By: Scott Way
Boating with your kids is one of the many ways to spend quality time with your family, but it can also inspire them to experience the outdoors. Bringing your kids aboard can add a wonderful element to your boating experience, but you’ll need to do some leg work beforehand to ensure you raise a competent first mate. Here are 10 suggestions to not only prepare your kids for boating, but also ignite their passion and encourage them to become responsible young boaters.
1. Inspire Them
Start them young. If you have aspirations of bringing the kids aboard while they’re toddlers, there are things you can do to encourage their nautical dreams (and yours). Start with activities like colouring books that include nautical imagery, or toys that incorporate ships, ocean wildlife, or similarly-themed topics. Nature guides, fishing books, bird books, or any other host of boating-themed subjects may get them excited about the prospect of seeing wildlife while on the water. A good pair of binoculars also encourages a patient hobby where they’ll want to seek out exciting new species while boating. If your child becomes interested in these on-shore, you can translate them into on-water activities like bird watching, animal identifying (keeping an eye for particular species like fish, dolphins, or whales if you’re in saltwater). A sense of adventure is always fun too- design a treasure map beforehand and leave some clues on shore, then take them on a treasure hunt to discover what Long John Silver has left buried in the sand.
If your child becomes interested in wildlife while boating, you can also gauge their interest in snorkeling. In-water activities are one of the best ways to get kids interested as they’re not only informative but also a lot of fun. Snorkeling requires training and diligence, though, so establish clear rules and procedures just like you would as part of your general boating safety plan. A good trick is to use a floating rope tied to the stern with a buoy tied to the end. The kids can use this as their boundary for travelling away from the boat, and they can hang onto it for security as they get used to snorkeling. Always remember kids should never be unattended in the water, so stay in the water with them as much as possible, or make sure you have protocols for constant supervision.
Once your child begins being actively involved in the boat, you can also gauge their interest in learning about boat maneuvers. Ask any child and they’re likely to say that the best part about a boat ride, PWC ride, or anything motorized is the chance to take the wheel. Explain navigation rules, boating courtesy, day markers, channel markers, and general safety guidelines, and once they’re confident and capable, introduce them to the helm and its operation. Most countries require a boater safety course for children to legally operate a vessel, so confirm the requirements before giving them a turn at the wheel. If you’re in the U.S, go to BoatUs.org to learn more. If you’re in Canada, there are government guidelines for age/horsepower restrictions.
2. Comfortable Life Jackets
Having a proper fitting PFD that meets government requirements is absolutely essential for all children going aboard. There are specific requirements relative to size and weight, and each country has different regulations. A poorly fitted life jacket will not lead to a positive experience, and any jacket that isn’t certified or doesn’t match the necessary criteria is outright dangerous. Bright colours are always ideal for visibility, so you may want to limit input when it comes to choosing the colour. If your child is young or isn’t a good swimmer, there are three key design elements you should consider: head flotation, an underside security strap, and self-righting capability. Head flotation means that regardless of position their head will always remain above water. An underside security strap ensures the child can’t slip out of the jacket from underneath, and self-righting capability ensures that without any movement the child will turn face-up in the water and remain able to breathe. Always do a test fit before purchasing, and try the life jacket in a controlled environment before any extended trips. Have your child go for a short swim at a swimming pool or at the dock while under supervision to ensure they’re comfortable and can wear it for extended periods. Not all life jackets are created equal, so focus on the 4 main characteristics mentioned above: bright colors, head flotation, an underside security strap, and self-righting capability. If these are all covered and your child is comfortable, you’ve made a wise investment.
3. Swimming Lessons
This goes hand-in-hand with a proper PFD. Taking your children swimming as much as possible will give them more time honing their skills and getting comfortable in the water. Anchor out when possible and swim with the kid(s), or go ashore for some beach activities that involve swimming (or a treasure hunt!). As their skills progress, allow them to swim longer distances (while under supervision) and encourage their successes in the water. The ultimate goal is to have them comfortable without a life jacket/PFD and capable of swimming without assistance, and that will take time. Children can swim without a life jacket while supervised under most laws, but it varies by country and state. Make sure you know your local laws, always include parental supervision, and invest in swimming lessons at your local pool or rec centre to increase their odds of success. If they take to the water, you can look forward to a lifetime of on-water adventures.
4. Stock Up
Kids are more vulnerable than adults to things like sunburns and seasickness, so you’ll want to make sure your boat is well stocked with the necessary remedies. Use water-resistant multi-spectrum sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30 every time kids are on board. Re-apply every two hours, and always promote regular use regardless of the weather. It doesn’t have to be particularly warm or sunny to get a sunburn, especially with the reflective qualities of water. It’s also smart to include remedies for seasickness, but you’ll have to take into consideration your child’s age(s). Children under 12 are typically not advised to take over the counter medications like Dramamine or scopalomine, so you’ll have to use natural remedies like ginger, peppermint, wristbands (seabands), and stock up on digestible foods like pretzels and saltine crackers in case they get queasy on an empty stomach.
