Making kids part of the sail crew

We’ve been sailing as a family for three years, but until this last year, my son showed very little interest in being anything more than a passenger.

During passages (in our case, a day or two of sailing in Puget Sound to get from one gunkhole to the next), we had to demand he leave the cabin and come topside. We gave him “jobs,” like searching the water for sea life, or rules, like any eating had to happen in the cockpit while we were underway. He complied, but usually would cry boredom at some point and beg to go back into the cabin with a book.

Our son isn’t quite ready to take the helm on his own yet.

Then something happened this spring. He isn’t helping trim sails or begging to take the helm yet, but a deep interest in maps and charts got him excited to help identify markers for shoals and shallow spots while we are underway. He also is the first to call out when we are getting near an obstacle or shipwreck marked on the chart, and is excellent at determining where we are on our route.

Maturity (he is 9 now) probably has a lot to do with his growing interest, but I also like to think our persistence and insistence on everyone being part of the crew is finally paying off.

Sailing jobs our kids can do

Our daughter, now 12, has always been eager to take the helm.

There is a lot that goes into making it possible to live and safely sail on a boat. We want our kids to be part of that and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with increased competence and knowledge.

Breaking down tasks and taking the time to teach and guide the kids through those tasks is important. Also, taking advantage of their interests has been key, too. While our son isn’t as eager to take on the more physical parts of sailing the boat, our daughter is. So we try to assign jobs that build on what they know and are ready to learn next.

A, our 12-year-old, can:

  • Take the helm without constant supervision for short periods of time in light conditions.
  • Take the helm with supervision for longer periods of time and in more challenging (windy, bigger seas) conditions.
  • Trim sails
  • Raise the mainsail (with help)
  • Prepare dock lines and throw them to the person on the dock when we are coming in or out of a slip
  • Put on and remove fenders
  • Take off/put on binnacle and wheel covers
  • Coil lines

T, our 9-year-old, can:

  • Remove/replace covers for navigation instruments and compass
  • Stow fenders once they have been removed
  • Stow dock lines
  • Review paper chart or cruising book, identify markers, buoys or hazards and help look for them
  • Take the helm with help for short periods of time in ideal conditions

Taking care of the boat is important, too

Doing dishes on the boat provides lessons in water conservation, problem-solving, task organization and delegation.

The kids also help out with jobs that need to be done when we aren’t sailing, like scrubbing the decks, helping fill our water tanks and organize their berths.

I recently delegated the job of doing the dishes to them and I can’t begin to explain the joy I feel from doing that.

Sure, now the adults are relieved from the drudgery of the task after spending the day sailing, tackling bigger boat projects and cooking meals. Mainly, though, I love sitting in the cockpit with a beverage and listening to them negotiate, problem-solve and get organized.

I put off having them do it for a long time. Water conservation is a big deal, especially when you are nowhere near a marina and have to ensure that you have enough water for:

  • Drinking
  • Cooking
  • Flushing the toilet
  • Washing hands
  • (Very short) showers

… for four people.

So once I figured out a system that works, I showed them that by plugging the sink and not running the faucet fully open, we can minimize the amount of water we waste. Even better is when we are away from marinas and can use sea water for washing and only use the fresh water for a quick rinse.

Now they are more keenly aware of how important it is to watch how much water we use. They have also learned how to divide up tasks (who washes, who dries), determine the best approach (the shorter one puts away dishes, the taller one puts away cups) and evaluate how well they performed the task (need to wash that plate a little better!).

And then they need to figure out how to fit all the pots, pans, plates, bowls and cups in our tiny galley.

Other boat care jobs kids can do:

  • Vacuum and organize their berths
  • Vacuum the settee (eating area)
  • Pack their own box of snacks for the day for between meals
  • Wash and help scrub the decks
  • Help fill the water tanks

Also, with lots of help, supervision and nitrile gloves, our daughter helped with pumping out our holding tank recently. I know, eww!!

Responsibility is a pain and even gross sometimes. But having the kids share the load of owning a sailboat gives them greater understanding and appreciation for the job, plus pride in knowing how to do stuff they didn’t know before.


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