Bareboat Cruising with Young Children:
A Novice Sailor's Perspective

by Jennifer Widom

December 2001

Although bareboat cruising vacations appear to be most popular among adventurous empty-nesters, a number of families do choose to travel by sailboat. While we rarely encounter other very young travelers during our land-based adventures, we do meet a handful of children while sailing, even in remote locales.

What sets our family apart is that we are novice sailors. In all the other cruising families we've met, one or both parents come from cruising families themselves, or have considerable sailing background of some sort. Not so us. Based on our family travels by camper, and brief glimpses at the cruising life during our old days of liveaboard scuba trips, Alex and I simply made a decision that bareboat vacations would probably be a lot of fun for our family. We were right.

(Note on terminology: In a "crewed" sailboat vacation, one charters a sailboat along with a skipper and possibly a cook. In a "bareboat" sailing vacation one charters the sailboat only, although normally it's far from "bare.")

Training

We embarked on a program of learning to sail and then gaining family sailing experience. (Our plan from the start has been for the "training" to culminate in a year-long sailing trip when Tim and Emily are 12 and 10 years old. We're still on track.) The first step was to make our way through "Basic Keelboat" and "Basic Cruising" classes on the San Francisco Bay. We disliked spending those eight weekend days away from our children but expected the rewards to be worth it. Indeed, we were so enchanted with the idea of a family sailing vacation that we made a reservation for our first charter -- 8 days on a 38-foot bareboat in the Sea of Cortez -- before we were halfway through those two classes.

Basic credentials intact, we took the family out for some day-sails on 30-foot sloops. We outfitted the children in good lifejackets, tethered them to the boat, and brought along adult friends so we could focus on honing our sailing skills. Those first trips were anything but smooth, and for the children the highlights definitely involved getting off the boat (the Angel Island snack bar being a particular favorite). They were not thrilled by the simple act of sailing, and still aren't to a large extent. However, as Tim is getting old enough to help with lines, sails, and steering, it's clear that active participation can make a big difference. The children do stay relatively content in the cabin playing games, doing art projects, or using the bunks as slides when we're on a good heel, but even now we have some guilt during long sailing periods -- the children could be having more fun.

We tried one local trip with an overnight anchorage before our first vacation charter, and cut our teeth on some unusually rough weather. We had no real problems and gained valuable experience. The children slept through it all.

First Charter

The Sea of Cortez charter was all we could have hoped for and more. We were not surprised to discover that bareboat sailing vacations do resemble camper trips in a number of ways -- the challenges and benefits of a confined but mobile living space, and getting to spend much of one's time outdoors. One difference in a sailboat is that everything, but everything, is more complex. In a camper, we pull into our overnight location, unbuckle our seat belts, and step out the door for a hike or other activity. In a sailboat, we pull into our anchorage, execute the crucial and sometimes very time-consuming task of selecting a good spot and anchoring properly (one of the hardest parts of sailing, any cruiser will tell you), make sure everything on the boat is secured, get the children out of their harnesses and into their lifejackets, load the whole family and a pile of gear aboard the dinghy, motor to shore, and secure the dinghy on the beach. Phew!

If something breaks down on a sailboat charter, unless it's serious one is more likely to live without it for the remainder of the trip than get it fixed. Prepping the sailboat systems in the morning and shutting them down at night is more complicated than the corresponding activities in a camper, and so is planning the next day's route, but still the similarities are apparent. One significant difference is the level of caution required on a sailboat. Safety is a major concern whenever the children are on deck, riding in the dinghy, or playing in the water. Of course safety is very important for adults as well, and should never be taken for granted on a boat.

On our first charter we learned an extraordinary amount every day about life on a sailboat, but by the end of that 8-day trip we felt we had our routine down.

Daily Life

Despite the complexities of cruising, the daily life is just fabulous. We've consciously chosen charter locations that are fairly remote, with only a handful of other sailboats around. (No 50-boat Caribbean anchorages for us!) Often we'll have a 2-mile beach completely to ourselves, and our days are filled with exploratory hikes, shell-collecting, snorkeling, and munching on popcorn while bird- or sunset-watching from the bow. In Tonga, each day found us at a new uninhabited island, punctuated by occasional visits to villages or rustic resorts. Tonga also brought back our scuba diving hobby of yore: We rented a pile of tanks and dove one parent at a time (against scuba convention, we admit it) from the back of our sailboat. It was delightful.

Easy Sailing

With two sailing vacations under our belts, a couple of additional classes ("Bareboat Cruising" and "Coastal Navigation"), and more family sailing on the San Francisco Bay, we're slowly becoming respectable sailors. One lesson we've certainly learned is that, particularly on a long vacation, there is no need to be "macho" about one's sailing. Why put up maximum sail for an extra half-knot of speed if it makes the ride uncomfortable? In fact, why tack relentlessly to an anchorage that's due upwind if it's easier and faster to motor? We are not sailing purists, instead opting for what we find to be most practical and fun for the family. And just as we religiously avoided logging too many driving hours on our camper vacations, we try to be very conscious of making our sailing vacations mostly not sailing. Seeing the children leap out of the dinghy with delight to explore our next landfall makes us realize that's what these trips are all about. If the landfalls are only an hour or two of sailing apart, all the better.

Logistics of Family Sailing

Needless to say, there are many, many logistics involved in sailing with young children. I could start enumerating my favorite hints and go on for quite a while. However, there are several good books on the topic (I've listed a few below), which surely include nearly every suggestion I could conjure up from our relatively little experience to date. The points I do hope to have made in this essay are simple and twofold:

Books

Here are some books about family cruising that I enjoyed and found useful. There are probably others.

Other Aiken/Widom Travel Pages

My original essay on the topic of travel with children was Adventure Travel with Children Under Four. It evolved into an article about our family travels by Alice Cary that appeared in the Great Outdoor Recreation Pages online magazine (www.gorp.com). I wrote an addenda to the original essay: Adventure Travel with Children Ages 4-6. Since then, my essays haven't kept pace with the ages and travel activities of my children, although I did quite a bit of travel-blogging during our Year Off for Travel.

Here's a log and some photos from our travels, a list of off-the-beaten-path travel favorites, and a travel quote I really like.


widom@cs.stanford.edu