Boating With Children

Practical ideas for having kids on board 

by Lupe Tucker




     It is no great mystery why boating has become one of America’s favorite pastimes.  The United States has many lakes, rivers, bays and inlets, and one of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of God’s marvelous creation is from a boat. Who better to share this joy with than with children?

    Although some people reject the notion of boating with children, I am here to tell you that sharing experiences on the water with children is not as complicated as it seems. With a little advance planning and the right attitude you can provide a very joyful, relaxing and educational experience for a child- and have a blast yourself.

     Our daughter Sunny has lived and sailed with us on our 35’ catamaran and has done lots of boating on Biscayne Bay in Florida on our 17’ fishing boat. Now 2 ½ years old, she is a real pro on the water! Our experiences with her on our boats have enabled us to create this checklist of things to remember in order to have a successful time boating with children and infants.

1.                    A good lifejacket or life vest with a collar that turns a child face up in the water. It must have strong waist and crotch straps, a handle on the collar, and preferably be a bright yellow or orange color for good visibility. Attach a plastic safety whistle to the lifejacket and teach the child how to use the whistle, and practice using it. Extrasport makes a very durable life vest that comes in infant and child sizes.

2.                    Pack a cooler with lots of fluids like water and juices (such as apple or grape), baby bottles and sippy cups. Being out in the sun for extended periods of time, children and adults get dehydrated quickly. Stay away from sodas, because they contain sodium and can make you more dehydrated.  Pack snacks that are not too salty or too sweet.

3.                    A diaper bag or a backpack with extra changes of clothes, and make sure to bring a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses. Bring plastic bags to keep wet things away from dry things.

4.                    Bedding: Depending on how much time you will spend on the water, your child may need a nap. Bring a small blanket or some towels and a small pillow and prepare a cozy place for them – like in a cuddy cabin or a makeshift tent.

5.                    Entertainment: Plan activities for your child involving the water or the boat. Bring crayons and some paper to draw a picture of the boat and label the parts. A small rod and some bait (optional) can provide hours of entertainment, as can a snorkel and a mask. Toys are good, as long as they are waterproof and easily replaced, as there is always the chance of things getting wet and falling overboard. Books are great, keep them dry with plastic bags or by keeping them below deck.

6.                    Raingear:  a small, lightweight poncho in a bright color is safe and easy to dry.

7.                    If you have an infant, bring a car seat or bouncy chair and set them where you want them to be on the boat. This also gives them a place to sleep, and gives you a rest from holding them. Set them in the seat comfortably, but DO NOT strap an infant into it as you would in a car. If the infant should happen to go overboard strapped into a seat, it will cause their life vest to not function properly.  

     The most important thing for you to have is a positive attitude and approach. Boating can be very enriching and educational for a child. Besides the fact that they are exposed to fresh air and sunshine, only by being out in nature can a child truly appreciate the environment and understand the need to preserve it. The excitement of seeing birds, fish, dolphins or even manatees and manta rays in their natural habitats cannot be replaced by TV or seaquariums.

     Part of this positive attitude is a realistic approach towards safety. Establish clear and enforceable rules on the boat. Having too many restrictions on board can quench a child’s desire to go boating. Establish a chain of command, especially if the boat belongs to someone else or is captained by another person. Talk to the child before hand about expected behavior onboard and what activities are allowed, explaining in clear, simple language the real dangers behind activities that are not allowed, while making it fun and challenging. Go through safety procedures on the boat, such as man overboard procedures, and give the child ideas of things to do when an emergency happens. For example, if they should happen to fall overboard, using their whistle not only alerts others on the boat, it also gives them something to focus on so they do not panic in the water. Teach them the basic parts of a boat. Information and clear procedures are your best weapons in an emergency. Ask them questions about what you have said to ensure that they are listening and comprehending your instructions.

     Expect that the first few times a child has to wear a life jacket, a hat that ties down, or other protective gear, will be met with resistance, and maybe even disliked, and almost inevitably complained or cried about (especially if they are infants). However, it is necessary to stand firm and insist that the safety and protective gear is worn and used. Encourage them constantly with love to show the child that it is for their safety and benefit. This may take a couple of times, but once a child knows that there is no compromise on certain things, they will quickly forget their complaining and get used to wearing these items. It is better to get a child used to wearing protective gear at a very young age, because as they grow older they will know what to expect, and even remind you to put these items on them.

     For example, on our sailboat Sunny must wear her life vest on deck and in the cockpit while underway, but she can roam freely below decks without a life vest. If Sunny wants to go on the foredeck she must be accompanied by an adult. While at anchor she doesn’t have to wear a life vest in the cockpit, but if she wants to go on deck she must wear her life vest. On our small fishing boat she always wears her life vest and can roam everywhere, but she is never allowed to stand on the casting platform.

     Mechanical devices and electronics such as winches, control panels, engine throttles, motors, electric reels, windlasses, EPIRBS, flares, and flare guns need to be off limits for children, unless they are old enough to be able to operate them safely. Areas of the boat where ropes and halyards are should be off limits, since it is easy to trip on them or to get a foot or hand wrapped up or caught in a line and pulled overboard. When approaching any obstacle, dock, or vessel it is necessary to remind everyone to keep all body parts in the boat and off the rails, gunnels or sides of the boat to avoid getting fingers or feet pinched or smashed.

    We have ensured that the rules we established are enforced, and now Sunny loves boats and has a good respect for the water. At 2 ½, Sunny’s life vest, sunglasses and hat are essential items that she makes sure she has, and our 5 month old has become quite comfortable in her life vest. Responsible boating gives children self confidence and inspires their curiosity, at the same time providing you with an opportunity to share your lifestyle with them. Plan ahead and your time on the water with them will be a precious one!

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