Whether you’re sailing near or far, a few simple modifications can make your boat child friendly and much more secure, says Justin Halewood
The idea of heading to sea with a child on board elicits different responses for different people, however far you’re going. A day sail with a boat full of noisy pirates might fill you with dread, while for others the idea of taking a miniature crew around the world sounds like the biggest adventure. We weren’t quite that brave,
but we did sail an Atlantic circuit with our daughter Robin, then two, from 2022 to 2023 aboard our Hallberg-Rassy 36 MkI.
Sailing with a sprog brings up all sorts of questions about how you sail and where you go, but this article is about the challenges of cruising with a baby on board and adapting the boat to suit their needs.
There is no doubt that having a young person as crew makes life at sea harder. But when is parenting ever easy? We took the view that we would prefer to be doing something we love whilst dealing with the usual demands of parenthood, rather than continuing to work full-time and missing special moments in Robin’s life.
That being said, there have been times where we felt we had bitten off more than we could chew. During the passage to Lanzarote we spent around 24 hours in a large(ish) sea and F5-6. We would relish these conditions as a couple, but trying to keep Robin entertained in rolling seas and getting her to sleep in a noisy forecabin was one of the toughest challenges we’d faced as a family.
There is no easy answer other than accepting that most things in life worth doing are not easy. What’s clear is that you, and the children, as far as they can voice their opinions, are up for the challenge. Now comes the hard part of making it a positive experience for all involved.
We’ve made a number of changes to Zoe to keep Robin safe and comfortable, some more expensive than others. Hopefully they will be useful to other sailing parents.
These hang from the coachroof grab handles. On one side we have fruit and veg and on the other we have toys – a great way to stow Robin’s ever-growing collection.
Cockpit enclosure and shade
We were fortunate that the boat came with a cockpit tent that could be set when underway. When alongside it kept the weather out, acting like a big play pen for the cockpit and keeping Robin safely enclosed. For the adults it was also quite nice to not feel so exposed during watches, particularly at night. We switched to our bimini in warmer climes, which has also been vital to avoid excessive time in the sun. We’ve since also bought some cheap sun canopies to supplement the bimini when on anchor or in a marina.
We used inexpensive foam tiles trimmed to fit the cockpit sole, making a comfortable play area. This can be adapted to almost any part of the boat, and can even be stuck on bulk heads. Foam yoga mats could be utilised in the same way.
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Saloon door-style washboards
These can be locked and unlocked by adult hands only to help avoid tumbles from the cockpit. We made plywood doors that slotted into the companionway recesses, but a zipped canvas screen could also work.
We use sticky-back Velcro for all sorts of jobs on board, such as securing Robin’s black-out blinds and keeping her toy box from sliding across the saloon carpet. It’s also useful for preventing the companion-way doors from slamming shut and to stop protective matting sliding off joinery, including the chart table.
This seems to fit into an incredible number of nooks onboard to provide a comfortable back rest and snug seat for Robin when we’re at sea. Several of the Vendée Globe sailors use them instead of proper berths.
Clip-on high chair
Other brands are available but we found that with a little extra marine ply (kept away from the mahogany with protective matting of course) we could clamp our Phil and Ted portable high chair onto the end of the saloon table quite nicely. This was useful to keep Robin in one place both for meals, playtime and when we needed to put her down safely.
It always amazes me just how much clobber children require. Toys, seats, bibs, nappies and spare clothes seem to occupy far more space than an adult’s personal items. Make sure you organise them well. Allocate a secure and easily accessible place to keep your child’s pushchair so that it’s handy as regular trips ashore are a must.
It’s surprising how child-friendly Zoe was already. The locking catches on the drawers means they are effectively toddler-proof, the grab handles are helpful to brace yourself with when carrying a baby, and the central cockpit of the 36 feels very secure. We’re very happy we chose a Hallberg Rassy to sail safely with our daughter.
Changes to your sailing
Choosing weather windows (very) carefully
We try to keep the predicted wave size to less than 2m and, if possible, closer to 1m. Obviously the challenge then comes in finding wind to go with this sea state, so unless you enjoy motoring, accepting that some swell will be part of your offshore experience is probably a better approach than waiting for champagne conditions.
Given how strong our boat is, we have found wind strength to be somewhat academic versus sea state – Robin contentedly sailed through gusts of 50 knots on our way to A Coruña because the sea state was moderate and following.
