the dinghy ashore alone under outboard to collect some friends.’
When it comes to sleeping arrangements, a dedicated bunk is not always an option,’ says Erin Carey. ‘Our kids actually loved being in the one cabin together. Sturdy lee cloths are a must, and we kept ours up even when anchored. It’s also important for them to put up their drawings and posters, to have somewhere to keep their little trinkets and shells they have collected, to make it feel like home.’
Hamish Southby Tailyour agrees. ‘A personalised space, however small, is vital especially as children get older; somewhere that is theirs and respected as such. Allow them to put pictures around their bunk.
‘We installed shelves and installed individual phone-charging points at their bunks and
a designated hook for a head torch just helped with the children’s chaos of a cabin.
‘They will spend much time in their bunks and that is okay, and the more it is their space the better. For parents, forfeiting the forepeak is worth doing, if only so you can have some adult time after they have gone to bed.’
Separate cabins aren’t always an option, however. ‘Peter Duck is very open plan so we just have to cram in and use the floor if necessary,’ says Julia Jones. ‘She was designed for two but luckily they were large!
‘This means that side berths are quite wide so it’s possible to squeeze adult and child together on one if necessary. Loved-up teenagers have also used this facility. There’s also a quarter berth, which is great once you’re in, and a fo’c’s’le berth by the heads. By modern standards there’s no privacy and not much comfort, but I love it.’
Children will enjoy making do in small boats, Ken Endean says. ‘Small children seem to regard a yacht’s cabin as a kind of playhouse and very small ones will happily make a nest in a quarter berth. When at anchor, our girls occupied the fore-cabin and usually slept undisturbed.
‘On rough passages, the most secure place for children below deck is a proper sea berth, with raised side panels or lee cloths.’
Babies on board
‘For babies, a box-type carrycot is ideal for both transport and sleeping,’ recommends Ken. ‘It can be lifted like a briefcase and lowered on to someone’s knees in a tender, all without disturbing the occupant. And on a hard beat to windward, Mary found breast- feeding kept little ones quiet without having to juggle bottles and other equipment.’
As they grow, a portable travel cot can come in handy. ‘When they were little they slept with us or in a Phil & Teds Pack’n’Play,’ says Abi Kavanagh, ‘which had the advantage that it packs up really small and has a zip on one of the side panels so that you don’t have to lift the baby out of the top, particularly useful in low spaces.
‘I know a lot of people use slings or carriers for babies,’ she added. ‘We always worried about what would happen if the adult wearing the baby went overboard, but I can definitely see the advantage of being hands-free.’
When excitement is high, getting children to sleep isn’t always easy. ‘We do our best to stick to bedtimes; no one wants a cranky five-year-old on a sail the next day,’ says Abi Kavanagh. ‘We try not to have two big sailing days concurrently, though obviously this isn’t always possible.’
‘Our children are old enough now that bedtimes don’t vary much whether at home or on the boat,’ says Frank, while Julia Jones likes the variety. ‘Days on the water are outside normal routine. They have routines but these are determined by the weather and the tide and what you’re trying to do.’
Hamish Southby Tailyour says the only routine they have to stick to is brushing their teeth, although ‘having stories read to them whilst tucked deep in their bunks’ was a firm favourite.
‘One important thing to consider when cruising with kids is power consumption,’ says Erin Carey. ‘The amount of amps drawn by charging laptops, iPad, Kindles, EarPods, and portable speakers can be mind boggling.
‘The endless array of cords and chargers is equally as frustrating. Having a dedicated charging area somewhere central in the boat is one way to deal with this. Another solution is to use portable batteries for the devices. These can be charged up during the day when the solar is at its best, ready for the night time.’
When it comes to mealtimes, sharing the work is all part of life aboard, says Hamish Southby Tailyour. ‘Simple tasks we always ask our children to help with include laying the table, serving up the portions, dish- washing and drying up, putting away and the daily cleaning of the decks, heads, and cooker. More importantly Heather now mixes an excellent gin and tonic and pours a good beer.’
For smaller children, ‘plastic trough bibs help to keep food under control but the children must be well-wedged if they are inclined to eat with both hands,’ says Ken Endean. ‘On a couple of very lumpy Force 6-7 passages, both our girls ate lunch while sitting on the saloon floor.’
When you’re in a foreign country, going to buy food is a great way to explore, says Erin Carey. ‘Trips ashore to the market are a great way to interact with the locals and to get fresh produce. Having the kids handle the money, find the right vegetables, weigh them and barter with the shop owners really builds their confidence.’
Conrad Humpreys prefers a more relaxed approach when he is going family sailing. ‘I’m not one for fussing too much about victualling the boat with endless supplies of food, preferring to either forage, fish, or find a local pub, but if we are away with the kids, then Vikki always manages to sneak onboard some flapjack or chocolate brownies to keep the wolves at bay. There is always some emergency freeze-dried food if we do get caught out.’
‘Food on a boat doesn’t have to be worse than food at home.’ says Olly Perkins. ‘Have special food which the kids particularly like – pizzas are a good shout. But our favourite was the “yummy cupboard”. This was filled with snacks that we’d rarely see at home.’
Enjoyed reading this?
A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.
Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.
YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.
- Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
- Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
- Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations