Crossing Seas with Kids

What could be more relaxing and peaceful? Until you hear cries of, “Dad! My Barbie shoes went down the bilge!”, “Mom! James is sick again!” or the ever popular “I’m hungry!”

Long ocean passages involve a special kind of sailing. There you are, hundreds of miles from the hustle and bustle of shore, just you, the waves, the stars and your spouse. What could be more relaxing and peaceful? Until you hear cries of, “Dad! My Barbie shoes went down the bilge!”, “Mom! James is sick again!” or the ever popular “I’m hungry!”

Big passages aren’t just for big people. Having young kids aboard on a long bluewater trek can be lots of fun, but it does require good planning. In our two years living aboard, we have traveled thousands of miles aboard Papillon, our Bill Tripp yawl, and have spent dozens of nights at sea. We recently finished a 10-day leg from Panama City to the Galapagos followed by a three-week passage across the Pacific from the Galapagos to the Marquesas with our two active girls, ages 3 and 7. And we made it to Fatu Hiva still smiling. You can, too.

A Numbers Game

The smaller the child, the more help they need—someone to read to them, feed them and keep them clean. Tweens and teens are essentially self-sufficient and can more easily entertain themselves than can the small fries. The flipside is that while on passage, kids have to leave shore life behind, and older kids may feel the lack of society and activity more keenly than young ones. Similarly, multiple children have an easier time than only children in that they have playmates aboard, but more kids means more bickering when everyone gets antsy.

In short, there is no perfect age or perfect number. One of the basic tenets of the cruising life is “work with what you’ve got,” and that certainly applies here. Consider your kids’ interests and abilities carefully before you set out. This will help you make a plan to fulfill their needs while you are offshore. Are your kids readers? Order a stack of paperbacks. Builders? Break out the Duplo. Sudoku freaks? Buy the thickest book you can find. New board games, paint sets, even a stack of old magazines to attack with scissors and tape can help while away the hours.

Food, Glorious Food

It may seem obvious, but crew morale is closely linked to regular feedings. A full crew is a happy crew. Since I am always flattened by seasickness the first few days out, I cook a few easy-to-serve meals and snacks before we head offshore. Even if you never get seasick, having food prepared ahead of time lets kids grab something when they are hungry, no matter what the grown-ups are doing. Our 7-year-old, Martha, is the official “snack monitor” aboard Papillon and helps her 3-year-old sister, Audrey, get raisins and crackers as needed. The kids are happy, and I am free to help my husband, Erik, trim the jib.

Don’t underestimate the power of a few special treats when sparingly doled out. A well-hidden stash of small candy bars or jelly beans can work magic. Just don’t get too generous; cabin fever plus a sugar high is an explosive combination and is nothing you want to witness. Trust me.

Get to Work

There are always jobs to do on a boat, and when it comes to these jobs there is no need to leave out the kids—all but the tiniest children can join in the fun. Big kids can be responsible for log entries, SSB communications or even helping to stand watch. Small kids love being in charge of wildlife sightings and have sharp eyes when it comes to birds and dolphins. Both our girls are expert sous chefs and can decorate a pizza with the best of them.

As a rule of thumb, any time a kid asks, “Can I help?” the answer should be yes. It takes me twice as long to do the dishes when Audrey helps me, but so what? It is fun for the kids, fun for you and builds a great attitude. Jobs aboard are everyone’s business­—enjoy them together.

Run Free!

Exercise can be a problem while on passage. Few of us have enough space aboard for a child to really run and jump about, but you should take advantage of the space you do have. Don’t be afraid to let the kids out on deck. Using a combination of jacklines and offshore life jackets with proper tethers, you can keep them perfectly safe. Audrey spends a good portion of each day on passage at the bow and delights in strolling around on deck. Don’t deny kids the chance to stretch their legs—and don’t be afraid to join them!

Creatures of Routine

You may be tempted to abandon your regular schedule and treat a big passage as a big vacation. This can work for the first few days, while everyone is finding their sea legs and the excitement of being offshore is still fresh, but once everyone has settled into the watch schedule it is time to impose some order. It doesn’t have to be a strict schedule, but you would be surprised how well a young crew responds to having a general routine.

When at anchor we do our jobs in the morning. The girls and I do schoolwork right after breakfast, and Erik attends to maintenance chores. The girls are free to play with friends in the afternoon or take a trip ashore. On passage we find the reverse works better. The girls like to entertain themselves in morning while Erik and I catch up on sleep, but they start to have issues (read: fight like tigers) around 1430. So I break out the schoolbooks at 1400, and we work until dinnertime. Everyone knows what will happen next, and there is a certain comfort in that. Determine when your own low point of day is, and try to plan a regular activity to counteract it.


Having a routine helps pass the time, but it does get old. Keep some ideas ready for when the troops start to rebel. Make a “fun jar” with game ideas. Encourage the kids to put on a play or a concert. Set up a “creation station” where they can do art projects—a little glue, some wool and the recyclables you already have aboard will go a long way.

On Papillon we have Fantastic Friday every week while sailing. I keep a stock of small gifts on hand (novels, new pens and paper, activity books), and I give both girls a treasure map and a set of clues to follow to find their prizes. Not only does this put everyone in a good mood, but the kids end up with something that will keep them busy for at least half a day. Everybody wins.

Movie nights can be fun, too. Tuck away some new DVDs and pull them out as the need arises. Put on your pajamas, make some popcorn in the pressure cooker and, voila! You have your own private theater in the cockpit.

Any excuse for a party is a good one. We’ve enjoyed a “Crossing the Equator” party, a “Martha Lost a Tooth” party, a “Halfway There” party and a “We Need a Party Right Now!” party. Spotting a constellation, reaching a half-birthday, finding an extra block of cheese in the freezer—the reason for celebrating doesn’t really matter. Have the kids make decorations, or have them help bake a cake. When we lost our wind in the mid-Pacific, we got out the safety gear and had a “Swimming in the Middle of the Ocean” party, an event the girls still love to talk about. Get everyone involved, and remember that the preparations should be as much fun as the event itself. The goal isn’t to have a perfect party, it is to help the time pass in an enjoyable way.

Do It Yourself 

Having ideas to help keep your kids entertained is important, but don’t get sucked into becoming their cruise director. Kids have to learn how to make their own fun, or they will be lost every time they are bored for the rest of their lives. Give them options, but make sure they do some of the heavy lifting.

Good Times, Bad Times

Even the saltiest dogs have highs and lows on passage. Sometimes this is related to events. The day a shackle failed on a backstay, causing our aluminum mizzenmast to crack forward like a bendy straw, was not a happy day on Papillon. Likewise, having to put four stitches in Audrey’s eyebrow while underway isn’t my happiest memory. But sometimes everyone is just plain cranky. Don’t take it too seriously. You’ll all come out of it again. Just keep in mind that kids, especially small ones, pick up on your stress. Don’t let them worry too much about the torn spinnaker. Have a “Ripped Sail” party instead.

Also bear in mind that kids—like everyone else aboard—need time to themselves. As Martha once told me, “Sometimes you just get sick of each other.” On passage, with everyone confined to a small space for a long period of time, this becomes especially important. Find a way for everyone to get a little time alone each day.

With a little forethought and a good attitude, taking kids on a long passage can be a lot of fun. Seeing the sea through their eyes is delightful. Watching our girls’ excitement the day we were surrounded by a pod of dolphins made the whole trip worthwhile—broken mizzen notwithstanding. Kids can make a passage richer, just as they make a family richer.

So don’t hesitate. Take them along, and build some memories together.

Photos by Amy Schaefer

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