We have a checklist of our MOB procedure stored in a laminated folder in the cockpit. To date we’ve not found an EPIRB or AIS unit that can be activated hydrostatically. Most seem to use a pull cord activated by the inflation of an automatic lifejacket that Robin was too young to wear. Our current plan is to a) make sure it never ever happens and b) if she does go overboard, have one of us jump in after her (probably Nicola). We appreciate this sounds extreme but the alternative is even worse! We’d be interested to hear others’ views.
Filter your water
We attached water filters to our hose when filling up our tanks from shore supplies to ensure all water we’re putting into our tanks is clean enough for Robin to drink without getting ill. The hose uses a charcoal and 5-micron filter. Our tank water is now typically around 100 parts per million, which is double the purity of normal mains water at home.
Car seat and Isofix bar
We attached an Isofix fitting (like you’d find tucked into the backseat of a car) to the central bulkhead, between the aft- facing saloon seat back cushion and the cushion itself. These are readily available online for about £20. This allows the car seat to actually be attached to the boat and feels very secure.
When facing aft, Robin can see us up in the cockpit, and this is our favourite spot for her when bringing Zoe into marinas. We can strap Robin into the seat with a snack and perhaps something on the iPad to keep her entertained. Interestingly I recently saw one of the Golden Globe entrants has done something similar in his Rustler 36 – albeit with an adult-size seat!
We have an adjustable table and bracket from Lagun in our cockpit already. We fixed a child’s rear bike seat to the bracket so that we could strap Robin in securely on deck. The bracket plate screws through to the small cupboard above the sink so bolts can be tightened easily. It means the chair has to be swiveled to one side to get into the cockpit locker, but it has worked well and is probably Robin’s favourite seat onboard.
Paediatric medicine pack
We bought this from a specialist marine medicine company and it includes child-specific items including antibiotics, EpiPen and sea-sickness relief. We recently used the rehydration pack after Robin was ill during our passage from Madeira to Lanzarote.
It would be worth getting some specific children’s first aid and medical training, so that you are confident in how and when to use the pack’s content.
Altered lee cloths
We changed lee cloths in all the cabins and the saloon. Forward, we created a ‘gate’ that can be used to box Robin into the berth, high enough so that she can’t climb over and long enough so she can’t slide out from underneath. She sleeps in the forward cabin when we’re on passage and when stationary. It gives us huge peace of mind.
The saloon now includes what we like to call the ‘rage cage’. It is essentially a lee cloth that entirely encloses one of the saloon berths, giving us another safe space to store her if needs must. Aft, we added a lee cloth to the double bed including a tent-style semi-circular zip entry door. This provides easy access for Robin and mum to ‘co-sleep’ in heavy weather (to date Robin has slept through all conditions in the forepeak, including a sustained Force 6 in Biscay).
We don’t have air conditioning on board, and wouldn’t want to have it anyway, but the fans were vital when keeping Robin cool in warmer climates, particularly as mosquito nets across hatches can restrict airflow. We installed the Bora fan from Caframo (right).
Additional investment & choices
We installed this beneath the starboard saloon berth primarily to ensure we have resilience in our fresh water. We chose the Schenker Zen 30 as a good compromise between energy consumption and water production.
It’s been great and has ensured Robin can have a bath every night (we use a collapsible wash basket), even when we’re at sea.
Insurance became harder for us to obtain after we left Portugal. We used a broker to help us obtain insurance from a specialist bluewater underwriter, though the presence of Robin didn’t seem to complicate this.
We chose not to install netting on the guardrails as Robin is never allowed on deck unsupervised, and is clipped on anyway. Robin seemed to quickly understand that it was dangerous to lean through the wires, and it saved us something that can otherwise be a bit of a hindrance. With older children gaining more independence and able to slip or trip, we might change our minds on this.
An evolving picture
We are back ashore now, having picked up the reins of shore-life once more, though we still have the boat. As Robin gets older, we’ll need to keep evolving our adaptations to the boat to keep her safe. As children move towards teenagers, questions arise about how to get them involved, engaged and happy, as well as safe, and the adaptations necessary for small children will gradually be phased out.
The adaptations you might need to make will vary hugely depending on your boat, your children, and your sailing ambitions, but with a little ingenuity, it doesn’t cost too much to make your boat a much more child-friendly environment.
Time will tell if our daughter remains keen to keep sailing with Mum and Dad, and how we adapt to each new stage.
What we do know is that undertaking these adaptations to make it possible to go on a big family adventure was totally worth it, and we will forever be glad we took the plunge and went for it.
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