Bringing kids along on a bareboat charter may be one of the best experiences you’ve had—if you do it the right way.
Chartering with kids is a magical experience that too many parents miss, choosing to have an “adult getaway” instead of seizing the opportunity to create memories that can last a lifetime.
Some parents or grandparents worry about taking youngsters on a bareboat charter for several reasons. There is the safety issue and that’s a valid concern, but easily handled. And there is a fear that the kids might feel cooped up and ruin the vacation for everyone. Also a justifiable point, but also managed with forethought.
The good news about chartering with kids is that it can be fun, it can be educational and, best of all, it can create a lasting bond between parents and children. Rediscovering the joys of boating through the eyes of a child is a remarkable experience that erases the years and transports you back to your own first days on the water. Bareboating with kids is an opportunity that can bring a family together like nothing else but, as with everything involving kids, you need to plan ahead for success.
Two tips right up front. First, get the kids involved from the onset. Second, put them in charge of something. With those two caveats in mind, you can’t go wrong. Now let’s look at specifics.
The starting point is to set the ground rules long before you begin your charter, reinforce them when you board the boat, and offer subtle reminders during the charter.
Lifejackets or PFDs are essential, but how and when you require them is up to each parent and depends, to some extent, on the age of the youngsters. For one family I know, all the preteens have the run of the enclosed cockpit and the cabin without lifejackets. Set one foot on deck, however, and the lifejacket rule is in force. The adults can set a good example by wearing their own PFDs so the kids don’t feel like outcasts.
Before you depart for your charter, find comfortable lifejackets for the kids: Wearing bulky uncomfortable PFDs is a quick way to turn a swell trip into a hell trip in a kid’s mind. Lifejackets for youngsters should be lightweight and flexible for their incredibly active lifestyles, and they are now available in a multitude of “cool” designs from Spiderman to Barbie. If possible, get a lifejacket with a solid and easy-to-grab handle. Given comfortable PFDs, kids won’t think twice about wearing them continually. And by the way, if possible, have them wear the lifejackets before the trip to make sure there aren’t any chafe issues.
Lifejackets aren’t the only gear that kids need, though. They require nonslip shoes just like the adults and they need sun protection in the form of hats, sunglasses, sunblock, and protective clothing.
Another important rule is that the skipper’s word is law. With two families aboard, this sometimes causes concern but the parents can sort out the various issues in private. Bottom line: one person is in charge.
Kids love to run, but never, ever, on the boat. No running, no horsing around until they get ashore. And no kids on deck unless an adult is present. Teach them, and then repeat regularly, the adage: “One hand for you, one hand for the boat.”
No youngster leaves the boat without permission from an adult and, for smaller kids, no one goes forward (even at anchor) without an adult present and on watch.
When it comes to swimming, the buddy system is always in effect, either with another youngster or with a parent.
The Boat and the Trip
For several reasons, I’m partial to catamarans when it comes to chartering with kids. Cats have more room inside for playing, they’re more stable, and kids love the wide open foredeck. With catamarans, there are lots of places for kids to curl up for an afternoon nap, too.
When planning your charter, try to break the distances into small chunks to keep the kids from getting bored. A four-hour passage between two harbors can benefit from a short beach stop that creates two two-hour trips and lets them unleash those pent-up energies, too.
Remember that kids are alert to the world around them. If you yell or shout while anchoring or docking, they’ll be scared because you are supposed to know how to handle everything. So keep your voice down, act calmly even when in crisis, and be enthusiastic. They’ll follow your example.
Food and Drink
As any parent knows, there are comfort foods that can save the day. Whether it’s a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch or a special cereal for breakfast, make sure you have the makings onboard. It’s a good idea to pack some favorite treats in your checked luggage, too, since certain snacks and candy brands aren’t universally available.
While having lots of soft drinks is a popular idea, make sure you have gallon jugs of bottled water. The water on most charter boats isn’t particularly tasty for drinking, and kids need to stay hydrated. It’s a surprise, but swimming actually dehydrates you, especially in salt water, so keep bottles in the cockpit that are refilled from the water jugs.
