Taking Children on a Sailboat: How to Stay Safe

Taking Children on a Sailboat: How to Stay Safe

Written by Shannon O’Donnell on

Shannon O'Donnell is a long-term traveler who has been on the road since 2008 and has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Barcelona, where she now calls home. She travels slowly and supports responsible tourism along the way, winning numerous awards for her work advocating for the communities impacted by travel and tourism.

Taking Children on a Sailboat: How to Stay Safe

Taking Children on a Sailboat: How to Stay Safe

Taking children on a sailboat can be a rewarding and educational experience for everyone involved. A few basic safety tips can help ensure that everyone is happy and healthy on board.

Sailing with small children is an adventure to be sure! If you already love boating, doing so with little ones can teach you a whole new appreciation for the thrills of being on the water and the many educational experiences it can bring. I recently had the experience of bringing my 9- and 11-year-old nephews on a friend’s sailboat for the weekend, and the kids had the time of their lives!

We live in Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, where we are surrounded by water, so my kids already knew how to swim and were strong swimmers. If your children don’t know how to swim, it's a good idea for them to take some lessons before the first time they get on a sailboat. Not only will they have fun swimming off the back of the boat, but they will be safer in an emergency.

With that said, no matter how well they swim, all children should have Coast Guard-approved life jackets on when they are on a boat. And those life jackets should fit snugly. Have your kids try them on before purchasing; don’t go blindly by the size or weight recommendations on the tag. The life jacket should not touch the child’s chin or ears when he or she raises his or her arms in a “touchdown” pose. When we’re sailing, my nephews wear standard orange life vests, but personal flotation devices (PFDs) come in all sorts of child-friendly designs and colors.

Kids should also be taught that swimming in the ocean is very different from swimming in a pool. It’s important that they learn about currents, sea life, and the fact that depth can change drastically from one spot to another. And, of course, it’s important that children are always supervised when swimming in the ocean.

The same general safety rules for boating apply, whether kids are on board or not. Every sleeping compartment should be outfitted with a carbon monoxide detector, since carbon monoxide poisoning is a danger on all boats running a generator. We used shockproof, marine-approved LED lights to light the way around the boat at nighttime. This was fun for my nephews and ensured that nobody slipped or bumped their toes. Consider giving your kids glowsticks for fun, colorful nighttime illumination—they won’t even know it’s a safety measure. If you have small kiddos, consider installing marine netting between the guard ropes to help keep them from falling overboard.

I had to teach my nephews some basic boating rules, such as no running on board and to always keep their hands and feet inside the boat at all times. In terms of what to pack, each boy had a small carry-on filled with swim trunks, a couple of outfits, and pajamas. Slip-proof shoes are a must for boating, ideally deck shoes that won’t leave scuffs on the boat deck—one pair for each kid was plenty. Space is at a premium on every boat (even the largest), so it doesn’t make sense to bring a big, heavy suitcase. Using a packing system like Pack It helped keep our essentials safe and in one place within the larger bags. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen, and to slather it on the kids every two hours.

If you have younger children, it can help to have a safe place to strap them in if Mom and/or Dad (or in this case their Aunty!) are busy with “boat stuff.” A car seat or portable high chair is a good solution for this. Bring a bag for young kids with coloring books and crayons to keep them busy. Anticipate possible seasickness and bring along motion sickness medication. And don’t be surprised if sleeping on the boat changes a kid’s typical schedule a little bit—my nephews were lulled by the rocking of the boat and slept like angels, but that won’t be the case for every child. A familiar pillow or blanket might help to make a boat's bed feel more like home.

Want even more packing tips? Check out this comprehensive guide.

With some basic safety considerations, bringing kids on a sailboat is a fun and educational experience! Your turn, readers: What are your best tips for sailing with little ones? How about your favorite experiences?

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