5. Wet Kids= Cold Kids
When a child gets wet, they don’t respond the same as adults to colder temperatures, so you’ll have to plan accordingly. Pack extra clothes, cold weather clothing, and extra towels in case they feel a chill. Even in warm weather, a cold breeze from the boat can cause a chill, and going into cooler water despite warm air temperatures can have a similar effect. Check with your kids regularly if they’ve gotten wet to ensure they feel OK. It’s a common belief that kids don’t feel cold water as harshly as adults do, but that doesn’t mean it won’t result in the same effects. Get them dried quickly, warmed up, and be watchful of any symptoms of hypothermia if the air or water temperature approaches anywhere near 10 Celsius or 50 Fahrenheit. Safety first, fun second.
6. Safe Zone
As part of pre-trip training it’s always recommended to give your kid(s) a rundown of the boat rules before every trip. Before starting the engine, remind them of the established rules like no leaning over the rail, keeping their life jackets on at all times, and staying seated when the boat is moving. If possible, creating a ‘safe zone’ onboard; areas like your V-berth can be great locations for stocking up extra toys and pillows so your kids have a comfortable place to relax and pass time. If you don’t have a V-berth but have room on deck, a small portable playpen also works, and you can include a sunshade or mosquito net as needed. This will also give the captain/crew a particular area where they can focus their supervision if there’s a lot going on (weather, fishing, docking, etc). If you don’t have room on your vessel, something as simple as assigning seats for each person means they’ll know where to be when moving (and so will you).
7. Safety Training
As part of pre-trip planning it’s always smart to include boat training so your kids not only understand the dangers of boating, but also have a chance to actively participate in their learning. Give them basic tasks during loading/unloading so they can learn where equipment goes, how it’s stored, and what it’s used for. Show them where all the ‘pinch points’ are on the boat beforehand, like hatch covers or doors, and highlight any high-risk areas where they could encounter danger (the transom and engine, the anchor, etc). Kids love learning knots, so take the opportunity to teach them some basic knots they can use to be an active member of the crew. This will instill a sense of responsibility, and they can practice while on board before putting their skills to use next time you dock. Simple knots like a figure eight, bowline, or trucker’s hitch will inevitably come in handy, and it’ll make them a valued member of the crew. As your child becomes mature enough to take on more, you can begin incorporating lessons like starting the boat, placing/removing the fenders, tying/untying lines, and so on. A 5 year old shouldn’t be driving, but by age 10-12 under the correct supervision you can begin to demonstrate basic docking procedures, maneuvering, and navigating. There’s not many bigger thrills when you’re 10-12 than getting the chance to operate a big machine like a boat, so with the right education and training this could encourage an interest towards becoming your new first mate. Just make sure you’re in compliance with all laws before considering giving your child any control of the boat.
8. Emergency Training
Just like any crew member, your child should also be educated about emergency training onboard. Show them how to use the radios, emergency equipment (flares, etc), and how to call for help and what protocols/language to use. As they understand more, make sure they know how to identify their boat’s name and location in the event of an emergency, and what channels to utilize (and in what order) to seek help. They should also be versed in first aid and rescue techniques as their age and maturity develops. Everyone on board should understand basic emergency/safety procedures, and once your child is able to participate they should undergo the same training.
9. Assign Roles
As your child becomes more versed in boating, keeping them involved will be a key part of maintaining their interest. Being a valued team member means having responsibilities that contribute to the greater good, and with increasing age should come increasing responsibility. Things like being the Float Plan coordinator, safety inspector, hazard spotter, weather watcher, radio operator, gear caption, or dock master will ensure they make a positive contribution to the boating experience and are responsible not just for their safety, but the safety of others as well. Boaters should always look out for one another, whether on the same vessel or not, and instilling this from an early age is valuable not just as a boating skill, but as a life skill.
10. Keep It Fun
While there are many responsibilities as a boater, the end game is to always enjoy your time on the water. For kids, they’ll want to experience the best it has to offer like fast rides, catching fish, and enjoying laughs with friends and family. Make sure to set aside time to account for their interests- they’re apt to be more interested in long tube rides than you are, or be adamant about catching a fish with their new fishing rod. Kids get bored fast, so keeping a list of available activities for each trip is the perfect way to add variety and excitement to everyone’s boating experience. Let them pick the fishing spot, or get their input on where to travel to find a good anchor spot. Get their input on your navigation plans, or have them make plans for the day. If you’ve raised a good first mate, you’ll have a boating partner that can not only can release the anchor but also bring an entirely new level of joy to your boating experience.