Amy Kemp now sails solo with her two young boys. She shares how she gained her confidence sailing with family as the only parent onboard

Sailing with family: shorthanded cruising with young children

When I was asked to write about my experiences of UK sailing with small children, I couldn’t believe anyone would find us interesting, writes Amy Kemp.

But it’s true that we meet depressingly few other families on the water while cruising mostly West Country waters.

So I have agreed to share a little of what has helped us to raise two little boys who, just like Ratty, love nothing more than messing around in boats.

Sailing with family - Guardwire netting helps keep the boys safe on deck. Credit: Amy Kemp

Sailing with family: Guardwire netting helps keep the boys safe on deck. Credit: Amy Kemp

If I can inspire just one family to give sailing a go this summer, then I’ll consider this to have been a brilliant use of my time.

Our eldest, Barnaby, was an autumn baby and came sailing the following spring at six months old; the youngest, Blaise, was born in April and came sailing over the May bank holiday.

For my husband James and I, who both have boaty parents, this was no big deal – and I’ve often enjoyed responding to people’s shocked expressions by assuring them we’ve taken a much safer approach than my own parents did; they simply strapped my car seat to the stern!

Fortunately, I’ve lived to tell the tale.

We generally use our Arcona 410, Atla, from April to October, and often over Christmas.

Sailing with family: Warm children are happy afloat, even in winter. Credit: Amy Kemp

Sailing with family: Warm children are happy afloat, even in winter. Credit: Amy Kemp

Despite having spent all our available weekends sailing as a family over the past seven years, it was really only last year – with the boys aged five and nearly-seven – that we felt like bigger adventures were in reach.

And the pièce de résistance last summer was that I was able to take the boys sailing alone – a major milestone.

How have we reached this point?

Sailing with family: safety first

Safety is paramount. Given the manner in which we sail, the risks are incredibly low; however, knowing those risks are mitigated as far as possible enables relaxed, happy sailing.

One topic on which I could talk for hours is lifejackets!

Lifejackets have evolved significantly over the past 30 years and finding one your child doesn’t hate is going to be key to happy and safe sailing – now and for the long term.

It’s worth investing the time and money.

A blond haired boy wearing a lifejacket on board a yacht

No debate about wearing one, but the boys can choose between lifejacket or a buoyancy aid. Credit: Amy Kemp

We have tried all kinds of children’s lifejackets, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; one popular lifejacket was like a noose around our children’s necks.

In the end, our boys worked their way up through the HH Kid Safe+ range; they currently have Crewsaver buoyancy aids and Spinlock lifejackets.

Yes, you read that correctly – they now have both buoyancy aids and lifejackets. And that too has been a deliberate strategy.

Aside from selecting comfortable, lightweight options, choice has been the key to successfully persuading our children to oblige and wear their lifejackets.

We have always been totally consistent: the boys know that if they’re above deck, they must wear a life preservation aid of some kind, but we’ve always given them options to choose from.

A white hulled Arcona 410 yacht anchored in the Isles of Scilly under blue sky

The Arcona 410, anchored in St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, provides comfortable family cruising and it fast enough for the occasional competitive race. Credit: Amy Kemp

As toddlers they could opt to wear a harness and be clipped on inside the cockpit; or a lifejacket which wasn’t clipped on and meant they could wander further.

This choice was only given in flat calm water, and on our own boat which has netting installed around the entire perimeter.

Initially, they both always opted for the harness.

But like cats, toddlers are curious, and it wasn’t long before the lure of heading forward to spot dolphins or to help with the anchor was so great that the lifejacket became everyone’s number one choice.

Making it their decision, I believe, is an important distinction.

Continues below…

We have never had to fight about lifejacket wearing on our boat, and I hope we have created life-long safe sailing habits.

Now, as ‘big boys’, they can choose to wear either buoyancy aids or lifejackets, as long as the conditions are suitable, and these days that generally means they’re in buoyancy aids in the marina or at anchor; whereas on the move, they’ll be in lifejackets.

A second factor, as I mentioned earlier, has been netting.

We installed perimeter netting while I was pregnant, and it’s stayed there ever since.

When the children were babies, we also netted off the forecabin.

A boy sailing a white optimist dinghy with white sails while sailing with family

A second hand Optimist dinghy keeps the boys entertained while anchored. Credit: Amy Kemp

This meant if we ever needed all hands on deck in a hurry, we could put the babies into the forepeak and know they were safe for a few minutes.

Finally, all of this has been underpinned by an unwavering commitment to swimming lessons.

There have been many Monday evenings when I’ve daydreamed about all the other things I’d rather do with my time, but knowing the children are comfortable and capable in the water is paramount.

This year we have also spent time setting off our lifejackets at the local pool and practising swimming in them.

Sailing with family: keep it simple

Much to our early dismay, we had to accept that cruising with very young children required a total reframing of one’s idea of sailing, and it may initially involve very little actual sailing.

Upon becoming parents, our boat became a floating caravan; we went from trying to go as fast and far as possible on each trip, to finding joy in pootling along the coast to a beach; or sometimes spending a whole weekend tethered to land, visiting tourist attractions or going for walks.

For the first few years, we did most of our passages while the boys slept, and we focused on spending their waking hours having fun, usually on a beach.

Our objective has been that the children must associate the boat with having great fun together as a family.

A rubber dinghy is one of the best toys. Credit: Amy Kemp

A rubber dinghy is one of the best toys. Credit: Amy Kemp

If the weather isn’t conducive, don’t push it; if time doesn’t allow for a relaxed passage, don’t push it; if we’re tired, don’t push it. It’s been frustrating on many occasions, but we are now reaping the rewards and are pleased to have two children who genuinely delight in spending time on the boat.

This past summer, we chalked up two major milestones.