Trust me, kids will be hungry from all the activity, so take plenty of nonperishable snacks. It’s nice to think they should all be nutritious but, hey, this is a vacation. Mix up a routine of potato chips with cereal bars and dried fruit with peanuts.
Part of the pleasure of bareboat chartering for adults is the happy hour in the evening, so include the kids as well. You’ll have the makings, so it takes no effort to create virgin piña coladas or Shirley Temple daiquiris for them to enjoy along with the adults.
Snorkeling is a great part of bareboating, but let the kids try it out first in the shallow water on a beach. Not only does it feel more secure when they can put their feet down, but it’s a lot easier to adjust masks and flippers in shallow water.
Most charter companies offer masks, snorkels, and fins with their charter packages, but my experience is that children’s sizes are pretty slim pickings. Buy these at home so you know they fit, and take them with you. They don’t add much weight to your bags.
Kids need sun protection in the water, too, so take some tightly-knit T-shirts to protect their backs. Since they’re certain to explore the beaches and reefs, have reef-runner slip-on shoes, too.
OK, Time For Fun!
Whatever size boat you have, get the kids involved! Let them take the helm, place a fender, toss a dockline, spot a buoy. Give them a piece of line and teach them a few knots before the charter. Then, during the charter, have them tie a few knots for real projects such as hanging fenders or making up dock lines. Reinforce their efforts with praise, too.
This is the digital age for better or worse, and many kids are addicted to their electronic games. I know a professional charter skipper who solves this neatly by telling young guests that he has to confiscate their electronic gadgets temporarily because, just like on airplanes, they interfere with the navigational equipment.
On the other hand, kids love the electronics on board, and a chart plotter (with supervision) can immerse the youngsters in planning routes and setting waypoints.
Share the responsibilities and put the kids in charge, too. Some families regularly appoint different youngsters to specific duties, with titles such as Dinghy Captain (tending the tender), Buoy Officer (pointing at the buoy for the helmsman when mooring), and Forward Lookout. Most kids get a kick out of cooking, and the grill onboard is the perfect spot for them to learn how to flip burgers and charbroil steaks (with close supervision). After all, every restaurant has a sous-chef to handle the details. Why not a bareboat?
Depending on the age of the kids, a kayak is a worthwhile addition to your bareboat package. It gives the kids the freedom to explore on their own and instills a sense of independence. Set strict boundaries for how far they can venture though, and have an adult keep an eye on them as well.
Before outboard motors became so commonplace, two kids in a tender with a pair of oars could amuse themselves for hours, and learn to row pretty well, too. I certainly did!
Pirates are always fascinating to kids and, before your trip, you might even trace up a treasure map that, amazingly, matches somewhere on your itinerary. It could be “found” in a bottle on a beach and it might lead to a pirate stash of chocolate doubloons.
A bareboat charter is a wonderful educational opportunity, and many families take books on birds, fish, and the local area. Learning about the islands and the native flora and fauna then becomes the key to evening trivia contests at dinnertime.
Encourage and help your youngsters to keep a journal or log of the charter. They can add postcards and drawings as well as everything from shells to postage stamps from the area. These are not only fun to look at in future years, but they provide the basis for school reports or show-and-tell sessions. There are a number of logbooks aimed at youngsters in most marine stores or you can make your own.
Kids need their space, too, so be sure to designate areas where they can keep their things and have their private time. Have enough blankets and pillows available if they want to curl up for a nap (or make a blanket fort!).
And don’t forget the simple stuff, either. Being allowed to stay up late and sit on deck with the adults to gaze at the stars, a star chart is helpful or you might want to check out the Star Finder app for Android or the Cosmic Star finder app for the iPad and iPhone. On one charter in the San Juan Islands where regular drizzle was expected, we taught the youngsters how to play canasta and hearts. It seemed a good idea at the time, and they loved it … especially when they started beating us regularly!
One last piece of advice: Don’t over-plan everything. Families already have overcrowded worlds with too much scheduling. Use your bareboat charter as a chance to play together, enjoy each other, and just relax.
Most of all, chill out and have fun.