We all think about it, as we take our children cruising, whether for a week or for 10 years: how will they adapt to this very unusual life, with its safety rules and overcrowded conditions? And is it dangerous for them? And how should life aboard be organised so that all goes well?
New first-aid kit, long development
The experience, the skills and the dedication of these people invites just one comment: have on board as a minimum the medical provisions recommended for the kind of sailing you are undertaking; the distance from shelter has been chosen according to usual practices in leisure sailing in France:
- under 6 miles from shelter, coastal day sailing to beaches, islands close to the coast and coastal fishing areas.
- between 6 miles and 200 miles, offshore sailing to islands such as the Ile d’Yeu, British Isles, Corsica and the Balearics, game fishing areas, finally
- over 200 miles, ocean cruising.
Why? Quite simply, because children have an ability to adapt which is 100 times greater than ours…
The catamaran: space and privacy
The general opinion of cruising families is that the hardest thing to cope with remains the boat’s cramped conditions, and what inevitably follows: the lack of privacy, for both children and their parents. And this privacy, this space available for each person, is easier to find in a catamaran than in any other boat…
So the system which appears to work most naturally is to have a children’s area, a parents’ area and a common area… It is up to everyone to define these spaces as they think best. For example, during a week’s cruise in the Virgin Islands, with two families (four adults and four children) the solution adopted was one hull per family (the children thus having two cabins available), the saloon for the children, who could then eat, watch a film, draw, etc., whilst the parents took over the cockpit, where they could put the world to rights until early in the morning, without disturbing their offspring with their libations… This system is even more attractive, as from a safety point of view it allows the children’s comings and goings between the inside and the outside of the boat to be supervised.
In the case of a family on an Atlantic circuit (for example), it is much simpler - one hull for the children, one hull for the parents, and everything is sorted! Sometimes this arrangement has to be changed: if the youngest (less than 6 years old) are in a cabin in the parents’ hull, an eye can be kept on them and their movements during the nights, to avoid them being alone, outside… The ideal is to let the oldest children, especially the teenagers, have their own cabin. At that age, it is really important for them to be able to be alone, in their own little world. Teenagers do not necessarily have the same motivation to leave their friends and live on a boat for a year or more… It is up to you to help them as much as possible, by offering them a personal space that they can arrange as they wish.
This is the crucial point, the big issue for any parent taking their children aboard, one which is as valid for a week’s charter as for a year or more aboard. In fact, children have a remarkable ability to adapt and quickly understand safety requirements. The first weeks are the riskiest, before the automatic reactions are fixed in their heads. Geoffroy de Bouillane talks about his fears as father and captain of Kadavu (an Outremer 45) brilliantly, in his book ‘Un temps pour un rêve’. He describes his nightmares, but also how he obliged his children to clip themselves on and wear a lifejacket… in the first weeks. Later, everyone got their bearings aboard and the children no longer attached themselves systematically…because the catamaran offers much greater safety than the monohull – the boat moves less! It is this stability which allows the children to be left (within reason) to go about their business, during calm passages.
One solution I use on our family cruises or when I am in charge of a boat with children aboard, is to put one of the adults on ‘child watch’. What does this mean? It’s quite simple, an adult must always be looking after the children under 8, watching them and being responsible for them. If that adult has to go away, for a few seconds or more, and therefore not have them in his or her sight, he or she clearly and precisely appoints another adult, who takes charge of the children, naming the children (s)he is now responsible for… It is simple, easy, not restricting and whilst sailing (or even at anchor with the youngest) allows an adult eye to be kept on the children, to avoid the worst – a fall overboard. Because this is certainly the biggest danger aboard! To avoid it, it is best to systematically refuse to go cruising (even for a few hours) aboard a boat which does not have strong stanchions all around its perimeter. This is one of the rudiments of safety. The (strong) stanchions and the guardwires allow you to catch yourself and hold on, according to the old saying: one hand for yourself, one for the boat. If you are leaving on a catamaran with young children for several months, it is even more reassuring to add netting to the guardwires; this is simple to do and can be a great help. Along the same lines, it is now current practice to have jackstays rigged, even on charter catamarans. When you book, just ask the charter company to fit them for your children’s safety. They can then enjoy the trampoline without you worrying, as you start your night passage from Martinique to the Grenadines. And this unbelievably magical moment will remain in your little darlings’ memories for a long time.
To be able to take advantage of these jackstays, you must first provide harnesses in their sizes. Depending on your budget and the length of your cruise, you could choose a simple harness, or one combined with a self-inflating lifejacket, which is easy to put on, not bulky and very reassuring. Final point: the example. It is difficult to explain to an 8-year-old child (who feels like a grown-up) that (s)he must clip on, if the adults stroll around the deck with their hands in their pockets. The sea is the last place where you can be free and do whatever you want, but that does not exempt you from your responsibilities! Setting an example is part of this.
A few essential rules
Before leaving harbour, it is advisable to have a safety briefing. Every skipper knows this and it is their duty to apply this simple rule. The children must participate, but they should also be offered a personalised briefing (in which all the adults aboard must participate). This is the moment to explain to them how a boat works and above all, a few essential rules:
- If you fall overboard, shout… Anyone who sees someone fall overboard must shout as well… Nobody will be told off!
- Always hold on to the boat firmly, both outside and inside. In fact, although falling overboard can be dreadful, a fall inside can be painful. Holding on whilst sailing and when moving around the boat, is COMPULSORY.
- When an order is given, it must be obeyed immediately and quickly. The adult can take the time to explain the whys and the wherefores when the situation allows.
