During our liveaboard sailing classes Margie and I have hosted families with very young kids. Here are few thoughts on whether sailing with infants is something that is feasible or advisable. Before I start I have to say that sailing with kids of any age is great, seeing the world through fresh eyes and making lifetime memories is one of life’s true joys. There is currently an amazing amount of controversy about the rescue of the family on Rebel Heart who were offshore on their cruising sailboat with their 1 and 3 year old. What seems to be missing from the discussion is how to safely sail with young kids and what limitations should responsible parents place on themselves while still being able to follow their cruising dreams.
We started boating with our daughter when she was a newborn 31 years ago and have done charters for the last 7 years with kids as young as 9 months old both comfortably and safely. Sailing with kids does require more preparation and a more conservative approach but it is very rewarding. I guess since our daughter is now a USCG licensed captain and an ASA sailing instructor some of that early “on the water” experience must have struck a chord.
Perhaps the most important factor in sailing with young kids is their need for constant supervision. There are obvious dangers to avoid like going overboard, exploring an environment full of sharp corners and toxic chemicals and moving boat parts that can do significant damage to their bodies. A significant and not as noticeable a danger is distraction when the crew are in the middle of docking, acting as lookout, making sail or course changes. There is an old saying “one hand for you and one for the boat”, with kids that can easily be one hand for you and one for the child. This means that someone else needs to be running the boat when those times arise.
So the first requirement if two parents are traveling with kids is that they both are competent and comfortable with basic boat handling. The boat should be set up for single handing with things like an autopilot, radar, AIS, sail controls to the cockpit and be well maintained. Each crewmember should be able to bring it to a dock, reef the sails, call for help, find their position on a chart and navigate to a new destination.
Next is choosing where to cruise. For Margie and I cruising is all about the destination. Exploring and meeting new people, seeing different cultures is a window to the world that can’t be beat. We have had amazing traveling experiences as far away as Greece and the San Blas Islands but have also had truly magical times enjoying the hospitality of southern towns like Beaufort, South Carolina or sailing in New York harbor by the Statue of Liberty. It may not be necessary to do a shorthanded circumnavigation right away when you could wait several years as you train your young crew how to live aboard safely.
I love to sail, I am quite happy with four to eight hours a day underway. There are times when we do longer passages to reach an especially inviting spot but their is more than a lifetime’s exploration in North and South America without doing more than an occasional overnight. If I was planning a long term cruise with an infant coastal cruising would seem be as rewarding as a long offshore passage. I know that some people really want out be out for weeks at a time but without an appropriately set up boat and enough crew to stand watch and separately care for infants on board long offshore passages may not be in the best interests of the family.
Most accidents seem to be caused by a series of small issues that all the sudden can add up to a big problem. When you start with infants on board you are starting with a small issue, by preparing well and understanding the small ecosystem that is a cruising sailboat it can be very safe to sail with small childern. In my opinion it is not to be done casually but only with extensive preparation. We are happy to have helped a number of families on their journey to achieve their sailing dreams.