Sailing with kids

Sailing in the British Virgin Islands is my family’s favorite vacation. However, sailing with kids takes some planning.

Can kids go sailing? Absolutely. The question is at what age. I would recommend that you wait until your kids are about four years old and can swim. But every family and every kid is different – I was willing to go sailing with a baby and I once took a six year old who couldn’t swim very well.

The main thing is you want your children to be safe when you are sailing and when they are in the water. Here are some things to consider.

    1. Falling off the boat. Are they old enough to understand that they should stay in the boat when it is moving and there’s a chance they could fall out if they get to close to the edge? I was willing to take a baby who couldn’t crawl but I’m not willing to take my 19 month old because he’s never still and he’s not afraid of anything. You can tether them to the cabin. Somehow I don’t think my 19 month old would like that at all. And what if he woke up before us? Also, make sure everyone knows what to do in a man overboard situation. If you haven’t been sailing in a while, it would be a good idea to practice a man overboard drill using a life jacket as the “man overboard”. Think about what everyone should do if the person with most experience falls overboard.
    2. Swimming. I wouldn’t go on a water vacation with kids that can’t swim. Not only will they not have a good time but both the kids and the adults will be afraid the whole time. Make sure your kids can swim and make sure they spend a lot of time in the water before you go. Have them try out their snorkel gear a couple of times in the pool.
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    4. Life Jackets. Find a life jacket they love and make sure they wear it whenever the boat is moving. I would pick comfort over best safety ratings because if your kid isn’t wearing it, it’s not going to do them any good. (Note that our son liked his life jacket a bit too much – we had to convince him to take it off when swimming!)
    5. Entertainment. The British Virgin Islands are a great place for kids but you need to spend some time thinking about what types of things will be most fun for kids.
      • Find fun things to do when anchored like jumping off the side of the boat or tie a swim float to the back of the boat and let them try to lie on it.  They can also snorkel to check the anchor.
      • Find fun things to do when sailing.  They can help steer, coil ropes or just play checkers and Uno. Or count islands, or other boats, or … This one was the most challenging to us.
    6. Food. Make sure you bring lots of snacks. We couldn’t believe how hungry our kiddo was but when we stopped to think about it – he never stopped moving! I’d also make sure you have plenty of kid staples like peanut butter and jelly and hot dogs. Very few of the BVI restaurants have kid meals so eating out with kids gets expensive fast. Note that bread can mold fast on a boat, so you might be better off stocking bagels or tortillas instead of bread for sandwiches. I’d also buy (or bring) a lot of prepackaged snacks for the beach.
    7. Let them sail. Teach your kids how to sail and find things they can do. They can coil lines, pick up a mooring, help plan the day’s route, steer the boat, winch, drive the dinghy, etc.
    8. Explain ahead of time that there may be times when you can’t talk to them and you need them to sit still and stay out of the way – like when you are trying to navigate a tricky passage or when a big rainstorm with a huge gust of wind suddenly hits you.
    9. Tell them where you are going and what they will find there.  Have them practice saying names like “Anegada” and “Jost Van Dyke.”  Explain the things you are seeing.  Practice spotting mooring balls and other types of boats.
    10. Realize that when they are very tired, injuries are much more likely to happen. One day after a long day at the beach, our six year old managed to fall off his seat and hit his back on the wheel and his stomach on the seat. Half
      an hour later he fell down the stairs hurting his back and slamming his front on the floor.  Tired kids get clumsy and boats aren’t kind to clumsy people.
    11. Schedule lots of time for their favorite activities and realize they may not be what you think they will be.  Beaches – playing in the sand – not swimming or snorkeling turned out to be our oldest son’s favorite.  (Also remember that kids tend to get really cold snorkeling
      for more than 30 minutes at a time.)
    12. Be sure to explain how the head (i.e. the toilet) works and doublecheck a few times that they are doing it right.  Our son was really good about remembering not to put toilet paper in the head but it took him a few days to figure out to pump with water before pumping all the water out. We also have a lot of pictures of the head from the time we gave him a camera and told him to take pictures of the boat.
    13. Clothes. Bring at least two swimsuits and some good water shoes for them. You might want to bring a few pairs of pajamas as well. Anything and everything they own will most likely end up covered in salt water. If they have hats or sunglasses make sure you have ties for them.
    14. Snorkel gear. Make sure your kid gets a chance to practice snorkeling in a comfortable environment like the pool before you go. We invested in a good mask for our six year old and then grabbed a snorkel and fins from the charter company. After two days of telling my kid he was using his snorkel wrong, I traded with him and realized he had a broken snorkel! Next time we will take masks and snorkels and just use the charter companies fins.
    15. Sleeping. I highly recommend that you have a cabin for every two people on your boat. That said, remember that kids love the small nooks and crannies. They are likely to be happy in that tinnie, tiny bunk that nobody else can sit up in.

    What questions do you have? And for those of you who have sailed with kids, what advice do you have?