Bareboat Cruising with Young Children:
A Novice Sailor's Perspective
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.")
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.
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.
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
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
- Parents do not need to be expert sailors to embark on the
adventure of family cruising.
- Bareboat cruising with young children is extremely rewarding
and fun for the entire family, particularly by focusing not on the
sailing itself, but on the remarkable places it can take you.
Here are some books about family cruising that I enjoyed and found
useful. There are probably others.
- Babies Aboard by Lyndsay Green. International Marine, 1990.
- Cruising with Children by Gwenda Cornell. Sheridan House, 1992.
- Adventuring with Children by Nan Jeffrey (one chapter on
sailing). Avalon House, 1990.
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.