These families have found that bringing the kids on board, even as toddlers, makes for exceptional family experiences.

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The day that Brooke and Braden Palmer met in college, she told him, “I’d love to own a boat and travel the world with my family.” Through the ensuing years, they talked about their shared passion for travel, the outdoors and especially the ocean. Brooke had grown up boating in Seattle and elsewhere, while Braden had mostly enjoyed wakeboarding in California.

Fast forward to 2018, some 11 years after they got married. They turned to each other and said, “Why are we waiting? Let’s just go and get our boat.”

The Palmers, their 6-year-old daughter, Rooney, and their 4-year-old son, Penn—plus the family’s two dogs—are now doing more than boating. They’re living aboard their Nordhavn 55 Mermaid Monster. After selling most of their belongings in California and driving to North Carolina to embark on their adventure, they’ve cruised up and down the East Coast twice, and to the Bahamas and back twice. They plan to circumnavigate the world, too.

What’s more, they’re inspiring legions via their YouTube channel. Their slice-of-life looks at the highs and lows of living on a movable home sometimes garner tens of thousands of views apiece. Penn tells viewers how many gallons of fuel they carry. Rooney helps her dad polish brightwork. Both kids were troupers on their first long trip out of sight of land, lasting 50 hours.

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At first, Brooke and Braden had misgivings about moving aboard Mermaid Monster, including the fact that they each had (and still have) jobs. But they researched boats before putting in an offer, and Brooke obtained her 100-ton captain’s license. Braden says he’s been reading everything he could for years, adding, “Everyone has different theories on what works, so the only way to know is to do.”

That advice holds true even if parents just take a handful of cruises with their kids each year. It particularly applies, though, to anyone wondering whether long-range voyaging with the small set is a good idea. The Palmers and a number of other boaters agree that, regardless of their experience or their children’s ages, if you love the lifestyle, “the kid stuff comes much more easily.”

That assertion comes from Tim Kohn, who about seven years ago purchased a brokerage boat with his wife for weekend cruises in the Seattle area with their children. They enjoyed boating so much that five years ago, they upgraded to their current boat, a Helmsman Trawler 37 Sedan, so they could cruise up to British Columbia and eventually to Alaska.

From the early days to now—their daughter is 14, and their son is 10—Kohn says the key has been to establish routines. While seeking museums and playgrounds in port helps, as do marinas with pools, it’s important to create rituals on the boat. The Kohns keep certain board games and foods (Mint Oreo cookies, especially) exclusive to their 37.

Above all, “they’re much happier when they’re involved in the operation of the boat,” he says of the kids. When they were young, his daughter tossed the bow line to his wife on the dock while his son handled the life jackets. These days, he says, “my son always picks up the anchor, while my daughter likes to tie up and run the stern line. When they’re little, I think it’s important to get them involved in those things. You just have to work a little harder to find the things they’re going to help with in a genuine way, not a token job.”

He says that parents might be surprised by which jobs their children gravitate toward. On a 10-day cruise this summer, his daughter taught herself to tie a new knot.

“If you like doing things with your kids, there are so many opportunities in boating,” Kohn says, adding that while voyages require a lot of planning, some aspects of cruising with kids are no different than home life. “A boat’s a small space, so you just have to be ready to get out and burn some kid energy, or find ways to occupy them—which, as a parent, you’ve done anyway.”

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Wyatt and Stacey Camp are fellow Pacific Northwest boaters. They christened their Bayliner 3587 Paradigm Shift in 2013, when their girls were one and two.

“Our youngest learned to walk on the boat,” Wyatt says. “We’ve logged almost 200 trips since January 2014 and try to get out for at least an overnight a couple of times a month.”

And yes, he means every month. “We cruise year-round and, in the middle of winter, often find ourselves to be the only boat in our favorite destinations,” he says.

Those destinations are all in the state of Washington: Blake Island, the Poulsbo area of Liberty Bay, Port Townsend, La Conner and Gig Harbor. All are also within two and a half hours of home when the family is cruising at 7½ knots. Because he works full time, Wyatt and Stacey prioritize frequency of cruises over distance, but they do enjoy one or two voyages lasting about 10 days each year.

The family will probably pursue similar itineraries when they take delivery of a North Pacific 45 come springtime, he says. Eventually, they may cruise to the San Juan Islands.

Regardless, Wyatt says that where they go isn’t as important as doing it together: “The boat is a healing place for us. What started out as something stressful to be mastered—learning to dock a cruiser in the winter with two babies on board—has become a refuge and a manifestation of our strength as a family.”

For his daughters, he says, “cruising gives them a sense of their place in the world. They often talk about how connected they feel to Seattle and the Puget Sound region. They’re proud of their cruising lifestyle and talk about boating all the time with their friends and teachers.”

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They even know the migration patterns of cormorants, he says, and “harbor porpoises are as normal to them as squirrels.”

Like the Kohn and Palmer families, the Camps have routines, ranging from movie nights on board (“always popular”) to stopping at destinations with playgrounds and researching the birds they may see. Some routines and activities are more successful than others.

“We often show them on the chart where we are, but I still don’t think they have a good mental model for matching the chart to what they see outside,” Wyatt says.

No matter. Orcas, bioluminescence, a gray whale surfacing from beneath a mooring ball, and all sorts of other wildlife are among the family’s favorite experiences.

Brooke Palmer says that sharing those types of boating experiences only makes families stronger.

“People are on the water for a reason,” she says. “They have unique stories. It doesn’t have to be sailing the world. Just do something; it’s so worth it.” 

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This story originally ran in the January/February issue of Passagemaker.

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