The first was sailing to the Isles of Scilly as a foursome.

We had taken the children to the islands twice before, but both times we broke the journey up into short coastal hops over a couple of days, before doing the final leg overnight while they slept.

This summer we left Falmouth at breakfast time and did the crossing together. The boys loved it.

We saw dolphins galore, they helped with every tack, and we ate a lovely lunch en route, arriving at St Agnes with time to play on the beach.

A young child helming a yacht while wearing an orange lifejacket, while sailing with family

Allowing the boys to helm Atla in Plymouth and other suitable places, build confidence for bigger adventures. Credit: Amy Kemp

The second major milestone was that I took the boys sailing alone.

Previously, it was inconceivable to think that either of us could do this.

However, given the success of our Isles of Scilly trip and our children’s apparent willingness to be helpful crewmates, I decided it was time to be brave and go it alone.

I booked myself a couple of days’ confidence-building tuition with lovely RYA Yachtmaster instructor Lara Bonney, who reminded me there was no shame in keeping things simple.

When I told her I didn’t know how I’d get the spinnaker up and down alone, she chuckled and said I wouldn’t; and when I expressed fear at how I’d get our 41-foot Arcona alongside the town quay in Fowey without causing a scene, she chuckled again and said I shouldn’t try.

My time with Lara was game changing and helped me to set some realistic expectations, and with a reframed mind, the children and I reefed our mainsail and enjoyed a weekend anchored in Hope Cove in south Devon.

Keep them entertained

Given the light easterly winds, and the international COVID-19-related travel restrictions at the time, Hope Cove was far from being the peaceful idyll I’d hoped it might be for our first adventure without Daddy.

We anchored just at the entrance in very deep water; I’m sure the other boats wondered what on earth we were doing, anchored out to sea.

But on Sunday, when it was time to leave, despite there being close to 30 boats around us, I had ample space to bring up the anchor by myself and exit the cove.

I am looking forward to more adventures as a threesome during this year’s school holidays.

A blonde haired woman with two children wearing orange lifejackets on board a boat

Amy and her family sail between April and October, and at Christmas. Credit: Amy Kemp

We try to involve Barnaby and Blaise in as much of what is going on as we can. Whenever it’s safe to do so, we let them helm.

We found a wonderful children’s knot book in a shop a couple of years ago, and they have lots of bits of old rope that they’re constantly tying on to things in all manner of fancy knots.

Fenders are now officially their job.

As long as they’re wearing an appropriate life aid, we let them play in the dinghy tied on to a long line as both of them were rowing in circles by the age of four.

This summer we bought a beat up old Optimist on eBay which we took with us to the Isles of Scilly, and they both delighted in being able to sail themselves in to the beach on our stay in St Agnes, with Mummy in a safety boat, of course.

Two blonde hair boys wearing blue collecting rubbish from a sandy beach

Group activities ashore, like a beach clean at Cornwall’s Lantic Bay, help make sailing a family affair. Credit: Amy Kemp

They also found our flag set and spent hours starting to learn the international code of signals (they have a lot more work to do in this regard).

We have built up a collection of sailing books and games that live on board all season: books about underwater creatures and seabirds, and puzzles and board games that can keep the whole family entertained if we have a period ‘caravanning’ on board in less than perfect weather.

Two boy wearing lifejackets cleaning the deck of a boat with brushes

Cleaning the deck is an ideal boat jobs for children. Credit: Amy Kemp

Getting Barnaby and Blaise involved and teaching them how to be helpful is what is going to make longer, more adventurous passages possible and pleasurable in the future for us all.

We daydream constantly about one day doing a really big trip as a family, but for now I’m delighted we enjoy weekends and holidays on the boat.

Maybe someday they’ll be able to take the night watch, while I get some kip!

Tips for sailing with young children

Sailing with small children is about micro-adventures.

For them, just being on the boat is an adventure in itself, and even travelling two miles from the marina can create lifelong, happy memories.

Sailing with family - having the most appropriate clothing is key to making sailing with family enjoyable

Amy’s two son, Barnaby and Blaise are all-weather sailors. Credit: Amy Kemp

Planning is crucial for stress-free family sailing.

We always know the forecast before we leave home, and set off with at least a loose plan for the weekend.

Knowing we’re all safe is paramount, and fundamental to this is a lightweight, comfortable lifejacket. Finding one that suits your child may require a bit of effort. But it’s worth it!

Amy Kemp, wearing a sailing jacket at sea

Amy Kemp grew up sailing with family. She and her husband, James first bought a Beneteau First 27.7 which they traded in for an Elan 340 upon starting a family. They bought the Arcona 410, Atla after a less than idyllic trip to the Isles of Scilly 2018. It is berthed in Plymouth, providing east access to beaches in all directions. Credit: Amy Kemp

The correct clothing is also important.

Cold children are miserable children. A great set of thermals, gloves, hat and some trusty, sturdy waterproofs is a must.

Our boys have very clever Didriksons all-in-ones; they may seem pricey, but the seams inside are designed to be let down as the child grows, so they last and last.

Our children have never, ever complained about being cold and we sail in December.

Get the children involved in the sailing. Again, this will take some planning and preparation, but they love having flags and rope to play with, and allowing them to helm when it’s safe to do so will delight and excite them.

The inflatable dinghy is the best toy of all. We tie ours on with a long line, stick the kids in wetsuits and buoyancy aids, and they spend hours happily rowing around, role-playing (some days they’re pirates, other days they’re off to save the oceans), looking for fish, or climbing in and out to swim and splash.

And this isn’t just good fun.

It also quietly develops great skills. Both boys can now capably climb in and out of the dinghy by themselves when we need them to.

Enjoyed reading Sailing with family: shorthanded cruising with young children?

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