Selecting a boat to cruise on inevitably involves compromises, but this is especially true when searching for a good family cruiser. Families often make ideal cruising crews in that they already know each other well, but they do have particular requirements as to living space and sailing performance that differ from those of all-adult crews. Some of these are perfectly fulfilled by modern production boats; others, unfortunately, are not.
Having served as stepdad to four kids (two boys and two girls) and more recently as dad and stepdad to two girls, I have now inflicted family cruising on a broad range of subjects aboard a broad range of vessels. My experiments have not been unique. Nautically speaking, I am the more interested, more experienced crewmember and therefore get to play skipper. I work with a somewhat less interested, less experienced adult mate, and together we strive to care for, entertain, and otherwise pacify a crew of children who have absolutely no experience. The suggestions below pertain to families who sail together in similar circumstances. Ideally, the goal is to have a family crew in which all members, including the children, are quite experienced and can help work the boat together. This is much more likely to occur if early adventures take place on a truly family-friendly boat.
The first question most families ask when searching for a cruising boat is “How many can it sleep?” Because production boatbuilders always seek to maximize berth space, the answer is usually “Quite a few.”
The more important question is “How are the berths arranged?” Builders, urged on by the charter industry, have long favored double berths over single berths, and boats are usually marketed according to how many couples they can sleep. Children, however, dislike sharing beds and usually feel most comfortable sleeping in a space that is uniquely theirs. Such a space need not be large and (at least until the kids become teenagers) it need not be private.
On an ideal family cruising boat there should be but one double berth for parents to share. All the other berths should be singles—the more the merrier, as kids love to bring friends along when having adventures. Here are some obvious ways to maximize single berths aboard different sorts of sailboats.
Catamarans: Cats are absolutely optimal in terms of sleeping space, as veritable hordes can be accommodated once some of the doubles are split into two singles. Cats often have extra single berths in the peak of each bow that adults wouldn’t consider sleeping in, but most children find them highly attractive. On larger cats it may even be possible to fit twin sets of over-and-under bunks into certain staterooms. With a catamaran you could also contemplate a true two-family layout, with private double berths and two to four single berths in each hull.
Large aft-cockpit monohulls: Boats large enough to have both twin quarter-cabins aft and a decent owner’s stateroom forward can easily accommodate four children in those quarter-cabins, in two sets of over-and-under bunk berths. The parents up forward will enjoy superior ventilation and can more easily detect the rumble of dragging ground tackle in the dark of night. If parents instead sleep aft, it should be possible to fit in two sets of over-and-under berths for kids in one large forward cabin or two smaller twin cabins.
Smaller aft-cockpit monohulls: On boats too small for whole quarter-cabins, aft single quarterberths should be substituted where possible. To maximize berthing in the saloon, pilot berths can be installed outboard of the settees. On boats too narrow for this, collapsible pipeberths can be installed over the settees, or the settee seatbacks can be hinged to swing up flat on a tackle, as is seen on some modern racer-cruisers. Parents will likely be in a somewhat cramped V-berth forward. If they instead sleep aft—most likely in one of those large athwartships doubles slung under the cockpit—the V-berth space, even if it’s quite cramped, can easily accommodate two kids in separate over-and-under bunks with overlapping feet.
Larger center-cockpit monohulls: If parents inhabit the conventional palatial aft cabin, four children can easily be inserted into two sets of over-and-under bunks in twin midship cabins forward of the saloon. Perhaps two more can cross feet in the peak. Alternately, if parents sleep forward, the aft cabin might be given over to two sets of bunk berths parallel to the centerline with an extra single slung athwartships under the cockpit. For bluewater-cruising families in particular, such an arrangement might be ideal. The parents forward can easily monitor ground tackle at night while at anchor and while on passage can shift to sleeping on settees in the saloon, where they will be more comfortable and can more easily monitor sailing systems. Kids, meanwhile, can stay in the same berths and can enjoy a segregated play area below in the aft cabin.
Storage & heads
It’s good to have lots of stowage space on a family-friendly cruiser for extra food and clothing; kids also like having dedicated lockers of their own for stowing personal items and treasured objects. Unfortunately this conflicts directly with the need to maximize berthing space, as any boat with many berths tends to be low on stowage space.
In most cases this is the biggest contradiction that cruising families must grapple with in determining which interior layout is best suited to their needs. As a general rule, coastal cruisers should err on the side of choosing more berths, and bluewater cruisers or liveaboards should at some point limit berthing (and consequently crew size) in favor of stowage space.
As to heads, having two is certainly a fine thing, both so adults can pretend to enjoy an exclusive toilet and so the line to use a head doesn’t get too long during peak periods. Most small to moderate-size families can get by with just one. In most cases, having more than two heads is an extravagant waste of precious space that’s better spent on stowage or berths