Sailing…just the word evokes images of balmy days, gentle breezes, sunshine and rum drinks. An adventure on the horizon. Hammocks swaying on the bow at anchor in a beautiful cove. But what does one do when “sailing” means sailing with toddlers? Is it possible to keep reality somewhat close to the dream? With a little planning, luck and selective hearing, the answer is: sometimes, my friends, sometimes. We have two toddlers on board, and I will share a few of the tricks that have kept us sane and actually having fun these last few years.
Technology I know, I know, the whole idea is to get them out into nature, and get them learning about boats, and get them OFF of technology, right? Well, yes. BUT…you also want to arrive sane and safe. For toddlers, much of their boat learning happens at a mooring or at anchor. Ours love to help wash down the boat, for example, and we teach them about any systems we are working on if they are watching. Truthfully, they absorb a lot just by watching and being around the activity. Its like learning a language when you are very young. You just sort of know it in your bones, and I don’t believe boating is much different. The only things we insist they know are basic safety measures. Otherwise, it’s really about getting comfortable on their sea legs and reaching a destination safely. Once they are older they will easily transition into “real” sailors who are learning to operate a boat and eventually who actually—gasp—help out. Personally, I also plan to ban the technology once they are older, as they will be expected to help while under weigh. For now, I just want to reach our destination and enjoy the journey with my husband. If my toddlers spend 3 hours straight on the ipad to accomplish this, so be it. Once we arrive, they put it away and we all get outside to explore a new and exciting location. If you are the parent of a toddler, trust me—technology is your friend. Once you arrive and they are running around exploring on a new adventure, you will more than make up for any brain cells they lose during the journey!
Dolphin watch My 4 year old once spent an entire 3 day passage down below on his ipad, barely pausing to eat his next nutritionally deficient meal. As soon as we arrived, of course, he came back to life and did not even mention the ipad for at least a week. My 2 year old, however, is not so easily distracted during a long sail. If your children need a little more stimulation, I suggest getting out of the cockpit (conditions permitting and with a child tether attached to their life jackets, of course!!!), and heading up on the bow for some creature watches. Sometimes being in the cockpit can feel confining to a kid—I know I find myself constantly restraining them and telling them to sit down, stay off the winches, etc. Bringing them out of the cockpit lets them feel a much-needed sense of space and freedom that can be, obviously, hard to find on a small ship in the middle of an ocean. It always amazes me how—if you just spend a little time looking—you are bound to see some form of ocean wildlife. And seeing a two-year-old commune with wild dolphins from just a few feet away, or get sprayed by a whale, or spot his first sea turtle head popping up to the surface…these are all priceless experiences. One of Van’s favorite traditions when we are offshore on a passage is the “sunrise deck-check”. We head up top right around sunrise, bring coffee to whoever is on watch (sometimes that is me, in which case the kids come straight up there anyways), then we check the deck! For Van, this means checking to see if any unlucky flying fish got stuck on Robin Hood overnight. I think a highlight of his life thus far was one particular sunrise off of the outer banks when not only did he find hordes of flying fish lying on deck, we were also surrounded by about 50 dolphins. Yep, you can probably guess where this story is heading…he fed the dolphins their breakfast!
Photo time! During all our time on the bow, I’m usually snapping photos of the boys, the boat, the sails, the horizon…you name it and I’m probably aiming my lens at it. And, of course, anything mom or dad does, our little mimics cant wait to try for themselves. I am a big believer in tiny photographers. They can learn a surprising amount about cameras and pictures if you take the time to show them. But that isn’t even necessary…the best part about children taking photos (I finally edited this line from “child photography”…it just didn’t quite look right) is just giving them a new angle from which to view the world. Through the lens of a camera they learn to slow down, notice details, and look at everyday objects from different perspectives. And, of course, getting to use a cool new device like a camera is bound to capture their attention no matter what! If your children are like mine, their worlds are filled with disposable toys and cheap devices that break and are replaced almost without a thought. Teaching them to use an expensive tool that requires following a set process and carefully applying certain rules is a wonderful gift to a child these days.
Fishing Ok, this isn’t “real” fishing but trolling behind the boat does let them feel a sense of accomplishment when they catch something, and it helps to break up the monotony even when they don’t. They usually help set the line, then I set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and have them “check” the line every time it goes off. In between we do another activity. Clearly checking the line every 10 minutes is pointless, because we are watching it the whole time and if a fish is on the we grab it, but it sets some parameters for another activity and lets them feel involved in the fishing.
Gummies! We use gummies, but pretty much any treats that you don’t usually allow are always smart to have on hand. Seriously, whether you are coastal cruising just a few hours away or 100 miles offshore heading somewhere truly epic, do not be above bribery. This is not the time for being a model parent, this is all about survival (literally!)!!! If my kids know their daily ration of gummies hangs in the balance, you better believe they hop to it. I never leave shore without some sort of treat stash and it has always come in handy. Even when I was pregnant and hoarded the bulk of it in my own closet 😉
And last but not least…if all else fails, “Put ‘em in the dinghy till their older!” cheers!