Family Sailing, Sailing With Children

I am often asked how my wife and I manage sailing with five children. We do more than manage, our most memorable and enjoyable experiences have been cruising together as a family. Keep the following in mind when venturing out with little ones.


Keep Them Involved

For some reason, my kids do not find sailing for hours on end as entertaining as I do. Sailing with children requires a somewhat different approach to the sport.  It can be quite a job keeping them active and involved. My goal changes from my enjoyment to my kid’s enjoyment of our time together. We don’t exactly hold a straight course, don’t point as high, or sail at maximum hull speed. But, when they ask to go sailing again, I know I have been successful as Captain Dad.

Find kid size jobs that make them a part of the crew. Younger children can be on look out duty, coil lines, check telltales and swab decks. Older children can hoist and trim sails, navigate, help with anchoring and take a turn at the helm.


Give out Titles

Titles such as bosun, first mate, engineer, navigator, helmsman, look out and even swabbie will make them feel important.  Kids love to hear “you are in charge of…” rather than “you have to…” This also creates some intrigue into learning about their specific job. I find it easier to give my Navigator some tips on finding our position than to get the kids to help me navigating. Kids are smart, they know I don’t need help with something I already know how to do.

Bring a Back Pack with “Unplugged “ Kid-Activities  

Eventually, children will need a break from boat responsibilities. Items such as coloring books, wildlife guides to help identify local creatures and small magnetic board games fit nicely into a backpack. My rule is simple, as long as it does not run on electricity it can go into the pack. Whenever I ease up and allow video games in the pack, I seem to have a really difficult time getting them back on deck to participate in sailing responsibilities. It is easy to put down a book when given the opportunity to take the helm, but when you are battling the forces of evil to save the universe, the helm is just not that exciting. My “unplugged” rule stands.

A Well Fed Crew is a Happy Crew

On our boat, when the food runs out, the fun stops. Keep the galley stocked with quick and easy treats. A pint size “ships cook” doesn’t actually have to cook anything but can simply be in charge of passing out snacks. We approach all aspects of sailing as a family activity. My kids hate to go grocery shopping, but really enjoy planning the menu for a sailing trip, then provisioning the boat. This does require a trip to the grocery store, but as long as it is “provisioning” they will even do the shopping.  

Be Aware of the Fear Factor

Burying the rail may make you smile and surfing down the face of a wave may relieve the stress of the office but if the little tikes are clinging to mom in fear of not seeing their next birthday, it might be your last family cruise. My oldest son had a fear of heeling and I almost lost a good mate after pushing too hard to weather one afternoon. Problem solved by giving him the job of the inclinometer, he would let me know at what point he was getting nervous and I would fall off a couple of degrees and hold her there.  Over time his confidence grew and so did our heeling angle.

It’s Also About the Destination

 I know, to us sailors it is all about the journey, but a little motivation can turn tiny passengers into eager crew members. Look for sailing destinations that have kid-friendly landfall rewards. One island on the Chesapeake Bay is known to my family as Bubby’s Island because my son (nicknamed Bubby) “discovered” it on a sailing trip with dad. Just going sailing is not always that exciting for the kids, but sailing to Bubby’s Island is an adventure that will get ‘em packing their sail bags.. My kids have the five best waterfront playgrounds on the east coast marked on the chart! An ice cream shop, a waterfront playground or a beach accessible by dinghy are also big hits.


                                                                                      -Captain Jeff Bowen