- Always state clearly where you are going. I’m going up forward, I’m going to the heads, etc… so as not to cause turmoil aboard looking for the youngest who has quite simply gone to his cabin to get his red dragon with the green wings… (true story!).
Even the youngest understand these basic rules, which are simple to understand and easy to remember. From the age of 7 – 8, the children can take a greater part in sailing the boat, carry out some manoeuvres on their own and become a bit more self-sufficient. These new responsibilities will inevitably be accompanied by new safety rules to avoid injuries: before opening a jammer, always take a turn with the rope around the winch; if there is too much tension, let everything go rather than burning your fingers, and in addition the winch handle is a weapon, you can hit the head of a bonito with it, but not that of your little sister! Finally you should keep in mind that the windlass is certainly the most dangerous thing aboard. So think before sending your youngest to weigh the anchor. This needs some real training and a clear explanation of all the risks associated with this manoeuvre…
To finish with the subject of safety, it must be said that it is rare that a child falls overboard when sailing, this happens more often at anchor whilst the children are playing, or on the pontoons. Although it is difficult to teach children under 5 to swim, they can be given a few swimming lessons, which will allow them to keep their heads above water, reach a support and wait for help…
Preparing a cruise with children is not the same as preparing a trip with a bunch of mates you have sailed with for 20 years… Again, this applies to a certain extent to either a week’s charter or a sabbatical year.
First of all, children love to swim, dive, run on the beach, and like long passages to windward a bit less! So, when preparing your cruise, plan short passages, during the youngest children’s siesta time. That will avoid the endless “when will we be there?” which is heard as much aboard a boat as in a car. Don’t hesitate to plan swimming stops, which will allow them to let off steam (even out at sea, with draconian safety measures)… The ideal remains night sailing or leaving very early in the morning. During longer passages, get the children to participate: they love steering, plotting the route on the charts, using the GPS…from 4 years old onwards!
Concerning the first-aid kit, it is advisable to have seasickness remedies suitable for children to hand (homeopathy offers some excellent products), even if the youngest children rarely suffer from these problems. Don’t forget an ‘anti-bruise’ ointment…it’s amazing how often certain children manager to hurt themselves. Almost as if they had a radar to help them find all the sharp edges…
But the biggest danger aboard a boat is the sun. Cap, t-shirt and sun-cream are essential. A lycra t-shirt for swimming is also a good investment. You will thus protect your children’s skin from the effects of the sun. Never forget that their skin is much more sensitive than yours, and even after living for several months in the Tropics, it is easy for them to burn under the sun’s particularly aggressive rays…especially when they spend hours in the water. The sun can also cause dehydration. We are rarely thirsty on a boat; yet on a cruise in the Tropics, it is very hot. Spending a long time in the water cooling down should above all not stop you drinking a lot - 1.5 litres of water per person per day really is a minimum. Not to be neglected when taking on provisions and remember to offer water regularly to the youngest children.
Those of you who are thinking of going to remote parts, with mediocre medical facilities, must take a full first-aid kit. It is then advisable to call on your paediatrician and even a doctor specialising in tropical medicine, to have the equipment and medicines to hand, but above all to know how to use them. Many Multihulls World readers leaving for a sabbatical year do a first-aid course before leaving; it’s easy and very useful. Finally, if your wandering takes you to Africa, or certain remote parts of the West Indies, don’t forget to have the whole family vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, typhoid and meningitis… All that remains is malaria, which is found in many cruising areas. Mosquitoes are rare aboard, but once ashore you can be infected. You must therefore find out about the dangerous areas before you leave and take your anti-malaria treatment well before arriving and for a long time after having left the area… here again, this implies planning your stops well.
How to occupy them
A baby, before it is able to ‘escape’ on all fours, is not a problem aboard – the worries begin later! It is then advisable to occupy the children. At anchor there is no problem; they are generally the first into the water and the last to get out. Whilst the youngest spend their time jumping off the boat, or playing on the nearby beach, the older ones love to go fishing for the dinner… The evenings are generally the opportunity to live the moments of family communion for which you left in the first place!
When sailing, we have seen above that even the youngest children can show an interest and take part in certain manoeuvres. But that is not enough! You must therefore plan occupations: a few sheets of paper, some coloured pencils and even the pre-teens will show their artistic talents. Take a good quantity of paper and a few colouring books and you will have peace and quiet for a few hours.
Nowadays, portable computers or portable DVD players can be embarked without a problem, and can be recharged from 12 volts. There is nothing like watching a good film during a passage: ‘we’ll be there in two films’ time, and everyone is happy…
Finally, take plenty of music and a good library: it’s incredible how even teenagers who are impervious to reading can devour books at sea.
The tricky subject… It’s already complicated getting children to do their homework at home, so getting them to do schoolwork aboard is often not exactly a rest cure! But if you envisage living aboard with children, you will have to cope with this! The French are lucky enough to have an excellent system which is part of the national education system: the CNED (Centre National d'Enseignement à Distance). For 97 euros for nursery and primary schools, and between 118 and 640 euros for secondary school, your children will receive all the lessons for their school year, with exercises, homework and, if they work well, a certificate allowing them to move up into a higher class and go back to classic schooling when you return… Here again, you must be well-organised, to receive and send the lessons by fixed dates. All that remains is to organise the work aboard. In general, according to the examples of readers of this magazine, the children work every morning, under the supervision of one of the parents, and are allowed ‘holidays’ during visits aboard. By respecting this timetable, school aboard remains bearable, even though certain mornings it’s not easy to send the children ‘to school’ when the boat is anchored at the Baths or Bora-Bora…